Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

2017 #129
Joe Dante, John Landis, George Miller & Steven Spielberg | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG

Twilight Zone: The Movie

I can’t remember when I first heard of Twilight Zone: The Movie — certainly not until sometime this millennium — but I do remember being surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. Why wasn’t it more often talked about? After all, here’s a film based on a classic TV series, directed by some of the hottest genre filmmakers of the time: John Landis just after An American Werewolf in London; Joe Dante just before Gremlins; George Miller fresh from Mad Max 2; and, most of all, Steven Spielberg, coming off a run that encompassed Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. I mean, Jesus, even if the movie wasn’t great then surely it should be well-known! It was only later still that I learnt about the infamous helicopter crash. Couple that with a mediocre critical reception and relatively poor box office results, and suddenly it’s no wonder no one ever talked about the film. My viewing of it was primarily motivated by attempting to complete the filmographies of Spielberg and Miller, but I’m glad I did because, on the whole, I rather enjoyed it.

As the original Twilight Zone was an anthology series, so is the movie — hence having four directors. Although the original plan was to have some characters crop up in each segment, thereby linking them all together, that idea didn’t come off. The end result, then, is really just five sci-fi/fantasy/horror short films stuck together — composer Jerry Goldsmith is the only key crew member to work across more than two segments. The advantage of that as a viewer is, if you don’t like one story, there’ll be another along before you know it. Because of that, I’ll take each part in turn.

The Trump Zone

The film begins with a prologue, directed by John Landis, featuring Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd as a driver and a hitchhiker chatting about classic TV and scary stories. Although obviously the shortest segment, it’s good fun and sets a kind of comic tone — not one the rest of the film follows, to be fair, but it’s kind of effective in that it has a knowing wink to the audience: “we all know The Twilight Zone is a TV show. Now, here are four stories from it.”

Landis also directs the first full segment, Time Out, the only one of the four not adapted from an original TV episode. Basically, it’s about a Trump supporter. You might not have noticed that if watching before last year, for obvious reasons, but viewed now it’s kind of hard to miss. What’s depressing it that the point of the film is this guy’s views are outdated in 1983, and yet you have Trumpers spouting the same shit in 2017, three-and-a-half decades later. That aside, as a short moral parable it’s effective. It doesn’t have the ending that was scripted (thanks to the aforementioned tragedy), but I think the conclusion it does have is actually more appropriate. It feels kind of wrong to take that view, because the only reason it was changed was that terrible accident. Obviously it wasn’t worth it just for this segment to have a better ending, but there it is.

Scary kid? Check.

Segment two, Kick the Can, is Spielberg’s, and anyone familiar with his oeuvre — and the criticism of it — will see that right away: it’s shot in nostalgic golden hues and contains positive, sentimental moral lessons. In fact, it’s so cloyingly sweet, it’s like a parody of Spielberg’s worst excesses. It was originally intended to be the last film in the movie, and you can see why: it would’ve formed a positive, upbeat finale to the picture. I’m not sure why they moved it — possibly because they felt it was the least-good. That’s what a fair few critics believe, anyway.

Personally, segment three was my least favourite. This is Joe Dante’s short, titled It’s a Good Life, and is about a woman who accidentally knocks a boy off his bike, gives him a lift home, and finds a pretty strange situation therein. I found it to be kind of aimless; weird for the sake of weird. It’s prettily designed and shot, with bold cartoon colours, but if I watched the film again I’d give serious thought to just skipping it.

The final segment remakes arguably the most famous Twilight Zone episode: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. It’s about a paranoid airplane passenger on a turbulent flight, who thinks he sees a monster on the wing. Naturally, no one believes him. I’ve not seen the original version so can’t compare, but director George Miller and star John Lithgow do a fantastic job of realising Richard Matheson’s story, loading it with tension and uncertainty — is it actually all in the passenger’s head? And if it isn’t, can they survive?

