Monday, March 21, 2011

There's a Signpost Up Ahead

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.


Tylerandjack said...

I think it is either a sign of getting old or getting overly sentimental but I certainly don't hate the "Kick The Can" sequence as much as I used to. It's definitely the weakest story though. And I LOVE that intro. Used to scare the pants off me every single time.

cinemarchaeologist said...

There probably aren't adequate words to express my profound love of the Twilight Zone, but this movie is a stinker--an ill-conceived, poorly executed waste of space.

The intro--which is probably only about 10 minutes long--was easily the high point of the movie. Never a good sign, but sometimes, a strong enough opening tacked on to a lousy picture (--cough--SAVING PRIVATE RYAN--cough--) can dazzle enough viewers into judging less harshly that which follows.

That's not the case, here. Of the various segments, I'd rank the Landis one as the best, and by a pretty wide margin, but I don't really disagree with any of your criticism of it. It comes out on top for me by default. For all of its weaknesses, it is, as you say, very much in keeping with the spirit of TZ. The other segments show no understanding of what TZ was, or what made it work, and are, on their own merits, just godawful.

The Dante and Miller segments remade genuine classics; the took the originals, dumbed them down, and turned them into big, loud effects shows. I'm surprised by your kinder words toward the Dante piece--all it did was add noise, tons of special effects, and a bad ending to the original.

Dante admits he was just a hired gun on the project. He originally wanted to end his segment with everyone but the teacher dying. Then, while wandering on the road, she would be picked up by a concerned Dan Akroyd. That was vetoed in favor of the shitty Spielberg ending it has now.

Miller, in his segment, reworked every element of Richard Matheson's script, destroying it in the process. The nervous fellow on the plane had originally just been released from a mental institution. There was a real question, right until the very end, about whether he was just imagining things. He questions his own sanity throughout, and the story ended with him convinced he had overcome his previous instability. The final Miller version eliminates all of this, and the whole point of the story with it. (The original tv version was also aided by the fact that the gremlin looked ridiculous, and moved in defiance of physics--the much more organic and credible version in the film works against this.)

Spielberg can at least say he was working from one of the weaker TZ episodes, but he doesn't have being assigned it as an excuse--he went after it with enthusiasm. He'd just done children in E.T., and he wanted to do old people in TZ. He managed to take a poor story and make it even worse.

The '80s "second edition" of TZ was launched, on tv, not long after this movie, and, guided by hands with some understanding of the concept, got it right.

Matthew Bradley said...

Just to clarify the nature of Matheson's involvement in the film: he originally wrote all but the Landis segment, although "Kick the Can" and "Nightmare at 20,00 Feet" were respectively rewritten by Mathison (under the pseudonym Josh Rogan) and Miller. Cinemarchaeologist is correct that Miller's rewrite eliminated the plot point of the character's having had a nervous breakdown prior to the flight and thus questioning his own sanity. "It's a Good Life" was the only Matheson script left largely intact. "Kick the Can" had been written for the series not by Matheson but by his friend and colleague George Clayton Johnson, who also had a hand in the new ending for the film version. Although Landis's "Time Out" was not a remake per se, it does use the same gimmick as Serling's third-season episode "A Quality of Mercy." In OUTRAGEOUS CONDUCT, their account of the tragedy and trial involving Morrow's death, Stephen Farber and Marc Green stated that a remake of "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" was in fact considered for the film, but Matheson told me he was unaware of this. For further information, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (