‘Tales from the Loop,’ Amazon’s sci-fi anthology, makes sense for our current alternative universe

Tribune Content Agency

A gentle slow-burner ideal for our alternative pandemic universe, the eight-episode Amazon Studios series “Tales from the Loop” begins Friday. It’s a moving, determinedly solemn adaptation of Swedish author/artist Simon Stalenhag’s lavishly illustrated book, published in 2014 after his retro-futurist visions of a 1980s Sweden became an online sensation.

Comparisons have been made to grabbier shows that do all the work for you, such as “Stranger Things,” but they’ll only mislead. The pilot introduces us to Russ Willard, portrayed by Jonathan Pryce. Watching his face in extended close-up, with those devilish eyebrows suggesting a visionary who knows more than he’s about to tell us, we hear a little about the Mercer Center for Experimental Physics, Willard’s underground facility on the outskirts of Mercer, Ohio. (The Swedish setting of the source material peeks through in sly ways; at one point, a movie marquee announces a revival of Ingmar Bergman’s “Summer with Monika.”)

So it’s Ohio, but in “Tales from the Loop” (series creator Nathaniel Halpern wrote all eight episodes), Ohio means black holes coexist with giant robots and hovercraft-style tractors, with surprising restraint. At heart, the show delves into childhood grief and resentment, all-too-ordinary fears of death, and unrequited adult love. The loneliness and the spaces between the characters set the tone and rhythm here.

The underground lab, a brutalist hunk of architecture, employs seemingly the entire town. The forlorn security guard Gaddis (Ato Essandoh) bids the occasional hello to passing workers. Hall’s character, Loretta, is married to George (Paul Schneider), outfitted with a impressive bionic arm. They live in quiet, split-level surroundings with their sons Jakob (Daniel Zolghadri) and, crucial in episode four, Cole, played by a terrific young actor named Duncan Joiner.

That fourth installment, “Echo Sphere,” scores with a simple, profound notion. Russ takes grandson Cole to explore a big, round, hollow metal structure. If you shout into it, the number of echoes you hear tell you how long you have to live. The rest of the episode charts Russ’s final chapter, and how it affects everyone in a life preoccupied by work. Jane Alexander adds one grace note after another as Klara, his wife, and you won’t see a truer, more subtle performance anywhere right now.

The title “Tales from the Loop” refers to “the beating black heart” of a wondrous black orb known as The Eclipse,the innermost secret of the clandestine underground physics project. The three directors of the three previewed episodes treat these secrets in contrasting ways. Mark Romenek’s pilot recalls the steady chill and precision of his earlier work, particularly “Never Let Me Go.” The theme of doubles and mirror images threads all three stories together. In the pilot, which gets a mite pokey, Hall’s dramatic instincts pull us through.

Andrew Stanton, co-writer and director of the miracle that was”Wall-E,” makes “Echo Sphere” a spare beauty with a light touch. The sixth installment in this anthology, “Parallel,” comes from director Charlie McDowell. The security guard we’ve met, briefly, takes center stage with the most “Twilight Zone”-y of the episodes, in which lonely Gaddis slips into an alt-universe version of his closeted gay life. There he meets a replica of himself, complete with long-term relationship with a hunky woodworker of uncertain fidelity.

There’s humor in these “Tales,” but it’s sparing and usually sidelined by the serious emotions. At times the storytelling just sort of floats, like the snow that magically falls upward in one segment. Those who need more, and coarser, can stream “Hunters,” I guess. This is the kind of show where silence matters. In minute 42 of the first episode, there’s a startling close-up of Rebecca Hall’s character responding non-verbally to a harsh comment made by a young, motherless girl played by Abby Ryder Fortson. It lasts three or four seconds. And it’s a thunderbolt.

“Tales from the Loop” premieres April 3 on Amazon Prime.


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