The golden age of expensive, empty sci-fi anthology continues with Solos on Amazon Prime. Following their inert series Soulmates, set in a world where DNA testing made dating foolproof, the streamer now brings full dystopia a step closer with a collection of tech-themed stories with an eerie, metallic sheen. Each features an innovation that’s failed to make anyone happy, but the big idea yoking the episodes together is that they’re limited to a single performer in a single location. Behold, the Black Mirror monologues!
Created by, and mostly written or directed by, David Weil – showrunner of Amazon’s impressive but ethically erratic Hunters – Solos has attracted a plush cast. There are several A-listers here, seizing the opportunity to act furiously with minimal interruption. Often that means attempting the one simple trick – Alan Bennett is the master of it – that makes a lot of dramatic one-handers work: the superficially trivial anecdote that conceals a definitive emotional truth. Even in an alternate futurescape, every settee still has a cream cracker underneath.
Anthony Mackie, for example, as a dying man trying to teach the unique joys of his family life to the clone that will replace him, informs the replica about his wife’s farts and his son’s ice-cream preferences, these being details he didn’t appreciate until he became ill. Helen Mirren, taking a trip across the galaxy because her disappointing Earthbound existence has left her with nothing to stick around for, tells the spaceship’s AI about a failed teen romance that represents a lifetime of chances not taken.
However, such sketches require an empathic acuity and humble lightness of touch that Solos doesn’t possess. It has a weakness for the sort of lines that make bad writers high-five themselves. Sentences with literary delusions, such as “I push through the barrier of bodies – hot, salty tears stinging my eyes” or “We were standing there, her chlorine-wrinkled hands balanced on my nervous body” drop out of the actors’ mouths. If they were declaimed in a theatre for the upper circle to hear, you might get away with them; on a small screen, they land with a tinny thump.
Occasionally, the acting compensates for the writing’s stodgy archness. Mirren brilliantly conveys the smothered spark of a smart loner, as a 71-year-old who has realised that her wit and kindness have never been recognised, and that this is her fault because she’s always shunned the difficult real world and retreated to her inner life, “scared of being seen”. The outstanding episode – about a young woman, alone in a waiting room, freely disburdening herself of every physical and romantic humiliation she’s suffered – has a star turn from Constance Wu that flips from filthy hilarity to screaming grief, achieving the sort of raw intimacy that Solos is generally too mannered to allow.
In short, the actors just don’t have enough to work with. We’re streaming, so episodes can be any length, which makes it infuriating that Weil has apparently implemented a half-hour limit. These stories need another 10 minutes at least, for the endings to be more than abrupt dead stops or agonisingly pat twists, and for the glimmers of fine work to mature into something solid and profound, rather than sententious ick. Anne Hathaway and Uzo Aduba, as a wannabe time traveller and a resident of a pandemic-proof smart home, respectively, have to try to emote their way through sci-fi premises that have barely come into focus before the end credits cut them off.
Solos ends with none other than Morgan Freeman, whose voice introduces each episode with an annoying, movie-tagline epigram (“If you travel to the future, can you escape your past?”). He appears as Stuart, a man with a head artificially filled with other people’s memories. The format shifts as he’s given an interlocutor, Dan Stevens, who duly weeps as the old guy talks. We’re not moved to do the same, though, because the yarns Freeman spins, sitting on an endless beach bathed in a generic futuristic glare, is deeply cheesy. Solos wants to make us feel less alone, even as it imagines a world that’s still more digitised and cold than ours is now. But it just can’t connect.