Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 20, 2020)
Based on the seminal TV series, 1983’s Twilght Zone: The Movie offers an anthology affair. After a quick teaser opening, the film splits into four separate tales, each with a different director.
Time Out (directed by John Landis): angry, bitter bigot Bill Connor (Vic Morrow) finds himself with turned tables. After a lifetime of venom spit at those of different races and backgrounds, he gets transported to various realms and treated like those he hates.
Back in 1983, Zone got promoted with a lot of hype, but the box office failed to live up to those hopes. The film pulled in $29 million and wound up in 25th place for a year, a much worse fate than one might’ve expected.
When remembered in 2020, “Time Out” becomes the main reason why – and it also may offer at least a partial explanation for the film’s box office woes. During the shoot, an accident occurred and a helicopter’s blades killed Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen.
Movies can overcome tragedy like that, but in the case of Zone, the controversial nature of the deaths almost certainly harmed the film. The children were on the set illegally, and allegations arose that the accident occurred due to negligence and Landis’s refusal to follow safety protocols.
We’ll never know whether or not these issues damaged the film at the box office, though it remains highly likely. Even all these decades later, it becomes virtually impossible to view Zone objectively, at least through the “Time Out” sequence.
I felt surprised the filmmakers put it first, though I guess it makes sense. “Time Out” becomes such a cinematic elephant in the room that it needed to either go first or last, and I suspect the producers elected to open Zone with it to get it out of the way. Otherwise audiences would spend the whole movie in anticipation of this infamous segment and not focus on the rest.
Due to these issues, I really do find it tough to critique on its own merits, but if I try, I come up with the view that it doesn’t work. The concept comes with provocative elements, but I can’t call it especially original, as even in 1983, we’d gotten occasional “bigot walks a mile in others’ shoes” stories.
Landis finds no way to bring new life to the concept, and it never makes a ton of sense as depicted. It’s a decent idea with mediocre execution.
Kick the Can (directed by Steven Spielberg): at Sunnyvale Rest Home, the elderly residents lead dull, monotonous lives. When Mr. Bloom (Scatman Crothers) arrives, he brings magic with him that allows them to re-experience their youths.
Spielberg’s worst tendencies take control here, as “Can” becomes overly gooey and sentimental. We get no real story or character development, so we’re stuck with contrived whimsy that grates much more than it enchants.
It’s a Good Life (directed by Joe Dante): After Helen Foley (Kathleen Quinlan) accidentally damages young Anthony’s (Jeremy Licht) bicycle, she gives him a ride home. When they arrive, she finds herself trapped in an alternate reality created in Anthony’s mind.
For its first half, “Life” works well. Dante mixes weirdness with comedy in a satisfying manner that allows the segment to succeed.
However, it loses steam as it goes. Licht doesn’t compare favorably to Billy Mumy’s performance in the original TV episode, and the ending seems goofy and contrived. This becomes half a solid sequence but that’s it.
Footnote: if Ethel’s voice sounds familiar, that’s because Nancy “Bart Simpson” Cartwright plays her.
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (directed by George Miller): During a flight, John Valentine (John Lithgow) sees a mysterious creature on the plane’s wing. It creates damage that threatens the plane, but no one else discerns it so they don’t believe him. John needs to convince them of the truth before the monster crashes the aircraft.
Arguably the most famous segment of the original Twilight Zone TV series, “Nightmare” ends the film on a mediocre note. William Shatner played the main role in the original, and Lithgow seems determined to out-overact the Shat, as he brings a manic performance.
The whole sequence feels cranked to “11”, and it doesn’t work well for the story. Whereas the TV episode felt tight and dramatic, the movie sequence winds up as overcooked and silly.
That goes for Zone as a whole. The film tries so hard to reinvent Rod Serling’s wheel that it never matches up to the simplicity of the TV series. Despite all the talent involved the movie becomes erratic and less than engaging.