‘1899’ is a paradox of a thriller – and not in a good way

By Ben Konuch

“May your coffee kick in before reality does”

“1899” is the newest mystery thriller from Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, the minds behind the German Netflix series “Dark.” One look at a trailer or any marketing images and you’ll see what I saw, that “1899” looks like a dark, mysterious, mind-bending thriller. While this is true on paper, watching “1899” went from excitement to intrigue to indifferent boredom as the script and the pacing lost any momentum its concept and fantastic actors gave it. It was full of twists and turns, but most of them were either obvious or waited too long to be revealed, leaving “1899” a frustration instead of a joy.

The concept of the series is simple yet ingenious. The passenger ship Kerberos traveling from England to New York reroutes its course when the captain believes he’s picked up a signal from another passenger ship that disappeared months prior, the Prometheus. The ship is found, but when it is boarded and searched, all passengers and signs of life have disappeared save for one – a silent boy holding a mysterious artifact. As the captain, played by Andreas Pietschmann, refuses to leave the Prometheus behind and the journey resumes with it in tow, unexplainable and increasingly disturbing events begin to take place and cause the passengers to begin to question the very nature of their reality.

One of the standouts of “1899” is its actors and characters. While it is a German production, the series features a multilingual cast as characters from all corners of Europe are present on the Kerberos, and actors from those respective countries have been hired to portray these characters. The different characters communicate in their native languages with English subtitles for us to understand, but it gives weight to moments in the story when some characters don’t understand what’s happening or others are needed to translate. It’s a nice touch to have that element of historical realism and it aids the dynamics between characters immensely as characters tend to have their smaller storylines grouped together, such as the Danish immigrants and the first sparks of mutiny, the French honeymooners Lucien and Clemence and the mysterious French stowaway Jerome or Angel and Ramone, the Spanish and Portuguese pair hiding their true nature.

Maura, Daniel and Eyk are the key players in this series, and I only wish “1899” focused on them more

Unfortunately, these characters and their fantastic performances are ultimately wasted by a script that throws pacing overboard. I enjoy slow-burn television, and while many of my friends complained that the new Star Wars show “Andor” was boring, I enjoyed its slower pacing and gradual plot developments because of how well it was written. “1899,” however, shows that there’s a difference between slow-burn and boring, and unfortunately, after the first two episodes, “1899” takes its narrative and walks in circles. Very little actual development takes place, with the plot moving forward at a snail’s pace. 

Episodes more frequently entail something relatively unsettling happening, and then characters taking a very long time to talk about philosophical or moral ideas, followed by characters walking around the ship or investigating something, which would once again be followed immediately by characters having long and drawn out conversations about high concept ideas and their pasts. This was the other fatal flaw of “1899,” in that it gave so many characters plotlines and backstories that don’t go anywhere. While they could be considered essential for understanding motivations, the writers could have had a similar effect without taking as much time in presenting these backstories. In the way that the number of characters struggle with their own problems and plotlines that don’t ever advance the main plot and serve little purpose, the actual story of “1899” gets left behind in the dust.

This is regrettable, as the main concept behind “1899” and the series’ central mystery are extremely intriguing. Unfortunately, around the halfway point it feels as though the series doesn’t respect your time as a viewer. Some characters and their pasts as well as how they interact with the plot are extremely well handled, such as the captain Eyk, the English doctor Maura and the mysterious stranger Daniel who seemingly came from the Prometheus. Other characters don’t necessarily add to the plot but their arcs are interesting, such as the French couple and the stowaway Jerome. If “1899” only had these side plots I wouldn’t mind, but the series is overstuffed. It takes too long on characters who have no real impact while it neglects its central mystery. A mind-bending mystery about supernatural events happening on a ship lost at sea shouldn’t feel boring, but it does.

The series also leaves so many things unresolved and unexplained, but that could be somewhat justified considering the cliffhanger at the end of the final episode teasing more seasons. That being said, there is enough left unexplained from the last eight hours that made me feel cheated. I don’t need full explanations, I just need some kind of explanations about events and characters that don’t make me feel like I wasted my time. The final twist about what the Prometheus really is and the nature of reality were genuinely fantastic, as well as what it would mean for future seasons. Unfortunately, despite decent reviews and high viewer numbers, Netflix made the move to cancel “1899,” which means nothing will ever be explained. Not only does this make the series feel like a complete waste of time, but also a waste of potential. 

While I believed “1899” had many flaws, it had the key elements of a masterpiece buried under overabundance, lack of explanations and abysmal pacing. I believe it had the potential to excel in future seasons, and the fact that we’ll never get to see that makes “1899” all the more of a tragedy.

I give “1899” a 5/10

“1899” is now available to stream on Netflix

Ben Konuch is a sophomore Strategic Communication student and an A&E writer for Cedars. He enjoys getting sucked into good stories, playing video games and hanging out with crazy MuKappa friends.

Images courtesy of Netflix

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