'Twilight Zone: The Movie' is a movie forever linked to tragedy. Early in the morning of July 23, 1982, director John Landis was shooting a sequence from the film’s first segment when an on-set accident involving a helicopter resulted in the deaths of actors Vic Morrow, Myca Dinh Le (age 7) and Renee Shin-Yi Chen (age 6). The fallout from the accident is now legendary in Hollywood -- the subsequent criminal and civil trials lasted nearly a decade (Landis was eventually acquitted), extensive changes were enacted to child labor laws (non-citizens Le and Chen had been hired to work illegally), careers were irrevocably damaged, and the years-long friendship between Landis and fellow director Steven Spielberg came to one very bitter end.
Despite what would seem to be the ultimate in bad press, Warner shocked just about everyone when they opted not to scrap 'Twilight Zone: The Movie" outright. Instead, they went ahead with completing the rest of the movie's three segments (each inspired by different episodes of the classic series and directed by Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller) and even asked Landis to finish "Mercy," despite the loss of his star and any conceivable, coherent ending.
When 'Twilight Zone: The Movie' debuted in theaters in the summer of 1983, critical reaction was mixed to virulent (with some lambasting the film's mere release as "sick" and "exploitative"), while audiences, perhaps turned off by the idea of watching a film where Hollywood egos and negligence resulted in the real-life deaths of three of its actors, remained largely indifferent. 'Twilight Zone' went on to gross about $30 million domestically (barely recouping its costs) and to this day, the film itself remains overshadowed by its controversy.
I mention all of this not to stir up unpleasant emotions but because it is impossible to watch the 'Twilight Zone: The Movie' -- even twenty-four years later -- and not feel a bit sick to the stomach. No film (especially one as marginal as this) is worth the loss of life, and trying to divorce oneself from those emotions throughout the first twenty-odd minutes of 'Twilight Zone' is a challenge. While I'm glad (if only for historical purposes) that Warner has finally released the movie to disc after keeping it out of print for years, I can't say that it was entirely pleasurable to watch the movie again.
After an effective opening prologue (directed by Landis and starring Albert Brooks as a road-weary traveler who makes the mistake of picking up hitch-hiker Dan Aykroyd), the infamous "A Quality of Mercy" kicks things off. Morrow plays foul-mouthed bigot Bill Connor, who will be transported in time and forced to occupy the bodies of victims of injustice. Finding himself in a new horror at every turn (a Southern man about to be lynched, a Jew facing the Nazis, etc.), he must come to terms with his life-long prejudices if he is to redeem himself and survive.
While Morrow (often an underrated actor) is strong, overall this segment is a sad epitaph. Even taken solely on its narrative terms, this is the weakest episode of the four. Once Connor undergoes the initial shock of being transported into another man’s body, the story becomes repetitive, while the ending (left open-ended by necessity due to Morrow’s death) plays like some sort of mean-spirited, ironic joke. As Connor is hauled off to a concentration camp, his own execution inevitable, never has an instance of art imitating life left me feeling so dispirited. After this review, I don't think I'll ever watch "A Quality of Mercy" again.
Though Steven Spielberg's "Kick the Can" is widely regarded as the weakest segment in the film, I was grateful for a little sunshine after the depressing "Mercy." The story itself is classic Spielberg schmaltz -- an old man (the wonderful Scatman Crothers) arrives in a retirement home and through a magical game of kick-the-can, restores the youth of its residents. After a brief joyous romp as children, however, the rejuvenated bunch will ultimately decide to revert back to their true ages, preferring to retain their memories and experiences.
I agree with those who’ve argued that "Kick the Can" it is not particularly good. Spielberg seems to be on auto-pilot, and the film itself feels like a half-heated version of 'Cocoon,' only with a preachy moral tacked on to the end (and without the cool aliens). Still, Crothers himself is an effervescent, luminous presence and there is also some genuine emotion to be found in the performances of the older residents. In the end, Spielberg’s "Kick the Can" should have been the most magical of the bunch, but instead this segment’s only saving grace is that it's not as depressing as "A Quality of Mercy."
'Twilight Zone: The Move' takes a turn for the better with Joe Dante’s "It's a Good Life," which, like the best episodes of the original TV series, is both sci-fi and horror. Helen Foley (Kathleen Quinlan) gives a mysterious boy (Jeremy Licht) a ride home and is invited in for dinner. But like Alice in one very demented Wonderland, she soon finds herself the newest member of a bizarre "family" consisting of a group of strangers, all lured to the house just like she was. Imprisoned by the boy's ability to will his imagination into reality -- both the fantastic and the horrific -- there seems little hope for escape. Or is there?
What's fun about "It's a Good Life" is that Dante just goes for broke. His segment is imaginative, garish, and over-the-top, with tons of great '80s monster effects, and lighting like an episode of "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" on steroids. Although the set pieces dominate to such an extent that the story itself is relegated to play second fiddle, it says something that Dante, then considered only a B-movie schlock director managed to easily trounce the efforts of A-list directors Spielberg and Landis.
