A series of mysterious events occur in an alternate ’80’s, based on the beautiful art of Simon Stålenhag.
Nostalgia, as they say, isn’t what it used to be. It is however incredibly popular at the moment, especially with genre fans looking to recapture a part of their childhood. We’ve had films such as Super 8, J. J. Abrams ‘80s love letter to all things Amblin, and of course Spielberg’s very own adaptation of Ready Player One . The latter probably the most on the nose nostalgia fest you could ever ask for. On the small screen Netflix have given us the first two seasons of Dark, a show from Germany planned as a three-part cycle featuring an engrossing time travel mystery. Stranger Things is of course probably the most popular show riding the crest of the ‘80s resurgence wave. With its kids in peril plot set against a backdrop of American suburbia it can’t but help remind us of The Goonies, E.T. and countless other movies and TV shows. It is of no surprise then that other studios are looking for inspiration for the next big retro driven thing and Amazon have found theirs in the form of its adaptation of Simon Stålenhag’s Tales From The Loop.
Adapted from Stålenhag’s art books, Tales From The Loop is an eight-episode quasi-anthology set in the town of Mercer, Ohio sometime around the early 1980’s. It is however an ’80’s quite unlike our own. Research into ‘magnetrine’ allows for hovering vehicles, and advanced robots and other technologies are common place. Below Mercer they also have Centre For Experimental Physics, or “the loop” as the locals have dubbed it. It appears to be a sort of underground giant Hadron-like collider that is dedicated to making the impossible possible. It frequently does this with quite unexpected results that have significant ramifications for the general populace above. Whilst often wondrous, these events are usually tinged with melancholy or are even just downright tragic.
I’ve used the term quasi-anthology because there is a a partial narrative that runs through the series, sometimes glimpsed briefly running in the background of an episode’s different main storyline. Characters overlap and bleed through into the different events caused by the mysterious loop and its technology that seems to be frequently abandoned for the unwary townsfolk to happen upon. The main characters that provide the show’s anchor are the Willard family. At the head of the family is Russ, played by the inimitable Jonathan Pryce, who is in charge of the loop, having founded it decades ago. His son George and daughter in law Loretta, Paul Schneider and Rebecca Hall respectively, also both work at the loop. It is however their son’s Cole and Jakob who’s storyline we probably follow the most through this first season. Performances are beautifully understated from the whole cast but Duncan Joiner’s depiction of the young Cole is particularly endearing and it is his journey through to adulthood that is the emotional core of the show.
Tales From The Loop uses a lot of tried and tested science fiction tropes but does so in unconventional ways. Time travel, parallel worlds, body swapping and artificial intelligence are all well worn paths but the show finds new ground to to tread and does so in unconventional ways. The devices used, no matter how fantastical, are not the main objectives. Instead the scenarios presented are done so to explore the human condition. It is people and how they react to extraordinary circumstances that Tales From The Loop is concerned with.
In the episode Stasis, a teenage girl experiences love for the first time and attempts to make the moment last forever. Using a discarded device she finds and repairs she realise she can freeze time, allowing just the wearers of two bracelets to freely live out a single moment forever. Things, of course, never run smoothly in such matters and after several months of just her and her boyfriend being the only two people in the world realisation dawns that this cannot last. Instead of big flashy effects driven moments we instead get to witness the inevitable breakdown of a relationship that has blossomed quickly and brightly but could never realistically sustain itself inside such a constrained bubble. As a result, when the bracelets are removed and time continues its flow, the couple can no longer even bear to see each other.
The look and tone of the show are captivating and it’s greatest assets. It simply looks beautiful. This is hardly surprising as the original book, and it’s sequel Things From The Flood, are stunning works of art. The volumes are full of Simon Stålenhag’s gorgeous paintings depicting life above a Swedish loop. Although the setting has been relocated to Ohio for the TV show it has captured the same feelings of a rural town in an alternate ’80’s. The visuals are ripped right from the pages with the ominous cooling towers, trimmed with neon light, looming over the horizon. Retro looking robots roam wild in the woods, bright colours and almost art deco styles bringing a completely distinctive look.
