You really can’t beat a good science fiction anthology series. Love, Death & Robots did it for me last year and now we have Tales from the Loop on Amazon Prime to enjoy. My disappointment over Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams is becoming a distant memory.
Tales from the Loop with its soft string and piano instrumental soundtrack and arty direction is a more thoughtful proposition than the high energy shorts that made up the Love, Death & Robots project. All eight episodes of Tales from the Loop run around the fifty minute mark and you could argue since the stories share location and characters it is less of an anthology and more of an ongoing series.
The reason I have it in my mind as an anthology is that the series, inspired by the near-futuristic paintings of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, explores the lives of some of the people who live in a rather Scandinavian-looking American town one character at a time and each episode has one central sci-fi theme and a different director. Nathaniel Halpern (Legion, The Killing) is the creator and lead writer, and it is his vision that binds together the episodes into a philosophical and beautiful looking series.
The small town is built above MCEP, an underground scientific research centre colloquially known as The Loop, which houses a mysterious orb (perhaps an alien or precursor civilisation artefact) called the Eclipse. Many of the adults in the town are scientists and mathematicians who work at the centre and the boss, Russ Willard, is played by Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Tomorrow Never Dies) with member of his family central to many episodes.
Strange objects exhibiting mysterious properties litter the less well-trodden parts of the town. Why these objects are just left lying around is a mystery in itself but I presume they are the subject of Stålenhag’s paintings, and without them we wouldn’t have much of a show, so I’ll let it ride for the sake of science fiction. Be warned there are major spoilers below.
Episode 1 – Loop
Director: Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo and a load of music videos)
The series kicks off with a story about a young girl, played by an earnest looking Abby Ryder Fortson (Ant-Man and the Wasp) , who walks home from school to hear her mother, an MCEP scientist who she calls Alma, played by Elektra Jansson-Kilbey a new face to me, arguing on the phone and saying that she won’t return something she took from the lab. The girl asks Alma what she took and she explains that she needs the thing she ‘borrowed’ for a potentially dangerous experiment.
Later the same night, the girl goes downstairs and sees a brilliant glow emanating from the room where her mother is doing her research. When the light fades, the windows suddenly crack and the girl retreats to her bedroom. The next afternoon, having done well in a school maths test, the girl heads to MCEP to wait for Alma. However, Alma doesn’t appear and the girl walks home alone.
Problem is when she gets there her house has completely disappeared. I had a similar dream last night and it totally freaked me out. Where the house once stood she finds the stone we’ve seen in the trailer. She hears some noise from the woods nearby and finds a young boy called Cole, played by Duncan Joiner who is in the new Lethal Weapon TV show, throwing stones at a sad looking walker robot. The girl tells him to stop and Cole agrees to help her find Alma.
At his house, Cole sees his mother Loretta, played by Rebecca Hall (Iron Man 3, The Prestige), discussing science stuff with his grandpops Russ Willard. He is shooed away and they end up in his bedroom and meet his older brother Jakob, played by another new face for me in the form of Daniel Zolghadri. The girl shows Cole the strange rock she found and they go back to the entrance of the Loop and talk to the security guard. Here the girl reveals that her name is Loretta.
It transpires that the girl is a younger version of Cole’s mother Loretta. The older version of Loretta tells the younger version that “not everything in life makes sense” which is quite the understatement given the circumstances. In the lab they visit the room containing The Eclipse and insert the piece that Alma took. Young Loretta touches the orb and is transported back in time to the moment she found her house (and Alma) had vanished.
Loretta’s husband George is played by Paul Schneider (Elizabethtown, Parks and Recreation) who gets more screen time in episode four of this half of the season. The most notable thing about his character is that he has a robot hand which suggest the show is set in the near-future. The dreamy atmosphere, distinctive colour palette, and the thoughtful pacing surrounding an otherwise fairly standard time-loop story had me impressed and ready to watch the next episode.
Episode 2 – Transpose
Director: So Yong Kim (a South Korean director who has 23 directorial credits to her name for a load of films I’ve not seen)
This increasingly dark episode features Jakob and his best friend Danny played by Tyler Barnhardt (13 Reasons Why). it’s obvious that they’re like chalk and cheese, Danny is athletic and confident with girls whereas Jakob isn’t. But he is good at drawing and in a bit of foreshadowing we see him sketching that walker robot that is hanging around in the woods. If you don’t anticipate what’s coming then you really need to watch more Disney films.
Jakob wants to ask out one of the girls at school called May, played by Nicole Law (another new actor for me), but he’s too shy. Later that day the boys find a rusty pod in the middle of the woods and Jakob climbs into it. There’s a weird noise when he does so and both of them black out. The boys wake up to find that they have switched bodies.
Jakob now in Danny’s body has chores to do – namely painting a barn. When Danny’s admirer Lauren pays him a visit they end up kissing. The next day, the boys agree that they’re kinda having fun so decide to stay transposed for a while longer, but when Jakob sees Danny (in his body) kissing May, he changes his mind and confronts his friend. Danny refuses to switch bodies and they fall out.
