Amazon’s latest anthology is as sleepy as its suburban setting, but offers plenty of speculative rewards for the patient.
It’s a hard time to think about the future, about possibility — time’s lost meaning for a lot of us, as we sit quarantined in our homes, whiling away the hours as days turn into weeks. There’s a malleability to our reality now, the sense that we’re stuck in our own little universes; it’s easy to imagine that we’re the last people on Earth, venturing out only when necessary, but otherwise stuck with nothing but our thoughts. We’ve got time to reflect, to mourn, to fear, to love, more than we have in a long time.
Strangely, it’s an ideal environment to take in the stately, delicate rhythms of Amazon’s new sci-fi series Tales from the Loop, a show as beautiful as it is quietly inscrutable. And yet, despite being made before coronavirus turned our lives into odd little time warps, it’s the kind of contemplative science fiction we could really use right now.
On the surface, Tales from the Loop functions much like other modern sci-fi anthologies, like Black Mirror or CBS’ reboot of The Twilight Zone. But it doesn’t fear technology, nor is it concerned with telling high-concept horror stories. Instead, it hews closely towards the ‘suburban sci-fi’ aesthetic of Swedish illustrator Simon Stålenhag’s artwork, whose portraits of cornfields and robots blend the rural with the fantastic, walking the line between Norman Rockwell and Syd Mead.
Rather than telling eight completely disconnected stories, Tales from the Loop establishes a sleepy rural town in Ohio named Mercer, under which a mysterious research facility has been built which contains a collider-like device called ‘the Loop’. There’s no nefarious plan, no secret agenda; just a desire to unlock the secrets of the universe. And the residents of Mercer are left to deal with the almost-magical effects life with the Loop can entail.
As evidenced by the three episodes provided to critics prior to its release, there’s a loosely connected cast of characters who flit in and out of each other’s stories, taking focus when it’s time for the Loop to work its magic on their lives. In one episode, a scientist (Rebecca Hall) involves herself in a young girl’s (Abby Ryder Fortson) search for her missing mother. In another, a lovesick security guard at the research facility (Ato Essandoh) finds himself invited into an alternate universe where his mirror self is happily partnered. Stakes are never world-shattering, Tales from the Loop being more interested in the intimate and personal.
Granted, this makes for some occasionally inscrutable, and slow to the point of plodding, television. Writer/showrunner Nathaniel Halpern‘s (Legion, The Killing) scripts are sparse and methodical almost to a fault, and audiences seeking Stranger Things-level excitement are sure to be disappointed. This is heady, intellectual sci-fi, and the mystery box element of the Loop and its true nature is often more befuddling than intriguing. At one point in the series, company founder Russ (Jonathan Pryce) simply says that the Loop “makes the impossible possible.” In short, it’s nothing more an engine for these high-concept tales of love, death, and life, and it’s best not to read too much into the rest.
Stakes are never world-shattering, Tales from the Loop being more interested in the intimate and personal.
But it’s the fourth episode, the Andrew Stanton-directed “Echo Sphere,” that truly elevates the show to something entrancing and heartbreaking. Centered around Russ and his relationship to his grandson Cole (Duncan Joiner), “Echo Sphere” is a beautiful ode to the impermanence of life, as Cole learns to deal with the prospect of Russ’ terminal illness, chiefly through the presence of a mysterious metal sphere in an empty field. Shout into it, and the echoes will bounce back in older and older voices. It’s a bittersweet story about aging and what we do with the time that’s given to us. Its closing minutes, which evoke nothing less than the bittersweet leap into the future at the end of Raising Arizona, are undeniably tear-jerking.
And to its credit, the creators have crafted a meticulously-designed playground on which to explore these issues. In addition to Stanton, there’s interesting work from directors like Jodie Foster and Mark Romanek, and the show is drenched in a patient, achingly awed score by Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan (listen to our interview with Leonard-Morgan about scoring the show here.) The strange effects of the Loop manifest themselves in subtly entrancing ways, from snow falling upwards in an abandoned house to the floating monolith of the Loop itself.
The rural and technological blend with a stark beauty (not unlike Stålenhag’s paintings), like a chicken walker hiding behind trees to watch certain events, or Paul Schneider‘s robotic arm barely covered by a flannel shirt. Tales from the Loop grounds these fantastical elements in the mundanity of the everyday. That’s what sets it apart from the horrors of Black Mirror or the excitement of Stranger Things. It’s much more Arrival than either of those, a grounded look at the fragility of our own lives through the lens of science fiction. If you’ve got the patience for something a little slower, Tales from the Loop might be one of the best science fiction stories of the year so far.