Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Tales from the Loop: Science Fiction Gets Moody and Thoughtful

This little Middle American community is a company town, but that plant where everyone works is an underground laboratory for cutting edge physics experiments known as “The Loop.” At its core is a huge Macguffin called “The Eclipse.” Think of it as three parts super-collider and one-part Obelisk from 2001. The Eclipse seems to make strange things happen for those whose lives revolve around—or maybe they just happen on their own in writer-creator Nathaniel Halpern’s sort-of science fiction sort-of anthology series, Tales from the Loop, which premieres Thursday on Amazon Prime.

Perhaps it is fitting Amazon supplied the press with non-sequential episodes, considering Tales addresses subjects like time-loops and alternate realities. Episodes 101: “Loop” and Episode 104: “Echo Sphere” pair up well together, because they closely follow the domestic dramas of the Willard, whereas Episode 106: “Parallel” could very well be the best of the series. Think of it as Somewhere in Time with more overt science fiction elements.

In contrast, the fantastical is decidedly dialed down in “Echo” and possibly intended as a matter for interpretation in “Loop,” despite the depressed looking robot constantly trudging across the background. The series starts with a suitably cryptic introduction from Russ Willard, the founder and director of the Loop. We then meet a little girl whose emotional disturbed mother works as a researcher at the Loop. She befriends Willard’s grandson, Cole, after her mother and all traces of the woman’s existence disappear after conducting an off-the-books experiment using a stolen fragment of the Eclipse. However, the well-meaning Cole has a hard time finding an adult who will bother to listen to them.

“Echo” is definitely the least genre of the episodes up for review, but it is definitely a showcase for Jonathan Pryce, portraying Russ Willard. It still features the same eerie retro-futuristic, post-industrial, alternate 1980s landscapes that distinguished Simon Stalenhag’s original conceptual art books, particularly the rusted out Echo Sphere itself. Supposedly, the number of times your voice echoes inside foretells the length of your life, so if it doesn’t echo at all, you can guess what that means.

Instead of the Willards, “Parallel” focuses Gaddis, the lonely and lonely-hearted security guard posted in a small booth outside the entrance to the Loop. He happens to find a tractor abandoned in the field behind the bungalow where he lives, which is interesting to us, because it appears to levitate like the landspeeders in Star Wars. However, it is interesting to Gaddis because he finds a picture of a man inside that becomes the focus of his romantic fantasies, much like Dana Andrews in Laura. When he finally fixes the tractor and fires it up, it returns through the wormhole it came through, where he finds his alternate, more sociable self is engaged in a relationship with the man in the picture.

Ato Essandoh is terrific as Gaddis and also as Alternate Gaddis, clearly differentiating the two, in very human ways. He really makes us feel for the poor original Gaddis, but he makes Other Gaddis so likable and reasonable, it makes the prospect of a love triangle dashed awkward for viewers. Yet, Halpern resolves the story in an altogether fitting and graceful way. Helmed with a sensitive touch by Charlie McDowell (The One That I Love), “Parallel” represents some of the best romantic genre work on-screen since Su Lun’s How Long Will I Love U.

Frankly, it is hard to say how well Tales from the Loop hangs together as a series, since reviewers only had a look at three non-continuous installments, but it certainly is an ambitious program. Even if you are unsure whether such moody existential sf is for you, “Parallel” is totally worth cherry-picking. Based on what we have seen, it is promising, with at least one gem to its credit. Recommended for grown-up genre fans, Tales from the Loop starts streaming this Thursday (4/2) on Amazon Prime.