Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XI: Not only of sight and sound, but of mind


Plumbing his childhood once again, we find Spielberg teaming up with his pal John Landis, as well as Australian action-monger George Miller and rising schlockmeister Joe Dante, in order to bring their beloved TV show back to life.  You'll soon find yourself intently wishing that Spielberg, and especially Landis, hadn't bothered at all.  But then again, there's Miller and Dante, and what you wind up with is an anthology movie that averages out to legitimately awesomeparticularly if you don't look too closely at any of the math you used to arrive at that conclusion.

Directed by John Landis (Prologue, "Time Out"), Steven Spielberg ("Kick the Can"), Joe Dante ("It's a Good Life"), and George Miller ("Nightmare at 20,000 Feet")
Written by John Landis (Prologue, "Time Out"), George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, and Melissa Mathison ("Kick the Can"), Jerome Bixby and Richard Matheson ("It's a Good Life"), and Richard Matheson ("Nightmare at 20,000 Feet")
Prologue: Albert Brooks (The Driver) and Dan Akroyd (The Passenger)
"Time Out": Vic Morrow (Bill Connor)
"Kick the Can": Scatman Crothers (Mr. Bloom)
"It's a Good Life": Kathleen Quinlan (Helen Foley) and Jeremy Licht (Anthony)
"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet": John Lithgow (John Valentine)
...and Burgess Meredith (The Narrator)

Spoiler alert: moderate

There aren't many shows better than Rod Serling's seminal anthology series The Twilight Zone, which earned its classic status almost immediately with its winning combination of quasi-literary sophistication, twisty screenwriting, and whole heaping helpings of social commentary.  Of course, about half the time, it was just as dumbassed and hamfisted as any of its drive-in predecessors; but that's inevitably what happens when you have to fill a season's worth of episodes for five years running, and also when each episode (discounting Season 4, anyway) only ran half an hour, less commercials.  On the other hand, their brevity was also the soul of their substantial witfor brevity permitted some of the most singleminded stories ever conceived to be told in their most natural form.

So, when Steven Spielberg and John Landis started knocking around the idea of doing a Twilight Zone movie (which they would, ingeniously, entitle Twilight Zone: The Movie), it obviously had to be an anthology film, thereby retaining all the integrity of the short, punchy originals.  (Made by two proven directors and two hot newcomers, it should have avoided the typical anthology curse, as well: namely, weak segments dragging down the good ones.  We'll see that it did not.)

What's not entirely clear to me, however, is why the four segments of the film needed to each be remakes of Zone episodes, rather than completely new short films in the Zone style.  But that's what they did.  And thus there's a certain pointlessness to The Moviean impression even harder to get around today, where the original series is so easily available that if I ever desire to watch classic Twilight Zone (as I often do), all I need to do is turn on Netflix.  (But then, as the rumor goes, the biggest reason Spielberg sought to produce a Twilight Zone film was not because he wanted to resurrect his favorite childhood TV program, but because he needed an excuse to give writer-extraordinaire Richard Matheson a paycheck in exchange for nearly no work.  Essentially, this would serve as a disguised settlement for all the lawsuit noises Matheson had been making over Poltergeistwhich itself had been rather transparently inspired by Matheson's Zone episode, "Little Girl Lost.")

In any event, maybe it's for the best that no one bothered trying to come up with anything new, given that the quality of each individual segment tracks closely with the quality of the original episode upon which it's based, whereas the most original of the four segments (not counting the Prologue, whichas far as I can tellwas indeed created from whole cloth) is also by far the worst.

But first, we have that wonderful Prologue, directed by Landis, which is as outright charming as Twilight Zone: The Movie ever getsto be clear, it gets much scarier, and significantly better, but it hardly gets more fun.  We begin with two men, a driver and his passenger, on a voyage through the night.  The driver, bored, toys with his passenger, turning off his headlights; and they drive through the lethal darkness for as long as the passenger can stand it.  We get the impression that our driver might have diabolical plans for his guest; but our passenger, not half so innocent as he first appeared, asks the driver, "You wanna see something really scary?"

It was, I imagine, totally unintentional that the one-upsmanship of the two men so perfectly reflects the structure of the film to come, but it does: for the first half of Twilight Zone: The Movie is childish, obnoxious garbage, delivered by a pair of slack, uninspired creators resting on their laurels; while the second half is enthralling, high-test horror, offered up by a pair of filmmakers far too hungry and ambitious to give this film anything but their best possible effort.

This brings us to the credits, wherein our Narrator drops an important clue about the dimension we've just entered.  (And it's at this point that I need to confess my serious disappointment that the opening credits of The Movie, whichdespite being created two decades laterdon't manage to be as psychedelically spectacular as some of the op-art masterpieces that opened the TV show.  Meanwhile, it's also disappointing that Serling, who was also the show's narrator, was long dead by 1983but I suppose that's not The Movie's fault.  Instead, we get the star of "Time Enough At Last," Burgess Meredithwho might be the other voice most closely associated with the Zone, although he is in no sense an adequate replacement.)

