Friday, January 12, 2024

First Time Caller, Written by Mac Rogers

A lot of people thought they discovered something new with podcasts, but they were really just reinventing radio. It used to be the biggest form of mass entertainment in the 1930s, when it spawned the first media-driven end of the world scare with Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds. Presumably, that was an inspiration for this story, but the apocalyptic events are all too real in J.D. Brynn & Abe Goldfarb’s First Time Caller, written by Mac Rogers, which releases today on VOD.

As the film opens, Brent Ziff is right where he always wanted to be—making big money podcasting alone in his house. He sort of combines the conspiracy-laden subject matter of Art Bell and George Noory with the abrasive humor of Howard Stern. He also has an eccentric stable of regular caller-contributors, whom he similarly mocks, but his anti-woke politics lean more towards Glenn Beck or Dan Bongino. Regardless, Leo Short has been a longtime listener, but as you can guess, this will be his first night calling in.

“Shorty,” as Ziff quickly dubs him, has a bizarre warning: a freak tsunami is about to hit Seattle without warning. Of course, Ziff assumes he is a crank, who cannot even devise a doomsday theory he can profit off, until it happens. Then he hopes Short can be something like Bell’s
The Day After Tomorrow for his show. However, he starts to grasp the stark reality of the situation when Shorty keeps predicting further natural disasters, one after another.

Adapting from his own podcast,
The Earth Moves, Rogers nicely translates the aesthetics of classic radio dramas (and paranoid podcasts) to the feature dramatic format. It definitely has a stagey set-up, limited to a confined set, with most of the supporting cast literally “phoning in” their performances, but the story wouldn’t work otherwise. If Ziff were not so sequestered from the world, he would be swept up in the Armageddon rather than reacting to it.

In fact, the writing is quite smart. Rogers also wrote an amazing Karel Capek homage titled
Universal Robots that would be tricky to adapt to the screen, but it would be fascinating to watch someone attempt it. Regardless, this is a terrific example of science fiction that is driven by ideas rather than visual effects. Arguably, it is somewhat stylistically and thematically akin to Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night, which also relied on analog phone calls and radio broadcasts, but that 1950s-set retro sf film is even more spellbinding.

Still, Brynn and Goldfarb keep viewers tightly focused on Ziff as he grows increasingly freaked out in his home studio. As his own lead thesp, Goldfarb holds up remarkably well under the camera’s close scrutiny and is totally compelling playing off the disembodied voices of Ziff’s callers. Brian Silliman is appropriately weird as Short, while Greg Proops and Kevin Pollak add their notable voices as other callers.

Wisely, Goldfarb and Brynn (who also served as film editor) keep
First Time Caller tight, wrapping it up in about 75 minutes. As a result, there is not enough time for viewers to get antsy (unless they have pathetically short attention spans) or for the seams to start showing in their apocalyptic premise. Recommended for smart sf fans, First Time Caller releases today (1/12) on VOD.