In 1983, Warner Brothers released a much anticipated film version of Rod Serling's classic TV series, The Twilight Zone. With two successful young directors attached, Steven Spielberg and John Landis, the project looked like box office gold. However, a tragic accident during the filming that resulted in the deaths of Vic Morrow and two child actors has cast a grim legacy over the production. Nevertheless TZ: The Movie holds up as a curiosity in 1980s pop culture for its wry nostalgia for classic television. For many like myself too young to remember the original series, the film served as introduction to the best anthology series of all time.
An amusing "prologue" with Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks opens the film. On the road late at night, two guys play a TV trivia game to relieve the boredom of the road. They swap stories about how The Twilight Zone influenced their childhood, but unfortunately ends with a cheap piece of schlock horror - not in keeping with Serling's legacy.
The first segment stars Vic Morrow as an angry middle aged man passed over for a promotion. In a bar he goes on a racist rant. Upon leaving, he's transported to Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South for some rough lessons on tolerance. Landis's attempt at social commentary came off as a clumsy liberal sermon.
Spielberg's segment hasn't aged well either. A stranger played by Scatman Crothers arrives at a retirement home and offers the residents a chance to return to their youth. Stereotypes and broad generalizations sink Spielberg's attempt to make a statement on aging.
Joe Dante remade "It's a Good Life." The TV episode starred Bill Mumy as a kid with telekinetic powers. Dante effectively used some creepy special effects with tinges of dark humor. Arguably, it's the most memorable segment.
The last tale, directed by George Miller of Mad Max fame, "Nightmare at 20,000 feet", has Jon Lithgow (reprising a classic William Shatner performance) as a neurotic plane passenger who claims a monster is on the wing. From a teleplay by Richard Matheson, the story plays on the terror of being stuck in claustrophobic space with a crazy person. As a piece of film making it works because Miller let the audience emphasize with Lithgow who delivered a memorable performance.
Rod Serling's imagination continues to inspire. TV shows like The X-Files, Lost, and Breaking Bad owed much to his legacy. Perhaps the time has come for Hollywood to make their own 21st century version of The Twilight Zone with a new crop of directors. But as a piece of 1980s pop culture TZ: The Movie remains worth revisiting, albeit with the knowledge it had the potential to be much better.
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