Finally, then, we arrive at the meat of The Movie, beginning with its first segment, "Time Out," also by Landis, and based (very loosely) on "A Quality of Mercy," which surely does no favors to "A Quality of Mercy," insofar as "Time Out" is shit.  I don't imagine the goal was to demonstrate what the Zone could be at its most mediocre and didactic.  Unfortunately, however, that's exactly what Landis did, and "Time Out" is absolutely nothing but an after-school special gussied up with a dull fantasy conceit and a gloss of poetic justice.

So, let's meet Bill Connor, a loudmouthed Trumpenproletarian who's just lost out on a promotion toget thisa Jew.  Commiserating with his less-stridently-racist pals at a bar, Connor runs through his laundry list of negative personality traits, and ultimately gets so worked up about people who aren't straight WASP males that he storms outside, stepping right into a time warp that takes him on a mystery tour through a trio of ironic historical scenarios, where he presently finds that he's the one who's been recast as the undesirable Other.

And Jesus Christ, is it awful: on-the-nose in every possible way that propaganda could possibly be, there is hardly a whiff of either entertainment or edification to be derived from this inutterably lazy scenario.  It starts stagebound and only gets faker from there, cresting with a scene of American soldiers in Vietnam, blaring the most obvious possible Hendrixand from no apparent source, either, even though it's clearly diegeticduring a Goddamned night patrol.  (Not content to be merely boring, the sequence also includes an eye-rolling reference to Landis' Animal House.)  The saving grace, such as it is, is that "Time Out" is short, and ends on a nicely dark note of crueltybut, of course, we shouldn't overlook the reason that "Time Out" is the shortest of the segments, which, if I were easily biased, would make me really despise it.

Infamously, three people died to make this segment (including its leading man Vic Morrow, when a helicopter fell on his head).  Not to say any movie is really worth a human lifelet alone the lives of the two children whom Landis damn near straight-up manslaughtered, with his callous disregard for labor laws and the dictatorial manner with which he deflected concerns about on-set safetybut "Time Out" takes on the pall of outright absurdist tragedy when you discover that the redemptive climax originally planned for the piece would probably only have made this already useless thing even worse.

Thus, we move on to "Kick the Can," Spielberg's contribution, which is comforting, in that it is merely lame.  Mr. Bloom, a magical man of the African-American persuasion, has recently checked into Sunnyvale, a retirement home.  He immediately proves to be a disruptive but intoxicating influence, as he stokes within Sunnyvale's sad old residents a longing to once again be young.  And he has just the ticket: a mystical game of kick the can that returns his new friends to a state of childhood.  (The rules about exactly which part of your childhood to which it returns you might be inconsistently applied, but at this point it's not too much of a stretch to assume the aluminium totem can also tell how young you've wished to be.)  Anyway, between the cinematography, suffused with golden light, and the general high energy of the piece, you might not even notice that the child actors (and just a year after E.T.!) are just abysmally bad, with Spielberg encouraging them to play up the broadest, dumbest aspects of the already broad and dumb performances of their geriatric doppelgangers.  (One of them retrenches into what is supposed to be an impression of his beloved swashbuckler, Douglas Fairbanks, although this proves mainly that the child had never heard of him before Spielberg read him the script.)

It's unbelievably anodyne, yes, but it doesn't get terrible until our cast realizes that they actually preferred being physically broken and very, very close to death.  Their reasons for this amount, on the one hand, to little more than incredibly piddly logistical objections ("Who will take care of us?"), and, on the other, to objections that make it sound like what they truly craved was only the sweet release of oblivion ("But I'll never meet my dead husband this time!").  Then there's the woman who says she'd planned to see Halley's Comet at age 80, which Bloom notes is only two birthdays awayyet, if you look at her, you are not reassured that she's going to actually make this appointment, even if you somehow accepted her idiotic reasoning in the first place.  Basically, what we have is a miracle storynot unlike E.T.except that here all but one of our heroes spit directly into their miracle's stupid face.  That last onethe Fairbanks aficionadotakes some of the sting out of Spielberg's dubious moral ("You're only as young as you feel"), but hardly all of it. Furthermore, there's a part where the platinum-haired Fairbanks wannabe, who has only been de-aged to around fourteen, leers at a girl who appears to be around eightand it's only the slightest bit less gross when you remember that the characters are all actually in their seventies.

Now, we turn to Joe Dante's "It's a Good Life," based on one of the classic Zone episodes, and the Narrator himself seems to agree that everything so far has been a giant waste of time: "Up until now, the pattern of her life has been one of unrelenting sameness, waiting for something different to happen."  (Twilight Zone: The Movie is a bizarre, auto-critiquing thing, isn't it?)  Of course, the Narrator is right; and like our heroine, our waiting has finally ended, too.