The paintings in Stålenhag’s books always reminded me of concept paintings. The style is reminiscent of the great Ralph MacQuarrie, of Star Wars fame, and Doug Chiang, the man behind the Prequel designs. It was not surprising to me when it was announced the books had been optioned by Amazon, you could literally just take any image from the page and put it on the screen where it would look fantastic. Stålenhag also provides some narrative in his books which is almost unnecessary as his paintings nearly always provide one anyway. The makers of the show have used these visuals and partial stories, and created their own storylines that fit perfectly.
Tales From The Loop has a much more adult sensibility to it than what I was initially expecting. A role playing game was published a few years ago based on the property and I wrongly assumed that the show would follow this direction and be more like a Stranger Things-inspired adventure focusing on a band of plucky kids. I was delighted to see that Tales From The Loop does not follow this obvious path and has a lot more in common with the aforementioned Dark. More complex and mature themed tales that are allowed to unfold at their own leisurely pace.
The episode Parallel follows Gaddis, a technician who has fallen in love with a photograph of a man he finds in the cabin of a dilapidated tractor. In trying to repair the tractor he finds himself transported back to the alternate world where it originated from. Here he discovers the man of his dreams is actually married to this worlds version of himself. What follows is a fascinating study of duality which inevitably is never going to end well when you’ve got virtually identical people in a fight for another’s affections.
Amazon have assembled some top talent to bring Tales From The Loop to the screen. Hollywood heavy hitters Jodie Foster, Mark Romanek and Pixar‘s Andrew Stanton all take a seat in the directors chair. Producer Nathaniel Halpern brings much of his flair, so evident in the sublime Legion, to bear and has created a very poignant and touching series, much more so than I was expecting. There is an almost mundane feel to Stålenhag’s original paintings, not in the visuals themselves, but with the feeling that the people inhabiting them are just going about their everyday lives. It is the backdrop of fantastic structures and machines that fascinate the viewer, not so much for the people interacting with them.
Halpern and his team have captured this feeling of normalcy amongst the wondrous incredibly well. George Willard, for example, has a complex robotic prosthetic arm but it is not eluded to in any way. It is just something that exists in this world. It isn’t until one of the later episodes, the excellent Enemies, that we see the incident that led to George’s accident. The episode is a particularly chilling and suspense filled one which has a surprisingly touching ending. Emotion is underscored by the haunting piano melodies and sweeping strings supplied by iconic composer Philip Glass. Simple refrains are used sparingly but to great effect and really enhance the proceedings.
Tales From The Loop does not always provide happy endings, sometimes it doesn’t provide an ending or answers at all. Events are often left up to your own interpretation and, while sometimes this can be infuriating in a narrative, it fits perfectly with the shows overall tone and ambiguous nature. I can see that this will turn some people off but for me it works very well and is in keeping with the dreamlike reality that that the show’s makers have produced. The whole setting of the show with its deliberately hard to pinpoint time frame and retro futuristic dressing lends itself to a more fleeting narrative that is hard to lock down. Themes of dealing with grief and the unstoppable passing of time are large concepts that can’t be easily parcelled up into easily digestible episodes.
Simon Stålenhag and the makers of Tales From The Loop have taken some beautiful visuals and created a complex world to support them. With the book being used very much as just a starting point it is easy to see the show being able to sustain several seasons. I really hope it does and there is also much potential to be mined from the sequel Things From The Flood too. Stålenhag’s third book, The Electric State, is a separate tale set in a futuristic America and has been optioned by the Russo brothers (Avengers: Endgame) so it seems like we haven’t seen the last of Stålenhag’s retro worlds. Much like last years phenomenal Watchmen series, Tales From The Loop is another intelligent science fiction show that transcends its origins on the written page and is absolutely essential viewing.
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