Monday, 15 June 2020

TV review: Into the Night, Netflix (2020)

What do you do if the thing that gives you life – the sun – turns poisonous? This elegant and entertaining 6-part series, each episode only about 45 minutes long, poses the question.

The day after I started watching it I came across, on Twitter, the word “doomscrolling”. The feeling that you have when you read all the negative stories – each one more doom-laden than the next, each chronicling a new episode in the degeneration of society as we move into the future.

Early on in my time spent with ‘Into the Night’, I was reminded of ‘Gilligan’s Island’, where a group of dissimilar people are suddenly thrown together by contingent events and required to live their lives in a community isolated from the material comforts and spiritual security offered by the broader society. In the 1964-67 CBS show, a storm overtakes a pleasure cruiser and leaves its occupants stranded on a remote island. Drama is added due to the fact that the eponymous character is prone to accidents. ‘Into the Night’ has no such character – each of the passengers, and the relations between them, used to keep the plot ticking along. In ‘Gilligan’s Island’ the Professor was used to solve urgent technical problems on the “desert island” but in the series currently under discussion there are (more credibly) a number of different characters with a speciality. Sylvie (Pauline Etienne) had served in the military and other expertise comes from Laura (Babetida Sadjo) and a Pole named Jakub (Ksawery Szlenkier). There’s even a climate scientist (Vincent Londez).

The only way to escape destruction being to keep the plane they are travelling in, moving. With a sense of urgency like what you find in thrillers, small things are blown out of proportion. Mistakes that might seem insignificant in another context become life-changing emergencies.

Sometimes in such TV series characters can be oversimplified and become caricatures. As well as injecting a sense of crisis to heighten the contrast in characters and events, with ‘Into the Night’ the ideal of collective decision-making set against the need for speed in making decisions also helps the filmmakers interrogate the notion of governance. The way the individual is valued is also a matter of concern and the show also runs an interesting Anglo-Gallic conversation that is rooted in history.

This is a modern show and responds to the needs of a different society than the one that existed during the Cold War. Unsurprisingly, globalisation is a major issue, and a number of the people who manage to get onto the plane are not Belgian (the show is a Belgian Netflix original). As well as Jakub there’s a Russian mother (Regina Bikkinina) with her young son and an Italian soldier (Stefano Cassetti). There’s also a Turk played by Mehmet Kurtuluş, who was also in ‘The Protector’, which I reviewed here in March. His character has echoes of that earlier drama and to fill him out the filmmakers use history in an inventive way. Evidently Belgians, due to their past, are heavily invested in the notion of history, so there is a black woman (Laura) who, like the chauvinistic Rik (Jan Bijvoet) and a stewardess (Astrid Whettnall), is Belgian. Rik is very different from a cleaner played by Nabil Mallat.

The show reminds the viewer of the mystery of people. You never know, standing in a queue in the departure lounge at the airport, who has what skills, what they are going through at that moment in their lives, or what kind of personality they have. This is timely, and demonstrates that it is the little things that count, like being able to go out and get Mongolian marinaded beef for dinner on a Friday night without worrying that your food has been genetically altered by solar rays.

The drama also signals toward something topical: the tendency for people on social media to judge others regardless of their own faults. The premise is redolent with secondary meanings. You can take a hint as to the helplessness people are inspired with when the thing that sustains them turns toxic but ‘Into the Night’ also strongly reminds us of the importance of protecting the environment. Technology (embodied, here, in air travel) is evidently problematic: a cause of problems and also their solution, the two things sitting in uneasy contradistinction, one next to the other.

The segment of music used to accompany the ending of each episode’s opening sequence, and to close out each episode, has a nifty techno feel. It creates and enhances suspense in a subtle way, adds dramatic punctuation at key moments, and was emblematic, for me, of the production’s overall quality.

A lot of thought went into everything that you see and hear. While most of the action takes place inside the cabin and cockpit of the aeroplane each episode opens with scenes from lives the passengers and crew led before the flight, helping to round out their characters. So, for example, the first ep starts with Sylvie entering the airport, and the third ep starts with a scene from the life of the pilot Matthieu (Laurent Capelluto). Sylvie and Rik are particularly interesting, and fit, though diametric opposites, into the scheme of the production. ‘Into the Night’ is a catalogue of mortal desire, the yearning to sustain life that is an essential human trait, so it is not strange that different types of personality should be featured in the show. Like the Covid-19 response – at least in some countries – it shows us how multiple points of focus for the collective can damage everyone in it. Our greatest strength – diversity – can turn into our greatest weakness.

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