|Amazing Stories: The Complete First Season (1985)
Starring: Kevin Costner, Kiefer Sutherland, Gregory Hines, Sid Caesar, Dom DeLuise, Loni Anderson, Harvey Keitel, Beau Bridges, Charlie Sheen, Mark Hamill, Sam Waterston, Tim Robbins, Eve Arden, John Lithgow, Andrew McCarthy
Director: Various, including Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese
In 1985, Steven Spielberg was the director.
He’d done “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in the mid-‘70s, survived the creative bellyflop of “1941” by following it with “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in 1981, then topped it the following year with “E.T..” He was, in the eyes of the world, incapable of doing any wrong – and that includes “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” which is a much better film than you remember it being – so immediately before setting off on a voyage to The Land of Serious Directors with “The Color Purple,” Spielberg took on a little vanity project called…”Amazing Stories.”
Given that one of his earliest directorial efforts was for Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery,” it’s no surprise that Spielberg would have a fondness for anthology series, so he took it upon himself to try and bring back the genre. “Amazing Stories,” its title a throwback to the sci-fi/fantasy pulp magazines of the ‘30s and ‘40s, had everyone excited in 1985; critics, however, were disappointed with its unevenness…but as a 15-year-old fan of just about everything in the man’s oeuvre, I attempted to tune in every week (barring, of course, those evenings when my parents had other plans).
Twenty years later, the series’ first season has made it to DVD, and…well, now that I’m a 35-year-old critic, I have to admit, I kinda see what those guys were on about back then.
As evidenced by the computer-animated opening credits (which, in ’85, probably cost about a million bucks, even though nowadays most of us could probably reproduce them in the privacy of our own homes), many of the episodes of “Amazing Stories” utilize then-current special effects, but many – like the train in the show’s premiere episode (the Spielberg-directed “Ghost Train”) or the magic cards in “Mr. Magic” – now look rather dated. In the case of “The Mission,” one of the season’s hour-long entries, there’s a tremendous dramatic build up, thanks to great performances by Kevin Costner and Kiefer Sutherland, to an ultimately silly F/X payoff. And speaking of silly, “The Main Attraction” teeters between likeably goofy and over-the-top slapstick…but since one of the guilty parties went on to create “The Incredibles” (Brad Bird was co-writer of the episode), I guess we should say it’s the former more than the latter.
The most successful episodes are the ones that play it simple. “Dorothy and Ben,” where a man awakes from a 40-year coma to find he can telepathically communicate with a comatose little girl, is touching without the slightest hint of a special effect; likewise “The Amazing Falsworth,” where a psychic with a nightclub act finds himself accidentally tapping into the thoughts of a serial killer. The closest thing to a special effect in the touching “No Day at the Beach” is that it’s filmed in black and white, but what’s most notable about it is that it takes place during D-Day, an event which Spielberg would revisit in a decidedly more dramatic fashion in “Saving Private Ryan.” Similarly, “Secret Cinema” bears a striking resemblance to the goings-on of “The Truman Show,” though the former is considerably more eccentric, thanks to Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov (of “Eating Raoul” fame).Special features are limited to 20 minutes of deleted scenes from various episodes. The ones that prove the most interesting are those from “Vanessa in the Garden,” the segment directed by Clint Eastwood; each one is a fully realized scene rather than just a half-finished snippet, hinting at the auteur he was on his way to becoming. It’s a bit odd…if telling…that Spielberg offered up neither commentary nor even so much as a five-minute sit-down to talk about the show; maybe he was as disappointed by it as the critics were, but it’s unfair to completely write off “Amazing Stories” as “Spielberg’s Folly.” The combination of the handful of true gems and the amusement value of seeing several stars in their younger days makes the show more than worth checking out.