Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Calls, on Apple TV+

It is sort of like “Sorry, Wrong Number” for fans of Tenet. Thanks to a strange quantum physics anomaly, people have been getting phone calls from different time periods—in some cases from themselves. Unfortunately, whenever someone tries to alter their timeline, the universe fights back, usually in a rather vicious way. The concept is high but the visuals are minimal in creator-director’s Fede Alvarez’s Calls (based on the French series created by Timothee Hochet), which premieres this Friday on Apple TV+.

Calls starts with the ending—the cataclysmic doomsday end—and then flashes back to the beginning, before filling in the middle with the subsequent seven episodes—except maybe not. There might be a handful of people smart enough to figure what is happening to our plane of reality in time to stop it. Of course, there are those who will try to take advantage of the quantum anomaly to reverse horrible personal tragedies, but these rarely work out well.

Calls is an unusually dark and moody science fiction series. Several episodes, like “Me, Myself, and Darlene,” “The Universe Did It,” and “Mom” are downright downers (the former two being the most poignant and effective). Ironically, the best episode, “Pedro Across the Street,” is a total outlier, due to its humorous tone and the fact the quantum phone call doesn’t even happen in the episode (it is only referenced by the character who called himself).

Calls is more closely akin to a podcast than a television show, because the only visuals are the audio waves and static representing the phone calls heard during each episode. Basically, the viewing experience is like watching the spectrum analyzer on your stereo. (As a point of contrast, Shudder’s terrific podcast Video Palace created a much more intriguing visual loop for its creepy tale of insidious video tapes.) However, the way Alvarez keeps dropping hints about the greater quantum mystery afoot keeps us sufficiently hooked.

Aside from “Pedro,” the best episodes are the ones that are most directly related to the show’s “mythology,” to use the
X-Files era term. Those would be “The Universe Did It,” “Is there a Scientist on the Plane,” and “Leap Year Girl.” They also feature some of the best vocal performances from the likes of Danny Huston as a concerned father and defense attorney, Aubrey Plaza as a physicist, Stephen Lang, as her mad scientist father, and Clancy Brown as an Air Force General.

It takes a few episodes for
Calls to click, but when it does, it gets really unsettling. Each installment is around twenty minutes, so try to at least get through “Pedro Across the Street” before rendering your judgement. Recommended for sf fans in the mood for something different, Calls starts streaming on Apple TV+ this Friday (3/19).