Check out what our Drew thought of Amazon Prime’s latest sci-fi adventure – Tales From The Loop!
Sci-fi/thriller anthology series are still all the rage, aren’t they? More so now than ever, thanks in no small part to the accessibility of streaming platforms. Massive hits from the last couple of years include Black Mirror and Love, Death + Robots on Netflix; the Twilight Zone reboot on CBS; and Electric Dreams on Channel 4.
If you’re like me, you were let down by all of those. Twilight Zone was so disappointing it still makes me a little sad. The latest series of Black Mirror ranged from passable-yet-intriguing to downright terrible. Love, Death + Robots was all surface and no depth, absolutely deserving praise for the animation and visual storytelling but it asked no questions of the viewer. Apart from one devastatingly brilliant episode (‘The Commuter’), Electric Dreams was completely forgettable.
This is why Amazon Prime’s entry into the game, Tales From The Loop, was such a breath of fresh air. It’s an 8-episode series set in a remote town home to people who work in or around a facility called The Loop, and to be brief, a lot of weird sci-fi stuff goes on. I should point out that it’s not exactly an anthology series – characters recur often and there’s a central plot around a family which grounds it in a chronology to connect the abstract going ons. The series is adapted from a book by Simon Stålenhag, an increasingly well-known digital painter who’s developed quite a following for what I think can best be described as visual novels – usually featuring stunning landscapes meshed with sci-fi elements that tell small stories long after the much bigger story of how the world got this way.
Those adapted visuals are one of the most compelling reasons to get into Loop. A host of incredibly accomplished directors helm each episode, and the cinematography in general prioritises a crisp, clean image and spends plenty of time lingering on a few ‘wow’ images, rather than rapid-cuts and grungy shaky-cam that’s all too prevalent nowadays. It feels out of place in a TV streaming show, and I mean that in a good way. It’s closer to the camerawork of Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister in their own heady flicks. Hard sci-fi elements are thin on the ground in Loop, featuring almost nothing flashy. What does show up is retro-futuristic: clunky mechs alongside everyday machines like combine harvesters and pickup trucks like it’s nothing. They creak and rust, if they move at all, as the landscape is littered with abandoned technology.
This leads me to mention the gorgeous soundtrack by Philip Glass. It’s nothing new from the man – his trademark minimalistic, mournful piano pieces will be hard to distinguish from his previous work in film and TV. You’ll hear no complaints from me though – he’s the best at what he does, and it fits here like a dream. When the soundtrack isn’t playing, the only sounds are the aforementioned mechs and dialogue, so when a musical sting plays it’s usually in a key place to really tug on the heartstrings or emphasise those ‘wow’ images, and it always works, even if it does get repetitive at times.
As for the people on-screen, Loop is a masterclass in understated acting. Jonathan Pryce carries off the wisdom and peaceful regret of a dying man with complete sincerity, and Rebecca Hall often outshines everyone with some subtle, wordless facial acting. Everyone performs excellently, and never once acts unconvincingly, even amongst all the weirdness going on around them.
For all this praise, the plot of the show is its biggest weakness. It’s far from original: apart from a difference in time period and theming, some plotlines are directly lifted from Twilight Zone and other classics (doppelgangers and the ability to pause time are common plots that feature here). It doesn’t necessarily detract from the enjoyment, but you shouldn’t expect any real surprises.
More than that, there’s a distinct lack of momentum to it; no end goal except the curiosity of what’s next. The Loop itself is a nebulous mechanical orb in the basement of the facility that seems to hold the answer to life, the universe, and everything – yet it’s never described what, if anything, it actually does. Not only that, but there are some plot elements introduced right from the beginning – a younger version of a main character mysteriously transported into the present being a particularly noteworthy one – that don’t even come up again to provide any kind of resolution.
The Loop machine seems to be emblematic of the whole show – beautiful and fascinating but ultimately never explained. I can see that as being frustrating for a lot of people, but it seemed to be the biggest strength to me. The focus of Loop is that which we find difficult to explain in our personal lives. The sci-fi doodads that are the impetus for many of the plotlines are prosaic: a hollow metal sphere in the desert echoes when a boy and his grandfather speak into it; the amount of times it echoes back it tells you how long your life will be. A broken farming machine appears in a field; when a lonely man fixes it he finds himself transported to an alternate reality where his doppelganger lives in a happy relationship. A deactivated sea mine is found by two teenage boys; when they climb into it they swap bodies and agree to live the other’s life for a time.
The attention is never on the thing itself, but rather what they provoke. The metal sphere forces the characters to confront our fear of death and provokes difficult conversations between the characters about notions of the afterlife. The farming machine provides them with insight into our willingness to dream of a life better than our own and ignore what lies in front of us. The episode of the mine goes perhaps even further than the rest, tackling class divide, teenage anxiety, and the split between our public and private selves.The point isn’t to provide answers to these questions, nor answers to the questions of what is actually going on in this show (or even what the hell the Loop is). The point seems to be to acknowledge that we find it far easier and more compelling to extend our reach to exploring far-off worlds in space and time than to navigate those internal mysteries of identity, life and death, and meaning – and Tales From The Loop executes this perfectly.
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[…] might seem odd to be complaining about a slow burner sci-fi show when I just spent a long while kissing the feet of Tales From The Loop earlier in the week, but that show carried its steady pace with a kind of quiet honesty you had to respect. Devs […]