And so we find Helen Foley, a teacher on her way between Point A and Point B.  At Dick Miller's roadside diner, she makes the acquaintance of young Anthony, whom she accidentally runs over with her car.  He's okayoh, he's just finebut she's smashed the hell out of his bike, and, naturally, she gives the ragamuffin a lift home.  And what a home it is: a terrifying, quasi-Expressionist rendition of American suburbia that, a few years later, would have to be described as "Burtonesque."  Televisions are everywhere, playing the most terrifying cartoons the Before Times have to offer; the family is even more grotesque, a collection of Eisenhower Era stereotypes who fit with deeply obvious discomfort into their roles.  Well, "It's a Good Life" is one of the most famous Zone stories, so it should come as no surprise to anybody to learn that Anthony is a living god, able to warp reality and make all his wishes come true, while his "family" are but his helpless prisonersand Foley is the newest addition to his collection.

This is where the general aimlessness of The Movie starts to dissipate, and we finally begin to witness any justification whatsoever for the film's existence: specifically, the deployment of the most modern filmmaking techniques (and a much larger budget) to make the Zone even better than it already was.  Dante only starts by choosing one of the best episodes.  He continues by remaking "It's a Good Life," which was already a creepy-as-hell little shocker, into an exercise in gaudy, spine-tingling, 1980s-style horror, bringing a cartoon sensibility to life in such a deeply upsetting way that you have to imagine it made Ralph Bakshi himself both jealous and (possibly) a little horny.  (The only noticeable misstep in the whole thing occurs when Anthony teleports his sister into an animated inferno within the television, but she remains crudely composited against the cel images, rather than converting into a drawn figure herselfwhich is to say, it's the complete opposite of what happens to the monster that Anthony brings out of the TV, a certain devil from Tasmania, who emerges as a fully three-dimensional beast.  Brought to you by special effects wizard Rob Bottin, it probably goes without saying his reimagination of the iconic character is also shit-yourself scary.)

And things get even more interesting still as we get a firmer grasp on young Anthony's conflicted character—while the self-serving darkness that informs Foley's character (not to mention Kathleen Quinlan's subtle performance) keeps Dante's iteration of "It's a Good Life" from settling into anything like a standard morality play about an out-of-control child.

At last, then, there's the most celebrated of The Movie's four shorts: George Miller's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet."  Following Dante, Miller strikes out to remake one of the Zone's greatest triumphs, rather than dicking about, like Spielberg and Landis, with its also-rans; and his ambition pays off.  It is, with the exception of Fury Road, quite probably the best thing Miller ever did.  All by itself it would earn The Movie a place in film historynot to mention excuse its commitment to rehashing things that were already done well the first time.  The story is simple: John Valentine is a writer who is abjectly terrified of flying, but here he is, 20,000 feet above the Earth anyway.  Already completely out of sortswe meet our hero as he freaks out in the lavatorythings only get worse when Valentine spies something on the wing of the plane.

"Nightmare" is to flying what Jaws is to swimming: it's essentially perfect, and impeccably captures the terrors of being airborne.  (I myself am not afraid of flying, but I don't consider it entirely unreasonable to be, either.)  Miller might be the hero here, but Lithgow is the starhis is the only performance in the whole film that anyone ever really talks aboutFinding allies in the lighting scheme and makeup design, which together turn him into something like a pallid corpse who has somehow retained the ability to profusely sweat, Lithgow is astonishing in his evocation of animal fear.  (The best moment, however, remains every bit the result of Miller's own sensibility: the five frame-long, almost-subliminal interstitial of Lithgow in monstrous, bug-eyed makeup, intercut with Lithgow's more conventional reaction shots.  It was something of Miller's directorial signature in the Road Warrior days.)  The gremlinthe thing that Valentine witnesses wrecking the engines of his plane, one by oneis one hell of a creation, too.  Instantly iconic, the playfully sadistic beast is framed (if but barely glimpsed) against the lightning storm that dominates these unfriendly skies.  So we get only one really good look at himand he is terrifying.  There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that could be profitably changed about Miller's segmenteven its self-consciously goofy final gesture, which ties this last segment into Landis' Prologue (and thus isn't quite in keeping with the spirit of the best of the original Twilight Zone) is nonetheless amazingly well-judged.

Thus do you leave Twilight Zone: The Movie, feeling like you've watched a worthwhile experimentor perhaps even a genuinely great motion picture.  The bad parts of it fade from memory like a dull dream, while its best parts stick with you likewellany really good nightmare ought.  As for its place in a Steven Spielberg retrospective, it's hardly the director's finest hour; but, as the producer and instigator of the project, let's at least give him the modicum of credit he deserves.

Score, Prologue:  8/10
Score, "Time Out":  3/10
Score, "Kick the Can":  5/10
Score, "It's a Good Life":  9/10
Score, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet":  10/10
Score, Twilight Zone: The Movie:  8/10

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