Amazing Stories ends with a bang, should have settled for a whimper [Review]

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Amazing Stories’ season finale “The Rift” serves as a case study into the rebooted show’s highs and lows. With its five-episode run complete, the ways in which the Apple TV+ anthology series succeeded — and the ways it failed to cohere — become more obvious than ever.

“The Rift” was directed by Mark Mylod and written by Don Handfield and Richard Rayner (co-creators of History Channel’s Knightfall). However, the episode takes more cues from executive producer Steven Spielberg than nearly any of the preceding entries, to both its detriment and its occasional benefit. The real MVP of the piece, however, is the perpetually underrated Kerry Bishé.

Amazing Stories: ‘The Rift’ review

“The Rift” finds Bishé playing single stepmom Mary Ann on the most important errand of her life. She’s transporting her stepson Elijah (Duncan Joiner) to his aunt in Indiana after his father, her husband, is killed in action. Elijah does not know she plans to leave him there so she can start her life over in California. Their relationship is strained (he tellingly calls Mary Ann by her first name) but they’ve been each others’ only lifelines for some time now. She’s been hiding the separation from him for fear it’ll cause them both to break down. That’s when “The Rift” opens.

While driving through Ohio, they make a wrong turn just in time for a World War II fighter plane to come roaring out of the sky and crash right in front of them. Mary Ann helps the pilot (Austin Stowell) from the wreckage and he tells her that the last thing he remembers is being in a dogfight over Rangoon in the early 1940s. No sooner do she and Elijah discover that something supernatural is afoot than the military comes riding into town, led by besuited agent Bill Kaminski (Edward Burns), to clean up and relieve the local police of control. This is not the first time something like this has happened, and there’s a ticking clock with regard to returning the downed pilot to his own time.

Crying time

Amazing Stories review: Edward Burns does what he does best: stand around looking inoffensively handsome and normal.Edward Burns does what he does best: stand around looking inoffensively handsome and normal.
Photo: Apple TV+

Rayner and Handfield overemphasize the maudlin beats a premise like this provides. It’s not enough that a downed WWII fighter pilot is brought to the future in time to say goodbye to his aged former girlfriend, left behind when he went to fight the great war. No, there also has to be similarities between the circumstances of the fatherless child and the man out of time. All that would be fair enough, but the dialogue goes well out of its way to make sure we don’t miss the connection.

It’s a shame, too. Before Stowell and Joiner are called upon to point out the themes for the people in the cheap seats, the episode had been much more subtle. Mylod introduces the pilot to the world of tomorrow in one excellent shot of him on the street as he passes modern cars and a girl on her phone, and then cuts to Stowell’s reaction. Just like that, we’re told everything we need to know about how he’s processing the scenery.

Classic Spielberg but …

Mylod and company didn’t need to underline anything further. They could have fallen back on Bishé’s performance rather than using on-the-nose dialogue from less-interesting actors. When Elijah finds out that Mary Ann plans to leave him, her resolve cracks and she delivers a perfectly judged emotional outpouring. It’s quietly devastating, and the show should have taken its cues from her work. Why spring for Edward Burns, who does little but stand around and deliver exposition, when all he does is take screen time from Bishé?

The mixture of old-timey technology, modern government conspiracy, lost love, and family relationships in need of repairs is classic Spielberg. But its biggest victories are its smallest. Just watching Bishé’s face as she confesses she can’t look at her stepson without seeing the face of her dead husband is more spectacle than money could buy.

Watch on: Apple TV+ (subscription required)

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.

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