Danny (in Jakob’s body) presents May with a sketch of her that Jakob had drawn before they swapped bodies. Cole asks for help drawing cars but Danny is unable to help him. Feeling guilty Danny decides to head back to the pod so he can get in and give Jakob his body back. But he finds that the pod is being broken up and taken away. Why this is happening now when the thing looks like it’s been lying around for years is glossed over. For some reason this causes Jakob (in Danny’s body) to lapse into a coma.
Stuck in the wrong body Danny has to live out his life as a kind of cuckoo in Jakob’s life. Back at Jakob’s family home Danny wakes up and sees the familiar walker lurking outside and there’s an inference that perhaps Jakob’s consciousness has transferred into the robot. In a similar way to the first episode this a rather cautionary tale but far creepier.
Episode 3 – Stasis
Director: Dearbhla Walsh (a prolific TV director who I associate with Fargo and Penny Dreadful)
Time has passed and we see May with Jakob and we must assume that it’s still really Danny in there and that’s perhaps why she has grown bored of the relationship. She is bemoaning the fact that the initial love buzz she felt can’t last forever. This idea of a blissful moment lasting forever is the main theme of this episode. May fishes a device which looks very much like an old Thermos flask out of the lake at the edge of town and we learn that she is skilled at pulling things apart and seeing how they work.
We also learn that this mysterious device has a dead power cell which looks very much like a simple clear perspex rod, an on/off switch and two clip-on metal bracelets. What the device actually does is immediately apparent once May steals one of these futuristic power cells from the back of a guy’s van. But this doesn’t happen until she has met another boy – a quiet chap called Ethan, played by Danny Kang (Insatiable), with a wonky foot who is picked on a school and so keeps himself to himself. May fools around with him behind Jakob’s back – the hussy.
The device can stop time. Anyone who has read my book Lucky will know that this is the central premise of that story, and so I was immediately on the edge of my seat to see what they did with this, where would the story go, what different aspects would they explore.
While this was my favourite episode of the four, I was a little disappointed that it boiled down to them fucking in the middle of a frozen high street, stealing stuff and breaking in to a nice house and living there with everyone else frozen in the moment. It reminded me of the whole reason I wanted to write a story about a girl who could stop time myself as a reaction to the stupid smut in Nicholson Baker’s book The Fermata featuring a guy who can stop time.
May reveals herself to be a rather selfish person in the end and her and Ethan fall out. Ethan leaves her and unclips the bracelet from around his wrist and May finds him frozen in time like everyone else. There’s a subplot about May’s mum having an affair with the repair guy they stole the battery off (which mirrors May’s affair behind Jakob’s back) but it’s mainly about May wanting to create an unrealistically perfect eternal moment with Ethan. It’s a broken love story.
I liked the premise and the special effects which recreated the same kind of scenes I imagined in my novel, and I also liked the way it portrayed the fickleness that can sometimes characterise young love. There is a moment once May restarts time, some days or weeks later where May and Ethan meet and talk on the street where they bumped bits and you think there might be a reconciliation but although Ethan expresses his love for May, she just walks away.
Episode 4 – Echo Sphere
Director: Andrew Stanton – the Disney Pixar writer best known for Wall.E, Finding Nemo and Finding Dory)
The episode starts with Russ Willard showing his grandson, Cole, a derelict structure lying rusting in a field and shows the young boy how the echo comes back at you from your forward life – the more echoes you hear the longer life you have. When Cole tries it he hears about eight echoes of varying pitch, when Russ tries it he hears nothing.
Russ, who has never taken a sick day in his life. then receives some bad news from his doctor. He takes it calmly but Cole is upset. Russ dismisses the rather unscientific concept of an afterlife in a conversation with Cole and reflects on his life. He questions whether the time he spent overseeing The Loop was worth it. He offers his job to Loretta who accepts.
Despite Russ’s best efforts to prepare his grandson for his death, Cole is in denial. Indeed at the midpoint of the largely dark episode (a theme is finding light within the darkness) we find that Russ has been bottling things up and is reduced to tears after dropping off Cole back with his parents. You have to wonder if he knew about the body-swapping sphere that was dismantled in episode two, would he have tried to use it to survive his fatal illness?
When Russ collapses and is taken to hospital, Cole decides to try and save him by infiltrating The Loop and seeking a way to save the old man. The walker robot who we think took on his older brother’s personality watches on from a distance as Cole finds a conveniently open access hatch and ladder that leads down into the complex.
The first thing Loretta needs to do when she takes over the complex is to tighten up security and the second thing is stop people leaving things lying around above ground. Cole inexplicably manages to gain access to the Eclipse but is caught by Loretta. He is desperate to save his grandfather but is denied and has to come to terms with the fact that death is a part of life.
This episode has far less of a science-fiction story to tell than the first three episodes and is rather a poignant study of grief and the loss if innocence. The loss of a much-loved elderly relative is something that everyone has to live through at some point and the way the episode handles it is to be applauded despite it having very little of the sci-fi trappings of preceding episodes.
It’s really a case of so far so good at this midpoint in the show and I look forward to watching the rest of it when I’m not watching episodes of Star Wars: Resistance or Tiger King…
Photo by takahiro taguchi on Unsplash