Netflix closes the season with its first Icelandic series, Katla, a matrioshka of references to earlier works that nonetheless manages not to be a pastiche…. even if unsuccessful in its critical examination of European opinion and culture.
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Katla or the layers of the onion
Katla follows in its outset the narrative structure of Les Revenants (2004) and its serialized sequels, themselves based on a pair of earlier novels, to then feign homage to The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the classic metaphor for McCarthyism, itself the source of a legion of remakes. It saves for the final chapters however the final confession of its inspiration: Forbidden Planet (1956), the peculiar sci-fi version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with which it shares a message.
There is no robotic Caliban in Katla, and Prospero‘s magic here is abstracted in the incredible properties of a meteorite fallen hundreds of thousands of years ago from whose matter emerge replicas emerge of the few inhabitants who live in the village and the dead or absent people who populate its memories.
And this is ultimately the originality and the core of Katla. It’s not about confronting a society with its undead – marginal ones or refugees in wars fueled by European imperialisms as Les Revenants suggested – but with how it imagines and remembers itself. It misses the opportunity to confront opinion, myth and industry of European democracies, but the result is still interesting… even if it loses steam by leaving the approach for the last chapters and postponing the development for a second season.
By forgoing the social-political context, the opposition between the inhabitants and the beings created from the ghosts (=images) of their memory has little substance. Only the replicant of the son of the geologist of the local volcanological station has a certain appeal: the new child reflects his father’s fears of the signs of psychopathic cruelty the boy had shown in life. I made him this way, he confesses to his ex-wife before they both decide to drown him in the sea after the little boy murders a local couple.
The other cases are left in the contrast between the lost lover with the one she became, the terminally ill woman with her former life, the troubled sister who is not so destructive when she reappears from her sister’s memories, and the protagonist’s self-image which is apparently by Scandinavian standards – thank goodness we are explicitly informed of it – more cheerful than before….
The moral of Katla is outlined in the fate of the replicants and the attitude of their unwitting creators. Considering that the original concept has already been trimmed down to a bonsai, it now boils down to how to relate to the ideals or the ideal versions we create in social life.
The alliances: the lover who wants to remake his life with the two versions of the one he loved twenty years before… and the replicant who rescues her original from the husband who was leaving her to die.
The exclusions: The parents who kill the son who projects their own fears and has become a murderer…and the protagonist who plays Russian roulette with her supposedly heppier replica in order not to share family and social roles with her.
Despite the visual detail of the narrative -pure Nordic style- and the fact that when watching an Icelandic product one accepts a certain degree of incomprehension of the characters’ emotions and feelings, some central questions in the resolution of the plot are incomprehensible in these oppositions: why does the protagonist consider that there is no place for another like her? Why does the vulcanologist not share his discovery?
Katla’s missed opportunity
By setting aside the social image, in order to grab the individual image in its place, Katla forgoes any minimally incisive criticism of the social fears underpinned by the class interests of some and everyone’s alienation. And despite everything, it has good parts. However, they are muted and sad, like the boreal light enveloping the characters.
This is a far cry from its original reference, Forbidden Planet, which unabashedly harbored a metaphor for the fears of America’s Cold War establishment and its tendency to turn them into self-fulfilling prophecies.
But Katla‘s shortcomings run deeper. In the town depicted to us there exist only individuals. There are not even neighborhood relationships. There is no community among neighbors or friends, because there is not even a family understood as a communitarian metabolism. The core of the town is a hotel for outsiders.
And that perhaps is the main lesson of the series. Nothing original, by the way. From individuals nothing can be understood because nothing in society is comprehensible as a mere aggregation of atoms. Not even its ghosts.