‘Silo’ Review: Slow Moving Sci-Fi Dystopia With A Mystery Too Easy to Solve

This high-concept AppleTV+ drama about a society trapped underground never digs past the superficial cool factor of its sci-fi premise.

David Oyelowo, Geraldine James and Will Patton in ‘Silo.’ AppleTV+

Since its launch in 2019, Apple (AAPL) TV+ has carved out a niche as the premier streaming service for adult-oriented science fiction. With a seemingly bottomless wallet for big stars and flashy effects, the tech giant has produced or distributed a variety of high concept sci-fi dramas in just four years, from launch titles See and For All Mankind to the visually dazzling Foundation to last year’s sensationally twisty Severance

Their latest offering is Silo, developed by Justified creator Graham Yost based on the series of novels by Hugh Howey and starring acclaimed film actors like Rebecca Ferguson, David Oyelowo, and Tim Robbins. Fom its pedigree, Silo has all the makings of another addictive weekly genre drama for grown-ups, but the series never fully lives up to the promise of its premise. Silo is sturdy, but lacking in depth.

Silo takes place in a totally isolated society, a 150-story-deep underground bunker that is the only world its 10,000 residents have ever known. Generations have lived and died there for at least two centuries, but no one knows for sure how long they’ve been there or why they were forced underground to begin with. Their only view to the world outside shows them a barren wasteland, littered with the bodies of each person who’s ever dared to venture to the surface. Immediately, the audience is clued into the likelihood that the people in charge of this closed system are hiding the truth about their world from the populace, and it’s up to a few daring rebels to sniff out the truth. Like The Matrix, Silo is a high-concept sci-fi spin on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, but where that 1999 bulletproof classic employs this device to tee up grander meditations on the nature of reality, power, and free will, Silo uses it as the backdrop for run-of-the-mill puzzle box thriller. It’s not outright dull, but it’s not as clever of a mystery as the setup deserves, nor is it a compelling enough character drama to make up the difference.

Silo’s most troublesome storytelling hurdle is built into its premise: The audience begins the show with more information than most of its characters, which means that we spend almost the entire show two steps ahead of the mystery they’re trying to solve. Sometimes this results in devilish dramatic irony. For example, the people of the Silo seem to be unaware of the very concept of swimming, which heightens the danger in a water-related crisis. The Silo’s government forbids certain technological advancements for reasons that seem arbitrary to civilians, but which have sinister implications to the audience. But, on the grander scale, Silo tips its hand far too early, letting the audience in on the nature of its central mystery hours before the protagonists are even on the trail. Most of the smaller mysteries or character conflicts peppered throughout the season are relatively slight, which makes the pace of the season-long mystery plot feel interminably slow. 

Rebecca Ferguson in ‘Silo.’ AppleTV+

The tragedy here is that Silo’s third episode, “Machines,” demonstrates how much better the premise could work at an episodic pace rather than a serialized one. This episode sees brilliant engineer Juliet Nichols (Rebecca Ferguson) and her team tasked with repairing the silo’s malfunctioning generator. In order to fix the ancient steam-powered turbine, working class grease monkeys from the silo’s “downdeep” levels must turn off the engine and crawl inside the engine in order to bang its pieces back into shape. Shutting down the generator too long will cause a devastating explosion, and turning it back on before the job is finished will shred the workers inside and likely shake the engine apart anyway. The episode’s stakes are established, confronted, and resolved within the confines one hour and have next to nothing to do with the show’s central mystery, but it does make perfect use of its unique setting while serving as a strong introduction to Juliet as a character and to the downdeep as a culture. After this episode, Silo pivots to becoming a police drama, but since every case is directly tied to the season-long mystery, none is terribly satisfying and each one feels as if it’s casually kicking the plot down the road. The climax of nearly every following episode involves one or more characters running up or down the silo’s staircase, bumping into passers-by in a mad rush to acquire some piece of information or prevent someone from acquiring it, and the physical action never feels a match for the character stakes.

None of this would be enough to damn a series packed with interesting characters, but despite its star-studded cast, no one in Silo feels specific or memorable. The season’s best performances come from Rashida Jones and David Oyelowo, who portray a couple whose relationship is tested when one of them begins to question the nature of their world. Unfortunately, these two stars are rotated out early on, leaving a capable but unremarkable Rebecca Ferguson in the lead. The remaining cast, even Oscar-winner Tim Robbins, is merely adequate, failing to elevate the sometimes clunky or contrived material they’re given. Most criminally, however, in this thriller, no one’s actions are ever surprising. If someone seems untrustworthy, they are; if they’re introduced as noble, they’ll stay that way. Any viewer familiar with sci-fi dystopia will see every twist and betrayal coming from a mile away.

Rashida Jones and David Oyelowo in ‘Silo.’ AppleTV

Between its protracted mytharc and its thin characters, Silo never digs past the superficial cool factor of its sci-fi premise. It’s easy to draw a line between our world now, where AI and deepfakes are poised to make propaganda indistinguishable from reality (assuming it isn’t already). The growing fascist movement in the US and abroad aims to restrict and control information, limiting future generations’ abilities to even imagine a different or better world. This is fertile ground for science fiction, but beyond the mere fact that these things are bad, Silo doesn’t take the time to interrogate it any more than is demanded by the plot. Throughout the story, there are interesting details that help to make the Silo feel like a real place, a bizarre alternate world with a different set of values and absolutes, but this always plays second fiddle to picking away at a mystery that the audience has more or less already solved. These ten episodes might have been better spent exploring the different facets of life in this closed society, sparking real conversations about class, hierarchy, information, education, or any of the other dozen topics Silo barely touches on a surface level.  ‘Silo’ Review: Slow Moving Sci-Fi Dystopia With A Mystery Too Easy to Solve