Fear of flying

On the whole, I liked Twilight Zone: The Movie more than I’d expected I would. Nonetheless, as a series of shorts, it’s destined to be a footnote in the career of all involved (even Landis has done a fair job of moving on from the controversy — as I said, I hadn’t even heard about it until relatively recently). The only truly great segment is Miller’s finale, but the others all have elements that make them worth a look.

4 out of 5

6 thoughts on “Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

  1. Always liked this one, but then I’ve gone back and bought up large swathes of the original series – so many good episodes, a standard of quality that’s rarely bettered, in fairness a lot that tapped into the sensibilities of the time it was made, especially those playing on Cold War paranoia, but deservedly seen as a classic show and ripe for the big screen update it received here. I like it very much that the directors here, many at the top of their game at the time, would no doubt have grown up watching the show and were influenced by it, also the ever welcome presence of Richard Matheson, one of my favourite speculative fiction authors.

    As for the film, it’s an uneven experience and for me the second half works better than the first. Landis’s segment, tragic background aside, is just about a bigot getting his comeuppance, and as you say the second is treacly sentimentality, okay but nothing more than that (though the older I get the more I appreciate it). Contrary to you I love the third part, a remake of one of the classic and more memorable episodes and Dante pulls out all the stops in steadily ramping up the weirdness. The bit where the girl gets sucked into the cartoon, which turns those cutesy 1930s images into an animated nightmare…. wow. Jerry Goldsmith’s score helps this one a lot. Miller gets the plum job of remaking NIGHTMARE AT 20,000 FEET and doesn’t muck it up, helped along by a top, never-more-terrified performance by John Lithgow, of course. It’s well worth seeking out the original episode, in this instance starring William Shatner and a gremlin that does not hold up (imagine the guy in the bear costume at the climax of THE SHINING), but still great fun, and Shatner’s excellent.

    I suppose it’s a personal thing – as a fan of the show there are many others I would rather have seen done e.g. if Spielberg wanted to demonstrate his emotional film making I would have preferred him to do A STOP AT WILLOUGHBY from series one, a paean to a man in personal and professional distress reaching into the past and simpler times. But I’m sure we can all nominate our favourites. There are so many classics. On the whole a decent noble-minded tribute and I’m glad you got a chance to watch the film and cover it here. You wanna see something really scary…?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like the points made by the first two shorts, but they are indeed quite straightforward. I wonder if the first is simply more satisfying now, in the era of Trump. The second is kind of obscured by all the Spielberginess. I’ve never been as adverse to his sentimental streak as some people, but here it’s at its most extreme.

      I’ve always wanted to check out the original series — if they’d bundled those Blu-rays into a convenient and appealingly-priced complete series set, I’d probably have bought it — but then it would no doubt sit on my shelf. So much TV to watch, so little time.

      Liked by 1 person

      • If you’re really interested in sampling a few then I think most of the vintage series is available on YouTube, and there are definitely some belting episodes. But you’re right. There’s stacks of TV I keep meaning to catch up on yet so little time to do so, and they keep making more of it!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. As someone who watched this year’s ago back in the VHS era, I have to say that this really hasn’t aged well at all, and repeat viewings only reinforce contempt. Your review coming to it as a fresh observer is interesting. I mean, I quite liked it too back in the day. What alarms me now is how much of a TV episode feel the segments have- it hardly seems a theatrical release at all. Worst of all, it lacks the mood and quality of the original TV show- which begs the question, what was the point? Better to have picked one original story and expanded it to a ninety-minute film I think. Use an original segment as a jumping off point. Tricky, as the the TV show struggled with expanding its stories to an hour, but at least it would been something to differentiate the film from the TV show and an increase in scale to it.

    Would have pre-empted M Night Shyamalan’s whole filmography too…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I guess that’s what they’re trying to do with CloverfieldTwilight Zone: The Series of Movies. With mixed success thus far, I’d say.

      Even thinking back on it for this review I liked it a bit less, so I can believe it doesn’t withstand repeat viewings. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is brilliant, but if the original is too then do you need the movie? Especially when the other segments are more take-it-or-leave-it. So, I liked the film, but now that I’ve seen it, I don’t know if I’ll ever bother again.


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