It’s easy to see why Netflix’s 1899 was green-lit. A complex, period mystery box set on a ship, from the creative team behind the cult hit Dark? A sure-fire recipe for success, one would think. Alas, it’s even easier to see how this one was quickly canceled. Serials of this type often aim for but rarely achieve a certain addictive magic. While 1899 is gorgeous to look at and rife with tantalizing what-the-fuckery, it lacks that certain something, not to mention the sure-handed, irresistable rhythms that made Dark so successful.
A ship full of international travelers is voyaging from Europe to the United States, just before the turn of the twentieth century. Among them is Dr. Maura Franklin (Emily Beecham), a neurologist who becomes a key catalyst for investigation when the ship, the Kerberos, sails into mysterious waters. The ship receives a distress signal from the missing Prometheus, another ship from the same line, and the captain, Eyk Larsen (Andreas Piestchmann), quickly changes course to render aid. This leads to strife among the crew and passengers, a rabble of mixed nationalities stratified along class lines, many of them journeying to the new world to flee their troubled pasts. But when they find the Prometheus destroyed, and the only survivor is a mute boy (Fflyn Edwards), it kicks off a surreal, supernatural mystery.
With impressive cinematography, lavish costumes, and an attractive, capable cast, 1899 has loads of production assets to spare. And with Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar at the creative helm, there’s no shortage of interesting ideas on the docket, both visual and conceptual. The first few episodes even build pretty well, and given how expertly this team managed the convoluted timelines and massive cast of Dark, it seemed that 1899 might come together similarly. But it simply doesn’t. The offbeat twists and turns play like weirdness for weirdness’s sake, grasping at surreal straws. And the multilingual dialogue, frequently and bizarrely conducted between characters who don’t even speak the same language, never reassures the viewer they’re in capable hands, or that the endgame is structurally sound. Fatally, the mystique falls away almost entirely whenever the dialogue switches into English, when the hand-waving speculations of the characters sound like so much much floundering obfuscation. A satisfying destination can make this kind of imaginative puzzler worth it, but 1899’s ultimate reveal isn’t nearly as interesting as it thinks it is. It’s not without commendable moments along the way, and it sure is striking to look at, but the overall journey just doesn’t pay off.