This is one of those movies that has conversations dominated by something outside of it, the deaths of Vic Morrow, Renee Shin Chen, and Myca Dinh Le. You have to talk about it in conjunction with this movie not just because it happened while filming but, less importantly, because it negatively affected two of the segments in the film. If you want to just talk about the film itself without bringing anything else into it, you end up without real explanations for why the first two segments feel oddly incomplete.
So, John Landis directed the prologue and the first segment titled “Out of Time”. In that segment, Vic Morrow plays Bill Connor, a bigot who blames people not like himself for all of his setbacks. He then gets transported through time to Nazi Germany, the Jim Crow South, and Vietnam where he steps into the shoes of the persecuted class. In the Vietnam section, he was supposed to save two young Vietnamese children from a helicopter attack, but the attack went wrong and all three died horribly. In order to salvage what they had, Landis cut out a third of the segment. Steven Spielberg, producer and director of the second segment, was disgusted by the whole thing, considered cancelling everything, and then just did the bare minimum to finish the film, including spending a grand 6 days on his own segment. So, why do the first two segments feel oddly incomplete? Because the first one is outright incomplete and the second one didn’t get the kind of attention from Spielberg that could have addressed its issues. The other two segments, directed by younger, hungrier directors Joe Dante and George Miller, maintain the kind of craft that was probably supposed to go into the whole project.
So, I think Ebert’s approach to this was rational: grade each segment individually. So, I’m gonna do that.
The prologue and “Out of Time” were directed by Landis. “Out of Time” is one of those morality tales, but this one feels off. It’s not just the missing third but the disconnect between Bill Connor’s sins and his punishment. He’s a bigot, but all he does is grouse about it. He’s a pathetic little man who can’t get ahead in the world and blames it on the Jews, the Blacks, and the Asians. He doesn’t actually, you know, do anything before he gets swept up in his little adventure in the Twilight Zone. He doesn’t lead a makeshift posse against the Jewish man who got the promotion over him. He just complains about it in a bar within earshot of people who don’t appreciate it. This could all be fine if the segment ended with Connor learning his lesson and just accepting that his missed promotion had nothing to do with race, but no, he gets literally carted away in a train car bound for Auschwitz. That seems, you know, really disproportionate for what essentially amounts to badthink thought crime. This one rubs me the wrong way.
The second segment, “Kick the Can”, is a bit better, but this is lazy Spielberg. As I wrote before, Spielberg just wanted out of this commitment, so he changed what story he was going to do to this very simple, two set piece about being a child again. This is stock Spielberg. At an old folk’s home, Mr. Bloom talks about having the outlook of a child by maintaining play. He’s apparently magic and turns all but one of the people in the home into children for a night. Most of them learn to appreciate their time and choose to become old people again (their reasoning seems thin), and one, a Douglas Fairbanks wannabe, chooses to stay young. It’s rote and not really helped by the fact that it is both too short and has too many characters. They’re visually distinctive but they still end up just meshing together. There’s nothing particularly bad about the piece, but there’s nothing particularly good about it either. Scatman Crothers has a wonderful smile, though.
The third segment, “It’s a Good Life” is where it finally gets good. Joe Dante, fresh off of his successful The Howling but far from an established talent, imbues his segment with real atmosphere and has the time to let things play out well. It’s the story of Anthony, a boy who can wish anything into existence, and Helen, a school teacher passing through that gets caught in Anthony’s trap, a trap that he’s caught several other people in. Anthony has built a nightmare world of cartoon logic that keeps his prisoners perpetual terror, never knowing when he’ll decide to punish them like his real sister whom he crippled and muted by taking away her mouth leaving just a fleshy spot behind. The build up around all of this is really good as we use Helen as our point of view character, steadily finding out more and more until Anthony uses his powers to the utmost. It’s a very solid and well built story.
Finally, the fourth segment, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, directed by George Miller fresh off the original Mad Max, is a fantastic piece of genre filmmaking. John Valentine is a rational man who writes textbooks on microchips and has an incredible fear of flying. The lightning storm they’re flying through doesn’t help. He has trouble calming down, but once he does he sees a creature on the wing of the plane, tearing at the engine. He can’t get anyone to believe him, eventually stealing a gun from an FAA marshal, shooting through the window, and delaying the creature’s work long enough for the plane to safely land. What makes the story work here is the strong character work that goes into Valentine, John Lithgow’s amazingly manic performance, and the frenetic filmmaking that helps sell the emotions that Valentine is going through to the audience. It’s largely handheld in a small space, but the movement calms down when he does and ramps up along with him. It’s a thrill ride that works from beginning to end, and it is the best segment in the film.
Overall, the anthology of Twilight Zone remakes and pseudo-remake is a real mixed bag. Part of that is definitely a direct result of the tragedy that claimed three lives on set, and it’s just part of the package now. It’s impossible to dismiss. Still, the second half does allow to emerging talents some space to play with familiar material, producing quality short films. They stand alone as entertaining updates to old episodes. Perhaps the movie could have been more special with only new material instead of remakes, but that’s not the homage that they wanted.
“Out of Time”: 1/4
“Kick the Can”: 2/4
“It’s a Good Life”: 3.5/4
“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”: 4/4