Amazon’s ‘Tales From the Loop’ Is More About Human Feeling Than Archaic Plots

Not all science fiction needs to revolve around alien invasions or intergalactic plotlines. Some of the best offerings in the genre tend to be quiet and reflective on the human condition. Amazon’s new slow burner “Tales from the Loop” works in this vein. It’s another one of these additions to the resurgent anthology genre. There’s a central idea but it hovers over self-contained episodes. Thrills and action are also not the key focus, but the melancholy feel of time passing.

Three episodes from different points in the inaugural season (out of a total of eight) were made available for review. They all take place within a secluded, wooded community near a secretive laboratory where a project called The Loop is housed. The Loop was founded by a scientist named Russ (Jonathan Pryce), who lives surrounded by family including daughter-in-law Loretta (Rebecca Hall) and her sons Cole (Duncan Joiner) and Jakob (Daniel Zolghadri). Structured around a giant, black structure known as the Eclipse, The Loop is an invention meant to tap into the grand mysteries of the universe. This can result in events that defy science, as when a young girl (Abby Ryder Fortson) searching for her missing mother turns out to be a traveler from another reality. Other characters are thrust into alternate realities where different life choices are made. The hard realities of living however never go away and Russ will eventually have to face his own mortality.

“Tales from the Loop” is inspired by Swedish artist Simon Stålenha’s crowd-funded book of the same name. Like Stålenhag’s collection of retro-futurist paintings, this series seems to be designed primarily to be gazed at. Episodes function like a series of long passages where little happens except the evocation of mood and feeling. The series creator is Nathaniel Halpern who helmed “Legion” on FX in much the same way. His emphasis always seems to be on crafting immersive visuals, casting aside clear narrative. There are some excellent directors here who give episodes a beautiful tone. The first episode, “Loop,” is directed by Mark Romanek, the famed music video wizard who hasn’t made a theatrical feature since 2010’s “Never Let Me Go.” If you give the series a try this chapter gives a sense of how the rest of the season will play out. A young girl, wonderfully played by Abby Ryder Fortson of “Ant-Man,” loses track of her mother and becomes friends with Cole. Then Loretta, the older woman, makes the stunning realization that this girl, also named Loretta, might be her from a distant past. Though, the story won’t proceed as you would expect in a sci-fi drama. There will be no grand quests, just a somber visit to the lab where the Eclipse is kept. 

In a series like this performances are the real momentum. Jonathan Pryce is full of heartfelt meditation in the episode “Echo Sphere,” where he reveals to his family a fatal diagnosis. A true slow burner of an episode, it nonetheless has moments of emotional power when it becomes more about Cole having his first real experience of dealing with death. Love is a theme also touched upon with the same melancholic fashion in an episode where a security guard named Gaddis (Ato Essandoh) falls for Alex (Jon Kortajanera) through the poetic presence of a photograph. This evolves into a kind of multiverse storyline where Gaddis gets a taste of living out his fantasy life with Alex. Yet there remains an odd coldness to the style of series even in this narrative. Halpern and his team evoke Stålenha’s visions and style, but at times it feels like it’s just the vision. The scripts almost have the flow of sci-fi Terrence Malick in their poetic dreaminess.

Dreamy yet not shallow, “Tales from the Loop” is best seen in a meditative mood. Some viewers may find it binge-worthy, others might watch it one episode at a time, in doses. There are robots and grand machines, but their purpose is as digital decorations. There are no plot mazes, just the intricate and challenging terrain of human emotions.

Tales from the Loop” season one begins streaming April 3 on Amazon Prime Video.