It occurred to me while I was watching The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) that Jonathan Rosenbaum is totally right about Joe Dante. He IS Steven Spielberg's shadow self, his id, and his conscience all rolled into one. Never has that been more apparent than here, where Spielberg's segment wallows in childhood and childishness, and where Dante's segment, immediately afterward, acts as a scold and rebuke.
Spielberg's segment is a mawkish rendering of "Kick the Can," in which a magical "other," in this case a magical black man, sweeps into the Sunnyvale Rest Home and offers the residents there a return to their youth. In the bargain, it succeeds in infantilizing it's various characters, even once they shake off their youth. Significantly, one of the characters takes on the mantle of Peter Pan, and stands in for the director himself, if you like. Leaving aside the risible "magical other" archetype, the whole enterprise is Spielberg at his most saccharine.
Dante's segment, a revisiting of Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life," is one of Dante's most thoughtful films. Oh, the anarchic, cartoon sensibility is there, as is the raft of reflexive references to other films (including one that is prescient, in which Nancy Cartwright, years away from being the voice of Bart Simpson, is consigned to a cartoon land where she is devoured), but Dante is clear-eyed about children. They can be absolute monsters. Children dream as children, Dante seems to be saying, but there comes a time when one must put away childish things , or, better still, channel childhood into adult pursuits. Interestingly, Dante's segment is more likely to appeal to kids, festooned as it is with bizarre special effects from mad genius Rob Bottin.
The other two segments seem disconnected from Spielbergiana, which is good, I guess.
The first segment, in which a racist is projected back in time into the role of all of the minorities he hates at the point of their most extreme persecutions, is lame, but it's lame in that preachy sort of way that Rod Serling's preachiest TZ episodes are preachy, so I guess it's of a piece with the show. The filmmakers might have been better served by adapting, say, "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" than they are by coming up with this ham-handed racial parable. John Landis isn't much of a writer, and omitting anything actually written by Serling himself in favor of Landis strikes me as wrong-headed. Vic Morrow isn't asked to reach beyond the racist asshole he played in Humanoids from the Deep a couple of years earlier.
"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", the final segment, is a corker, due to a crackerjack story by Richard Matheson, a frantic and brilliant performance by John Lithgow, and direction by George Miller that ratchets up the suspense with methodical, surgical precision. Lithgow plays a terrified airplane passenger who spies a malevolent gremlin out on the wing of the plane. The gremlin is sabotaging the engines and no one will believe Lithgow's character. Alone of all the segments here, the final segment understands the appeal of the show, leaving the audience with a whip of the tail that says "gotcha!"
On the whole, this is a shambolic enterprise, and one that only manages to capture the feel of the original when the series' best writer, Matheson, had a direct hand in things. Matheson wrote the screenplays for the second and third segments; the second segement was originally written by Matheson for the TV show, but it was rewritten here by Melissa Mathison (Spielberg's screenwriter for E.T.). There is an odd disconnect in the second two segements though. They're undeniably the best parts of this movie, but they aren't particularly Twilight Zone-ish. They remind me more of The Outer Limits, a show that was scrupulous in its insistence that the audience get a monster out of the bargain. Oh, the provenance is there, but it's an odd though in my brain that I can't shake, a problem exacerbated by the film itself when it explicitly references The Outer Limits in the prologue. Still, this movie has problems all its own, so maybe it's best to take it on its own terms.