Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories gets a new coat of paint, but it needs an engine [Review]

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Amazing Stories review: Victoria Pedretti does her best in the Apple TV+ show but the material doesn't give her much to work with.
Victoria Pedretti does her best in Amazing Stories but the material doesn't give her much to work with.
Photo: Apple

Amazing Stories, the Apple TV+ reboot of Steven Spielberg’s 1980s show about all things fantastical, bafflingly kicks off with a limp romantic fantasia. One can only hope that the dull opening episode, a rote time-travel story titled “The Cellar,” does not prove representative of what will follow.

Spielberg created the anthology series Amazing Stories in 1985. It was one of a handful of shrewd moves that, calculated to do so or not, turned his crowd-pleasing style into a brand. Cupertino clearly wanted to capitalize on Spielberg’s reputation as a storyteller. Regrettably, the reboot’s first episode does little but remind us that we’d rather be watching one of his movies instead.

Amazing Stories review

After the successes of Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, he set his sights on racking up producer credits on an impressive array of hits. Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, Joe Dante’s Gremlins, Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future, and Richard Donner’s The Goonies all became indelible additions to his resume as a producer.

All those popular films bear the hallmarks of Spielberg’s influence. The Norman Rockwellian suburban setting, the playful subversions of genre, the periodic winks at the audience that helped codify a language of post-modernism in American cinema — all these things emerge in the more tonally daring projects he couldn’t direct himself. In 1989, he sold the rights to turn his movies into theme park rides at Universal Studios and Disney World, purposely blurring the lines between his cinema and rollercoasters. By 1996, he had his own video game.

In the middle of this, the original Amazing Stories arrived. The seed for the show was planted in 1983 when Spielberg financed and directed a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie. His segment, “Kick the Can,” is the weakest by a mile and shows the director at his treacly worst.

The film became the subject of controversy when co-director John Landis broke shooting safety rules. (Three actors died in a helicopter accident during filming.) Spielberg envisioned Amazing Stories as an anthology just like The Twilight Zone, but this time he’d control everything. Slapping his name above the title meant the Spielberg brand would be broadcast into millions of homes every week.

The Spielberg brand: More trusted than General Electric

It was the first of many television shows he would produce, showing off his image to younger audiences. Like all such endeavors, the original Amazing Stories was a mixed bag. However, the directing talent was unbeatable. Any given week might find Spielberg himself, Dante, Zemeckis, Hooper, Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood or a young Brad Bird behind the camera.

On paper, resurrecting a minor Spielberg show looked like a smart choice for the fledgling Apple TV+ streaming service. There are few brands more trusted in America than Spielberg’s, after all.

Sadly, showrunners Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz (Once Upon a Time, Lost) failed to assemble such an impressive list of directors for the the Amazing Stories. Nor did they hire a cast you could easily advertise. The five-episode series, with new additions coming each of the next four Fridays, is being handled by jobbing TV journeymen like Chris Long, Michael Dinner, Susanna Fogel, Mark Mylod and Sylvain White. That all but guarantees Amazing Stories will progress without developing an aesthetic identity beyond a vague impression of previous Spielberg successes.

It helps if you time travel back to before the invention of cliches

Dylan O'Brien in "The Cellar," the first episode of Apple TV+'s new series Amazing Stories.
Dylan O’Brien stars in “The Cellar,” the first episode of the Apple TV+ reboot of Amazing Stories.
Photo: Apple

The first episode, “The Cellar,” debuted last Friday. Directed by Long and written by American Horror Story scribe Jessica Sharzer, it is a hopelessly dull, shabby-looking and predictable retread of familiar time-travel yarns.

Brothers Sam and Jake Taylor (played by Dylan O’Brien and Micah Stock) are in the house-flipping business. Jake, married with a kid, worries that his younger brother is wasting his life. He sees in his brother the same thing he sees in the farmhouse they’re restoring: potential.

Hopeless at dating and without much in the way of ambition, Sam professes to being happy to coast, even if behind his eyes there’s a sadness that’s unmissable. One night during a thunderstorm, Sam walks past a barometer in the cellar and is mysteriously transported a hundred years into the past. He finds himself in the home of sadly betrothed Evelyn Porter (Victoria Pedretti), whose marriage to a wealthy heel (Gabriel Olds) will solve the lion’s share of her troubles. That she shrinks from her fiance’s touch doesn’t seem to bother anybody. Anybody except Sam, of course.

Sam pins his hopes for returning to the present on re-creating the air pressure conditions from the storm. While he waits for the next thunderstorm, he takes work as a carpenter and courts Evelyn in secret. They fall for each other after he takes her to a speakeasy and forces her to sing “After You’ve Gone” in front of the assembled heathens. The trouble is going to be keeping their love a secret until the next storm hits, so Sam can abscond with Evelyn to a more enlightened time.

Find your inner child, or else

The 50-minute format of Amazing Stories is probably what’s going to sink the Apple TV+ series. It’s too much time to fill to tell a story economically, and it’s too little time to get any real character work done.

The meat of “The Cellar” is a montage of Sam and Evelyn’s secret love in between rainy days, meant to suggest the burning passion that would cause a woman to abandon her reality, not to mention the children of her future husband. Neither O’Brien nor Pedretti seem able to communicate much about their inner lives or their relationship to each other.

Long and Sharzer show their hand too early by breezing past the couple’s introduction. They expect the audience to believe the pair will end up together because that’s what time-traveling attractive people do in stories like this. It’s played as a given that Pedretti will abandon her creepy, rich fiance for the hunky but bland O’Brien. Their relationship, like everything else here, proves perfunctory, expected and boring.

Why reboot Amazing Stories in the first place?

The question showrunners Kitsis and Horowitz apparently never bothered asking themselves is why they were updating Amazing Stories at all. Was it to capture the kind of “gee whiz!” spectacle of the original television show? If so, how could they fail to notice that modern sensibilities have changed so much that a sexless, TV-PG romance between two handsome people simply does not generate enough steam to power an hour of television?

Maybe there is something to the idea of trying once again to sell Spielberg’s earnest Americana to a cynical new audience. But if every episode relies on pretending you don’t know where a story is going, the endeavor is doomed. You can’t amaze audiences with simplicity any longer — Spielberg already made sure of that.

By producing The Animaniacs, Pinky & The Brain, Transformers, Cats and Men in Black, and directing Jurassic Park, Ready Player One, Minority Report and Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg all but ensured that not only have audiences seen everything, they’ve seen characters who’ve seen everything.

Unfortunately, there’s simply nothing in the first episode of the Amazing Stories reboot that you haven’t seen before and better.

Watch: New episodes of Amazing Stories debut Fridays on Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.