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'Calls' Review: A star-packed cast bolsters this intriguing concept

Don't hang up on this experimental Apple TV+ series.

Calls Key Art
(Image: © Apple TV+)

Our Verdict

An intriguing mystery story that doesn't require images to deliver scares or an emotional attachment.

For

  • 📞A captivating experimental series that delivers scares.
  • 📞Surprisingly emotional in places.
  • 📞A strong cast.
  • 📞A mystery that keeps you guessing.
  • 📞An interesting exploration of a common communication device.

Against

  • 📞The length of some installments is too long.
  • 📞Another project in which Pedro Pascal doesn't show his face.
  • 📞Some viewers will be turned off by the abstract visuals.

Television is often likened to other mediums from filmmakers referring to a series as a 10-hour movie or novel terminology used to describe the weekly format. The beauty of TV is that it exists in its own space and the parameters are broad. Of course, this doesn’t stop comparisons being made and Apple TV+’s new experimental thriller Calls will no doubt be tagged with podcast and radio play connections because of what we don’t see. While some viewers might find the lack of images frustrating, each passing episode effectively draws you into this web of soundwaves. 

Adapted from French filmmaker Timothée Hochet’s short-form series of the same name, this nine-part series from Don’t Breathe director Fede Álvarez relies on audio and minimal abstract visuals to plot out terrifying events impacting seemingly unconnected people across the United States. Considering the streaming platform Calls is airing on you would be forgiven for expecting an update to Hochet’s audio-heavy concept. Part of me expected something nearer to Servant’s use of FaceTime and the various Apple products to come into play, but Álvarez sticks to the disquieting format. Greenlit in 2018, the series boasts a voice cast including Pedro Pascal, Aubrey Plaza, Rosario Dawson, Karen Gillan, Nicholas Braun, and Nick Jonas. An impressive vocal line-up that offers a sense of familiarity to the conversations (though if you are anything like me it might take a few minutes to place the voice with the actor), which is beneficial when each vignette has limited time to form character development. This marriage of recognizable with unsettling circumstances is one reason why Calls keeps you hooked throughout. 

Considering the current climate, the juxtaposition of feeling equal parts isolated and connected thanks to a phone call is even more palpable. This show wasn’t conceived or cast during the pandemic, but it is impossible to not view the steady increase in fear and uncertainty through a lens reflecting the pandemic. Calls cranks up the terror by putting us in the position of the person on the phone who cannot see what is unfolding on the other line, and the unseen is often far scarier than a visible monster. The late reveal of the shark in Jaws was a result of behind the scenes issues involving the mechanical beast failing in saltwater, but instead of a disaster (when the movie was over budget by 300 percent of the original allocation), the prolonged period without seeing the great white shark elevates fear levels. The worst-case scenarios we conjure in our mind are often far worse than reality and the vague description of a figure outside the window in the dark or someone entering an unfamiliar location are effectively wielded by Álvarez to up the tension and add to the mystery.  

Each installment opens with a location and date framed within a shape reminiscent of the alien language in Arrival.  While it might seem like you could close your eyes and listen to the dialogue alone, the images are not inconsequential — even if they initially reminded me of the Windows Media Player’s geometric visualizations. Recalling the Musical Colors moving to the beat of the music, the graphics in Calls respond to the tone of the conversation and movements made by a person within differing settings. So while it isn’t mapping out the exact journey, the lines dancing on the screen are not superfluous. The name of the caller and dialogue also appears in text form with various typography used throughout, which gives the illusion that the audience is an independent observer. 

The tagline for Horchet’s CANAL+ series doesn’t shy away from the unique concept: “Ten found records. Ten different stories. No images. You are alone in the dark.” The French director was inspired by his terrified reaction to a series of 911 calls that he watched on YouTube and the emergency services do factor into Álvarez’s collection of tales. Utilizing devices beyond cell phones is one way to avoid repetition, factoring in walkies, landlines, and other communication tools. The creative sound design takes this into account using familiar electronic noises (my favorite is a rotary phone) and call-waiting tones. Tension is elevated when conversations are interrupted and the dialogue expands beyond two people, including text messages delivered while a character is talking on the phone. Turning the mundane into a chilling experience isn’t easy, but it is an occasion Álvarez rises to. Considering the premise of his 2016 horror feature, Don’t Breathe, utilizes the lack of sight as a weapon (and strength) and subverts the home invasion trope, it is not surprising that the director deftly uses the lack of visuals in Calls to craft an intriguing narrative. Apple TV+ typically releases original content weekly, but the binge format is preferable for a series that will have you clicking ‘next’ as soon as you have finished the first episode.

The length of each short varies from 13 to 21 minutes and some installments are a tad too long, but it does a good job of keeping the viewer interested without the usual visual components. Of course, I would love to see this cast together beyond voice acting (and this is another case of Pedro Pascal sadly keeping his face hidden), but the dynamics are still strong even without that physical connection.

Piece by piece as the mystery unfurls, the overarching connections click into place and the end result is satisfying. Considering the lack of images (other than motion graphics), it is a captivating project that kept me hooked throughout. Humdrum conversations about dinner plans are replaced by discussion upended by an unseen disturbance. Visceral descriptions and disturbing sounds emitted on the other line further add to the unsettling set-up, but it isn’t only the unknown stoking the fire. Betrayal is a theme running throughout and the Twilight Zone-leaning aspects are not solely responsible for throw lives into disarray. Secret events that have been on-going for months have huge consequences too and there is an existential component to be considered too — there are elements that remind me of the recent German Netflix series Dark. There are a couple of tear-inducing moments and Aubrey Plaza’s performance is one that stands out from the impressive pack. At a time when there is a lot of viewing options across an ever-growing number of platforms, it might seem like an odd choice to click play on a show without images but Calls is another example of television’s versatility and ability to surprise.   

All nine episodes will be available to watch Friday, March 26 on Apple TV+.