Thanks to Katla, we have one more big Netflix summer show that we love even though it’s got nothing to do with summer. Much like Black Summer, which we talked about recently, Katla’s setting rather presents the opposite of summer. What is Katla? A surreal, supernatural slow-boil thriller set in the shadow of real-life Icelandic volcano Katla. The actual volcano has a known tendency to remain low-level active in a persistent kind of way, sometimes to deadly results. The Netflix show posits a situation where Katla has been continuously erupting for over a year, causing the nearby town of Vik to become nearly deserted. Only a few people remain to keep the lights on, as their small hometown becomes an ashen hellscape due to fallout from the nearby volcano. The air is borderline toxic, everything’s covered in dust and ash, and the situation is effectively post-apocalyptic even though just a short car ride away life continues as normal for people outside Vik.
The mystery at the core of Katla is hard to describe without veering too much into spoiler land, but perhaps an easy way of putting it is Twin Peaks in reverse. The quirky, slightly creepy little town with a cast of characters that each have their own secrets is there. A possibly supernatural force that essentially holds the town hostage is there. And people aren’t what they seem, but unlike Twin Peaks, in Katla people don’t disappear, they re-appear. From within a glacier near the volcano, which should be impossible. Saying more than that would be too spoilery, but even the makeup effects for those that appear out of the volcano deserve to be seen in good 4K because they’re so detailed.
Speaking of detail, Katla has that in spades in every scene. You’ll soon recognize the various very distinct locales of Vik, from the river crossing to the hospital, police station, farm, and of course the cozy Hotel Vik. Despite knowing there’s a big constantly-erupting volcano there, we really want to visit Vik. And before you ask, yes, Vik is a real place just like the volcano, even if the show wasn’t made in the town itself. Apparently, stories set in Iceland don’t pull many punches.
The production crew, headed by series creators Baltasar Kormákur and Sigurjón Kjartansson, did a spectacular job. When you only need a split second to tell where each scene takes place, that’s the mark of good set design. Also, everything’s covered in detail, appears super lived-in, and shows the effects of the volcano on everyday life and habitats. We’ve seen recent movies where living on Mars was a lot easier.
We can’t recommend Katla without giving props to at least the core cast, who all do wonderful work. Musician Guðrún Eyfjörð surprises as stoic but emotional EMT Grima, and is somewhat the main point of view character. She’s aided by Íris Tanja Flygenring as her sister Asa, Aliette Opheim as Gunhild, the Swedish “outsider” that provides thematic tension, and Porsteinn Bachmann as chief of police Gisli. We’re not being fair, as there are at least a dozen other people to list, like Sólveig Arnarsdóttir, who plays two very different characters with equal skill. But you get the point, Katla is more than eye candy or cheap thrills, it’s a character-driven story. There are also no jump scares, the horror is mild, but profound at the same time. If you want cheery summer fare or something to help you forget 2021, then Katla is not for you.
Eight 45-50 minute episodes long, Katla invites a marathon session or binging as we used to call it in the grand old world of 2017. We think that’s just the perfect format for a show like this. More or longer episodes could have overstayed their welcome. At the same time, Katla, like most stories told by humans, ends in an ambiguous way that could easily lead to a second season.
So, whether you’re at home or out in the wilds of nature, we recommend Katla. But perhaps not if your travels have you camping next to a volcano.