I watched 1899 on Netflix. Although it has credits stating it is the work of human creators, I had a convincing impression it was the first AI-generated science fiction story, made by an artificial neural net trained on all films and series made since about 1989. The fact that the twist ending is taken from an unfilmed Philip K.Dick novel was also a predictable algorithmic move, not least since it avoided having to resolve the tangle of visual effects and motivational complications that were going nowhere.
We start with a woman’s voice reading some ponderous, vaguely poetic words, as we see several different vistas go by, which will later appear in the story. A cloudy sky gives way to the sea, to strange buildings in landscapes, an ocean liner, and finally we dive down a vortex in the waves.
We emerge out of the tunnel to see a woman running towards us in what quickly turns out to be some sort of mental hospital, and she is soon being restrained on the orders of a mysterious man hidden in the darkness at the other end of the corridor.
We learn this is Maura Franklin, or at least that’s the name she has when she returns to consciousness aboard a transatlantic liner bound for New York in 1899. Whilst she was still in the hospital she was babbling that she knows her father was performing some experiments on the liner Prometheus and that her brother found out. But this isn’t the Prometheus, it’s the Kerberos, a different classical allusion. The crew and passengers of this liner speak fluent 21st century Hollywood English, including the French and Asian couples.
Soon problems arise when they encounter a vessel adrift, which turns out to be the lost liner Prometheus. Already this is ringing a faint bell of familiarity with the hell-in-space movie Event Horizon. On board, no survivors can be found except a strange boy, who clutches a mysterious black pyramid.
Unknown to the main characters, another figure gets aboard from the other vessel, who passes himself off as a regular passenger; he seems to have a connection to the mostly silent boy. All of the main characters are tormented by the traumatic memories of events in their past, and keep suffering vivid flashbacks initiated by apparent jumps and cuts in the image.
When the Captain reveals that he can see Maura Franklin’s name in the passenger list he found on the Prometheus, she has no explanation. Although no one asks her, she would also have no explanation of why she has a copy of the 1st edition of The Awakening by Kate Chopin, which wasn’t published until 1900. However that might explain why “WAKE UP!” is the message we hear her voice saying when a character wakes up from a dream or reverie at the start of each episode. The appearance of a mystery Great Pyramid and ocean travel did make me wonder if the whole story would turn out to be an homage to the works of William Hope Hodgson, but it doesn’t.
But no one can explain the full range of conspiracies occurring on board, as several people seem to be leading double lives with phoney identities, or engaging in tricks with secret coded messages or machinery in the ship. There are also many instances of a strange triangular logo, which also can be found on hatches underneath the beds in their cabins. When these hatches are opened they lead in to passageways that open in to different places, including the ones we saw in the opening minutes.
As various agents start scuttling in and out of the sub-worlds away from the liner, the main set starts to become unstable in a heavy storm and also the strange physical disintegration as crystalline growths start sprouting everywhere. We also become aware that the action is being watched by an old man somewhere else who has a bank of monitors showing actions at different locations.
It turns out that all the books contain the same message repeated.
It also turns out the old man might not be so good at controlling everything.
It’s all a terrible mess that isn’t getting any clearer up until 5 minutes from the end when we have a resolution which ties up as much as it can be bothered to but simply abandons a great deal which turns out to just be noise. For those who understand I shall just say: Persus 9.
The “composed by AI” feel of this series could be taken as a strength, but personally I find so many of the tropes and traits compiled together tedious and irritating, and even more so in this accelerated framing. Rather like The Dark, which it shares an actor with, this gets lost in very dull and superficial quasi-philosophy and quasi-religious musing, except we don’t get the good bits of the early parts of that series, when it was unfolding a mystery in a small town. The white-haired baddie character here spouts off about Plato’s Cave and says that his daughter was fascinated by the idea after she read about it in “a paper” in his office – so this is in the world of sci/tech boys who never read anything except each other’s emails and printouts, and very quickly see God in everything else if they ever notice it. There is also the unspeakably dreary game of “hacking the system” and inserting a “virus” to make things go wrong, yet somehow it needs time to propagate. Simulated reality is so boring and overdone since The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor and dozens of others, but the real foundation of this ontology is TRON (1982), which established the concept of a quasi-physical space containing visible entities corresponding to the virtual entities in digital hardware.
Another odd correspondence is the 1973 Doctor Who story Carnival Of Monsters featured a Victorian liner which was in fact trapped in an alien observation system; the passengers and crew were locked in a timeloop and could not see the hatchways leading out of their world into the electronics around it. That had considerably more charm and joy than this outing of the idea, and it did it with simpler effects on a much smaller budget. There’s too much crash-bang-wallop, and the noisy rock music in the titles sequence and usually at the end of episodes ensured I could never even begin to entertain the idea this was really 1899, it was so obviously some sort of illusion from the start. A murderous timeloop on a deserted ocean liner was also done better in the excellent horror film Triangle (2009). The Russian film Coma (2019) was mostly good value as well.
Altogether I’ve had enough of loving couples struggling to remember and/or not talk about the terrible thing that happened, their jumpcuts and “glitchy” sound effects are too tiresome to endure any longer, even when happening on fantastic voyages instead of inside suburban kitchens. Tales From The Loop had a multi-layered reality but it understood how to show and not tell, which is also a trick David Lynch and Stranger Things can work but it clearly isn’t easy. I would like to see a story set around the creation of a story set in simulated reality, which is what The OA was sort-of going to do in its 3rd season before it got cancelled. That could be a trip.