1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie is meant to be a tribute to the classic original anthology series. It features four “episodes” and two wrap-around segments, with Burgess Meredith providing opening and closing narration. Each segment is directed by a different director, which probably seemed like a good idea at the time.
Unfortunately, Twilight Zone: The Movie is a bit of a mess. One of the episodes is brilliant. Another one is good up until the final few minutes. Another one is forgettable. And then finally, one of them is next too impossible to objectively watch because of a real-life tragedy.
With a film that varies as wildly in tone and quality as Twilight Zone: The Movie, the only way to really review it is to take a segment at a time:
Something Scary (dir by John Landis)
Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd drive through the desert and discuss the old Twilight Zone TV series. Brooks claims that the show was scary. Aykoyd asks if Brooks wants to see something really scary. This is short but fun. It’s tone doesn’t really go along with the rest of the movie but …. oh well. It made me jump.
Time Out (dir by John Landis)
Vic Morrow plays a racist named Bill Connor who, upon leaving his local bar, finds himself transported to Nazi-occupied France, the deep South, and eventually Vietnam.
How you react to this story will probably depend on how much you know about its backstory. If you don’t know anything about the filming of this sequence, you’ll probably just think it’s a bit heavy-handed and, at times, unintentionally offensive. Twilight Zone often explored themes of prejudice but Time Out just seems to be using racism as a gimmick.
If you do know the story of what happened while this segment was being filmed, it’s difficult to watch. Actor Vic Morrow was killed during filming. His death was the result of a preventable accident that occurred during a scene that was to involve Morrow saving two Vietnamese children from a helicopter attack. The helicopter crashed, killing not only Morrow but the children as well. It was later determined that not only were safety protocols ignored but that Landis had hired the children illegally and was paying them under the table so that he could get around the regulations governing how many hours child actors could work. It’s a tragic story and one that will not leave you as a fan of John Landis’s, regardless of how much you like An American Werewolf in London and Animal House.
Nothing about the segment feels as if it was worth anyone dying for and, to be honest, I’m kind of amazed that it was even included in the finished film.
Kick The Can (dir by Steven Spielberg)
An old man named Mr. Bloom (Scatman Crothers) shows up at Sunnyvale Retirement Home and encourages the residents to play a game of kick the can. Everyone except for Mr. Conroy (Bill Quinn) eventually agrees to take part and, just as in the episode of the Twilight Zone that this segment is based on, everyone becomes young.
However, while the television show ended with the newly young residents all running off and leaving behind the one person who refused to play the game, the movie ends with everyone, with the exception of one man who apparently became a teenager istead of a kid, deciding that they would rather be old and just think young. That really doesn’t make any damn sense but okay.
This segment is unabashedly sentimental and clearly calculated to brings tears to the eyes to the viewers. The problem is that it’s so calculated that you end up resenting both Mr. Bloom and all the old people. One gets the feeling that this segment is more about how we wish old people than how they actually are. It’s very earnest and very Spielbergian but it doesn’t feel much like an episode of The Twilight Zone.
It’s A Good Life (dir by Joe Dante)
A teacher (Kathleen Quinlan) meets a young boy (Jeremy Licht) who has tremendous and frightening powers.
This is a remake of the classic Twilight Zone episode, It’s A Good Life, with the difference being that young Anthony is not holding an entire town hostage but instead just his family. This segment was directed by Joe Dante, who turns the segment into a cartoon, both figuratively and, at one point, literally. That’s not necessarily a complaint. It’s certainly improvement over Spielberg’s sentimental approach to the material. Dante also finds roles for genre vets like Kevin McCarthy, William Schallert, and Dick Miller and he provides some memorably over-the-top visuals.
The main problem with this segment is the ending, in which Anthony suddenly reveals that he’s not really that bad and just wants to be treated normally, which doesn’t make much sense. I mean, if you want to be treated normally, maybe don’t zap your sister in a cartoon. The teacher agrees to teach Anthony how to be a normal boy and again, what the Hell? The original It’s A Good Life worked because, like any child, Anthony had no conception of how adults felt about him. In the movie version, he’s suddenly wracked with guilt and it’s far less effective. It feels like a cop out.
Still, up until that ending, It’s A Good Life worked well as a satire of the perfect American family.
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (dir by George Miller)
In this remake of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, John Lithgow steps into the role that was originally played by William Shatner. He plays a man who, while attempting to conquer his fear of flying, sees a gremlin on the wing of his airplane. Unfortunately, he can’t get anyone else on the plane to believe him.
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is the best of the four main segments. It’s also the one that sticks closest to its source material. Director George Miller (yes, of Mad Max fame) doesn’t try to improve on the material because he seems to understand that it works perfectly the way it is. John Lithgow is also perfectly cast in the lead role, perfectly capturing his increasing desperation. The one change that Miller does make is that, as opposed in the TV show, the gremlin actually seems to be taunting John Lithgow at time and it works wonderfully. Not only is Lithgow trying to save the plane, he’s also trying to defeat a bully.
Something Scarier (dir by John Landis)
Dan Aykroyd’s back as an ambulance driver, still asking his passenger if he wants to see something really scary. It’s an okay ending but it does kind of lessen the impact of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.