How many times has the concept of isolation been addressed on screen? Countless times, in many contexts. In space, underwater, in the arctic, the Antarctic, the ocean… there are stories that take people to the absolute limits of human endurance and force us there with them. Not so much about survival against the elements but against being human, or not human. The snow, the water, the vacuum, being less of a threat than those amongst you. The Head, a Spanish made production, primarily in English, by HBO Asia and Hulu Japan, is a worthy addition to the genre.
We join our crew on the last day of summer, as they have a party to say goodbye to most of the staff. Those remaining, the winterers, will remain alone for the 179 days of darkness that make up the Antarctic winter. Episode one takes its time setting the scene, introducing us to the variety of people there. Among them, Maggie (Katherine O’Donnelly), the medic, Arthur (John Lynch), and Annika (Laura Bach), scientists studying climate change.
They are joined by Erik (Richard Sammel), the “captain”, Aki (Tomohisa Yamashita), Heather (Amelia Hoy), Ebba (Sandra Andreis) Nils (Chris Reilly), Miles (Tom Lawrence) and Ramón (Álvaro Morte), the cook. The winter begins as you’d expect, they watch John Carpenter’s The Thing (1984). A tradition allegedly, but one that unnerves some of the team. Then we are brought forward to the end of the winter as Johan (Alexandre Willaume) returns with the summer team in the hopes of being reunited with his wife Annika.
They arrive to find the base deserted. There are multiple signs of struggle, blood, bullet holes (even though the pole is a demilitarised zone), and one survivor. Maggie.
Although she shows signs of Polar T3 syndrome, with treatment she gradually recovers her memories of events and becomes lucid enough to tell Johan what has happened.
The Head clearly wears its influences, both The Thing (like anything set in the arctic these days) and Nordic noir dramas are recognisable. Its background as an east Asian production is only loosely alluded to, primarily via the j-pop song over the end credits (a song by Tomohisa Yamashita – who plays Aki). Time is taken across these first three episodes to reveal what has happened to each person, the interactions between them, and their complicated pasts and relationships to each other. The isolation they face is felt keenly. Their communications are affected and those arriving after the events and those living through them scramble to try and find who amongst them is a murderer.
Tension and paranoia are almost characters in their own right, as they hang over the crew manipulating them into taking action they never normally would. Johan has a particular interest as his wife is missing, and he either wants to find her or her murderer before the police arrive. As clues are given to both the characters and the audience, at the halfway point it is impossible to know for sure who is the culprit, lending an intrigue that encourages binge-watching.
The gradually revealed events lend an ambiguity, as the evidence the summer team arrived at is explained contrarily to how you expect. Unusually for this genre, the implication is that there is a purely human culprit. Though in the first episode especially it is unclear whether something else is going on, and the ice and cold has an inhuman quality that suggests a monster hiding amongst them.
With any luck, the remaining episodes will maintain a high standard. If so, this is definitely one for the watchlist.
Dir: Jorge Dorado
Scr: David Pastor, Àlex Pastor, David Troncoso, Isaac Sastre
Cast: John Lynch, Katherine O’Donnelly, Alexandre Willaume, Rachard Sammel, Tomohisa Yamashita, Laura Bach, Álvaro Morte, Sandra Andreis, Chris Reilly, Tom Lawrence.
Prd: Bernat Elias, Ran Telem, Mariano Baselga, Jorge Dorado.
Music: Federico Jusid
DOP: David Acereto
Country: Spain, Japan.
Runtime: 50+ minutes per episode
The Head will Premiere on Starzplay in the UK and Germany on Sunday, 7 February