The glorious sight of the sun’s rays peeking over the horizon as it rises has inspired mankind for millennia. But what if the sun brought death, literally killing people where they stand? That’s the premise behind the pulse-pounding Belgian science fiction drama, Into the Night, that recently debuted on Netflix. It’s a fast-paced, engrossing, and enormously entertaining series that will definitely leave you wanting more.
(Some spoilers below, mostly for the novel.)
The series is based on a 2015 novel called The Old Axolotl, by the visionary Polish science fiction writer Jacek Dukaj, who has been compared to his compatriot, Stanislaw Lem. The novel exists entirely in digital format, designed to be read solely on tablets, smartphones, e-readers, and computers. While most e-books simply recreate the printed text in an electronic medium, Dukaj designed his novel to be something more.
There’s the central narrative text, of course (more about that below), but much of the background information—the traditional world-building, if you will—is contained in detailed footnotes, which readers can access via hyperlinks. There is also a lot of multimedia incorporated into the book, including stunning illustrations by Maciej Panasiuk (you can see some of them here), and 3D-printable designs and diagrams for futuristic robots depicted in the novel.
The Old Axolotl opens on a typical day on Earth, until a mysterious “neutron wave” sweeps across the globe, instantly killing every living thing (all organic life) in its path. A very few people had just enough time to upload their consciousness into a virtual reality game called InSoul3—essentially Second Life (it’s an outdated and unpopular gaming platform before the catastrophe). Those who survived beyond the immediate upload managed to jump into so-called “mechs.” They are, in essence, machines merged with human consciousness, albeit an incomplete version of that consciousness. They are something new.
On the face of it, the novel fits right into the current TV landscape, where recent shows like Westworld, Altered Carbon, Devs, and even the new comedy Upload, have all explored the same fundamental theme of what it means to be a human, as compared to, say, a machine or AI/avatar with human consciousness. But do we really need a Belgian version of those shows?
In the case of Into the Night, the answer is yes, although what makes it so utterly compelling is the fact that it focuses entirely on the moments before and immediately after the initial catastrophic event, following a small group of people just trying to survive. That makes it almost a prequel to Dukaj’s novel. (Dukaj served as an executive producer on the show.) Per the official premise: “Passengers and crew aboard a hijacked overnight flight scramble to outrace the sun as a mysterious cosmic event wreaks havoc on the world below.”
Sylvie (Pauline Etienne) is a former military helicopter pilot who is grieving for her recently deceased partner. Her fellow passengers on a red-eye flight to Moscow include social influencer and Internet celebrity Ines (Alba Gaïa Bellugi); a lovelorn security guard named Rik (Jan Bijvoet); a homecare nurse named Laura (Babetida Sadjo); a mysterious Turk named Ayaz (Mehmet Kurtuluş); a mechanic named Jakub (Ksawery Szlenkier); and a Russian mother, Zara (Regina Bikkinina), who is traveling to Moscow to get life-saving medical treatment for her young son Dominic. There is also the co-pilot, Mathieu (Laurent Capelluto) and flight attendant Gabrielle (Astrid Whettnall).
Troubling signs appear just as the plane is boarding, as Ines notices strange messages on her social media feeds, and TVs in the terminal begin showing live footage of people falling dead in their tracks around the world as the sun rises. A NATO officer, Terenzio (Stéfano Cassetti), sees the news and panics (“Time’s up”), grabbing a rifle from an airport security officer and forcing his way onto the plane. Mathieu takes off at gunpoint, even though the pilot and other flight attendant have yet to board. Terenzio tells everyone on board that he is saving their lives, insisting they fly west, away from the rising sun.
And so begins a breathless race against time to reach an underground military bunker—one of the few places these last humans might shield themselves from whatever is killing all organic life on Earth. (It’s never explained in detail.) Along the way, they must contend with refueling challenges, irradiated food, hidden agendas, and the many frailties of human nature. They are all strangers, after all, so there are naturally some trust issues on board.
The story zips along at breakneck speed, but series creator Jason George doesn’t sacrifice character development; that’s the advantage of making this a six-episode series rather than a standalone film. These feel like real people, with believable backstories, and the tensions and conflicts that inevitably arise ring true—as do the small but vital moments of grace. Netflix has yet to announce whether or not there will be a second season. Personally, I’m torn. This first installment is so, so good, but I just don’t know where the series would take us from here. If it follows the novel, we’re headed into digital upload territory, which would make for a very different kind of show.
Into the Night is currently streaming on Netflix, and it’s an easy, satisfying binge-watch. In French with English subtitles.
Listing image by Netflix