Apple TV’s latest creative endeavor, Calls arrives just at the right time. The booming streaming zeitgeist has been continuously searching for new avenues in content, and this has only been amplified ever since global quarantines started exactly a year ago this month. From screening methods to the ways in which artists are expressing themselves under such limitations, the top streamers are in a never-ending race to release the next trend. A double-edged sword since art is preserving, but sometimes at the cost of overexposure and falling into gimmick territory. Well, Fede Álvarez is here to point out that success can be found in the most unlikely of formats, even for a brand as big as Apple.
Calls is a short-form horror series based on an original French short from Timothée Hochet. Adapted for AppleTV+ by Don’t Breathe and Evil Dead filmmaker Fede Álvarez, the show consists of 9 episodes, each only ranging roughly 15 – 20 minutes. As the name suggests, Calls is exactly just that, a range of voice calls with no actor ever physically present on screen. These conversations find themselves at the will of an apocalyptic anomaly, an inexplicable force that allows anyone to communicate with people in the past and future, just from dialing the phone. Of course, with a plot involving any type of time travel, changing the timeline always leads to chaos, and it’s here where Álvarez elevates Calls to must-watch status. Anyone familiar with his work can fully expect things to get f*cked up, and quite quickly.
The series is steeped in horror, and Álvarez expertly showcases just how little one needs to truly bring out the best in the genre. As terrifying as his material can be, Álvarez has always danced a fine line by injecting a dark sense of humor, something that has been met with notorious reactions. Though he’s always been very self-aware of just how far he is pushing the envelope, often in directions that no one dares to venture in, thus raising his name above the crop. The naysayers would call his scare tactics cheap and purely for the effect of high shock value. An understandable argument, but Calls counters this in every way for its many twists and turns, some more upsetting than others, always raise new questions within the viewer. An effect achieved purely by using the sound of one’s voice no less.
The greater plot runs throughout the whole show, but its episodic nature instantly reminds of The Twilight Zone. Individual stories, each juggling with very human dilemmas and their own set of personal consequences. The most impressive element of Calls is just how much variety is displayed with each episode, all while following the same rules of the evil force at play. For the first time since his 2009 short Ataque de Pánico (Panic Attack), Álvarez is getting his hands dirty with sci-fi. The kind of escapism that allows the audience to fully imagine themselves in, again, without the use of traditional visuals. The psychedelic use of sound waves and simple shapes/figures is more than enough to guide one’s perspective along the way. Álvarez doesn’t necessarily go the easy route with visuals either, but he doesn’t need much when directing a cast as impressive as this.
Pedro Pascal, Aubrey Plaza, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Nick Jonas, Rosario Dawson, Karen Gillan… just how good it is along with the incredible guessing game of voices will keep one watching until the end, and then the next. Not an easy guessing game by any means because apart from some of them sounding recognizable, almost no one is lazily cast. No entry is as similar to the other, and the loose format allows Álvarez to play with his different levels of dark humor where needed. Want to hear Pedro Pascal play a homewrecker for 15 minutes, or how about Nick Jonas as a convicted killer? This aspect alone is almost too enticing to pass on, and there are still more names left unsaid.
Álvarez successfully balances several tones while blending unthinkable horror with thought-provoking sci-fi, making Calls so addicting, including the fact that each episode is vocally brought to life by as big a star cast as Apple can get. With today’s desire for binging, this series makes for an excellent choice, and won’t be easily forgotten at that. Certainly more than just a gimmick, this show carries as much value as fine storytelling provides. Although, going as far to call it completely innovative would be somewhat of a misunderstanding. Filmmakers have been doing projects in this vein for years, notably on platforms like Vimeo and YouTube (just like the original Calls short). Now, has it ever been done on this scale within the ever-expanding world of streaming? Absolutely not.
Álvarez’s case here is “less is more”, and even though it’s not new thinking, in today’s streaming world it sure still comes off as fresh. Thinking out of the box can strike a chord with people hungry for something more. After all, which studio would use a slew of big-name actors without ever showing them on screen like this? To see such a project on AppleTV+ will hopefully open the door for more experimentation with big streamers. And as for Fede Álvarez, Calls may just seem like an appetizer before fans see his name attached to Don’t Breathe 2 and a new Texas Chainsaw later this year, but it fully stands on its own.