Tales from the Loop review: Amazon’s quasi-anthology series is low on sci-fi spectacle, high on introspective drama
Welcome to Mercer, Ohio, a town with stranger things than Demogorgons and bully-turned-babysitters. Mercer is home to the Loop, a research facility which houses a mysterious spherical object called the Eclipse. It is a seemingly mystical force that bonds — and impacts the lives of — all the inhabitants in its orbit. Its purpose, as Jonathan Pryce informs us in Rod Serling-style introduction, "is to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe."
In the Amazon sci-fi drama Tales from the Loop, Nathaniel Halpern (Legion co-writer) imagines an alternate 1980s based on a collection of artwork of the same name by Simon Stålenhag. The Swedish artist mixed reality and fiction, bringing together robots, hovercrafts and dinosaurs in retrofuturistic landscapes. But Tales from the Loop focuses less on the spectacle, more on the spirit of his paintings.
Told in eight interlinked episodes, the stories explore the Loop's influence on a handful of Mercer's inhabitants who witness a variety of extraordinary phenomena — time travel, body swap, alternate reality, etc. But they all still share universal emotions related to grief, mortality, loneliness, abandonment and remorse. Each episode follows different related characters but limits them to a small extended circle. At the heart of the story is Russ Willard (Pryce), the man who built and heads the Loop, and his family: son George (Paul Schneider), daughter-in-law Loretta (Rebecca Hall) and their two sons, Jakob (Daniel Zolghadri) and Cole (Duncan Joiner).
Each episode is complementary to the other. Some act as standalone stories; some give you fresh perspective on a character by simply turning him/her into the protagonist in a following episode. Though these characters are all acquainted with each other and often meet in multiple episodes, the show makes sure to limit their influence on each other's stories.
Tales from the Loop is not concerned with the origins of the Eclipse, the robots and other mysterious devices found in and around Mercer. Like The Leftovers, it explores the consequences of unnatural phenomena — the ways in which the lives of the people are turned upside down by the Loop. The sci-fi concepts are never the fundamental element of the story, but a mere pretext to address human concerns. In one of the show highlights (Episode 4 "Echo Sphere"), we see a boy come to terms with the irreversibility of death even in a world where the Loop “makes the impossible, possible." In Episode 2 "Transpose", we learn that only the cream of the crop are allowed to join the ranks at the Loop, like in Gattaca. Episode 3 "Stasis" subverts the "When you fall in love, time stops" cliché in a forbidden love tale where a couple of teenagers use a device to freeze time and hope to live their lives for eternity in a frozen town. Episode 6 "Parallel" sees a lonely security guard travel to an alternate reality where his parallel self has found love.
The wide shots, the symmetrical frames, and the play of light and space all do justice to Stålenhag's retrofuturistic vision. The Loop workers enter a monolithic, blocky facility in queues; computers are as chunky and clunky as they came in the 80s. It reminds you of Russia's Cold War-era secret nuclear labs surrounded by a snowy white plain. In the plains and the woods are discarded ruins of possible past experiments: a rusty ball which acts as a death clock, a rusty ball which lets you reenact the plot of Freaky Friday, and a sad old robot hiding in the forest. The music is a character in itself in most sci-fi films and shows. Here, Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan give us gorgeous piano pieces in a relaxed tempo, with the occasional string section to play up the emotional impact.
The episodes — all written by Halpern — are directed by some well-known names: Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Go), Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), Charlie McDowell (The One I Love), Ti West (The Innkeepers, The House of the Devil) and Jodie Foster (Black Mirror's "Arkangel"). But they are all a little too methodical in their approach to maintain a consistent tone throughout the season. Often, some stories feel like an over-extended or under-developed indie film treatment of interesting ideas. Some episodes start out well, but stagnate just when they should be peaking in mystery and tension.
It is a show bound to be divisive: if you enjoy slowburn dramas, you will binge it in one go, even if it never really develops that irresistible momentum; if you like your sci-fi with plenty of thrills, you are less likely to enjoy it. Tales from the Loop transports you into a world where you know as much about its mythology and inner workings as most of the town's inhabitants, who are often as lost as we are. The sooner you accept you may never understand what it is, the easier it is to enjoy the show. Like the paintings they're based on, its interpretation is left to the viewer. The longer you watch and contemplate, the more likely you are to unravel its mysteries.
Tales from the Loop is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Updated Date: Apr 07, 2020 12:09:36 IST
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