Even better is "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," the fourth and final segment, directed by George Miller. In fact, this one’s so good that it nearly redeems the entirety of 'Twilight Zone: The Movie.' Based on one of the most famous episodes of the original series, John Lithgow stars as John Valentine, a man who hates flying. Stuck on a crowded flight in the middle of a storm, it would seem things couldn't get much worse for John, until he spies a bizarre gremlin on the plane's wing. Of course, no one on the plane believes him, even when the nasty little monster begins to make mincemeat of the engine, necessitating an emergency landing. How the segment ends is not entirely unforeseen, but it’s clever nonetheless.
For me, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" works on every level -- it's funny, exciting, scary, and suspenseful. Miller ('Road Warrior,' 'Witches of Eastwick') manages to capture just the right 'Twilight Zone' tone, and Lithgow gives a tour de force performance. The gremlin monster is also a nifty little creation, and even if its latex and slime is a bit dated in today's age of CGI, it's so well-executed that none of that matters. Sounding just the right note of completion to the film, there's even a cute, self-referential coda at the end of the episode that connects everything back to the opening prologue.
A wildly uneven anthology film marred by real-life tragedy, ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie' still has enough going for it to make it worth seeing. Though I don’t plan on revisiting the flick’s first two segments anytime soon (if ever again), the film’s later segments are surprisingly strong.
After suffering for years in dreadful VHS pan & scan versions, 'Twilight Zone: The Movie' has finally been remastered in widescreen for its first-ever disc release. Warner has struck a new high-definition master for the occasion, using it as the source for a day-and-date cross-format bow on HD DVD, Blu-ray, and standard-def DVD. Both the HD DVD and Blu-ray editions share an identical 1080p/VC-1 encode, and it's a pretty strong presentation, especially considering the film's age and the inconsistent nature of an anthology release.
Yes, there were four different directors (and four different directors of photography), so don't expect visual coherency. Overall, "Quality of Mercy" has a nice enough look, with robust, realistic colors and some effective nighttime photography. However, it's also the most visually bland of the four segments (John Landis has never struck me as a particularly cinematic director.) Spielberg's "Kick the Can" is predictably awash in golden hues and lots of diffused lighting, and feels like an extension of Allen Daviau's wonderful work on 'E.T.' (which he shot for Spielberg only a year prior) and Dean Cundey's overdone mush from 'Hook' a few years later. "It's a Good Life" is by far the most colorful, with Joe Dante's visually approach quite garish and cartoony; it's also easily the best-looking segment. Finally, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" makes excellent use of deep blues and fiery oranges for the exterior shots of the gremlin, but is marred by excessive grain and fuzziness.
Holding all of this together is a well-remastered source. The print has been cleaned up significantly since its VHS days, featuring rich blacks and stable contrast that doesn't go overboard. Sharpness varies (the Spielberg segment in particular is quite soft), but the differences are not terribly distracting. Detail holds up well, with the film finely textured throughout, while depth is very impressive for a twenty-four year-old flick. Grain and other artifacts are also kept to a minimum, with only the darkest moments of the opening prologue and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" flattening out. There is some edge enhancement visible at times, but it appears to have been equally applied throughout the film, and I didn't find edge halos to be particularly intrusive.
In a nice surprise, Warner has produced a new Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit) for 'Twilight Zone: The Movie' (versus a PCM track on the Blu-ray). All things considered, the flick has some great moments, but predictably, it's far from consistently effective.
Both "Quality of Mercy" and "Kick the Can" are lackluster. As the first segment's biggest set piece was the one cut from the film due to the accident, there is far less going on here sonically than you might expect. The only notable audio element in "Kick the Can," meanwhile, is the score by Jerry Goldsmith (who also composed the music for each of the remaining segments) -- it's nice and lush with a good deal of heft in the surrounds. Things improve dramatically with "It's a Good Life" and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” The whirling, sputtering creatures of Joe Dante's segment are accompanied by some pretty spiffy discrete effects in the rears. Meanwhile, the near-constant activity during "Nightmare" ensures that there is never a dull moment, with the surrounds almost constantly engaged.
Tech specs are up to snuff throughout. Fidelity is solid for a 1983 film, and the track doesn't sound nearly as dated as you might expect. Dialogue is crisp, though sometimes it gets lost due to overly loud sound effects (particularly in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"). While the full frequency range is not particularly expansive, we do get some tight low bass and smooth, clean highs. All in all, I was happy with this mix, and I have to give Warner big ups for sprucing up cult catalog title like this with a TrueHD mix.
Given the aura of tragedy that surrounds 'Twilight Zone: The Movie,' it is perhaps no surprise there are no new supplements on this release. It is hard to imagine that any of the filmmakers involved would want to revisit the film, and considering how long it took Warner to bring it to disc, I suppose we should just be happy it's available at all.
The only extra is the film's original Theatrical Trailer, presented in rather tattered 4:3 full screen 480p/MPEG-2 video.
Forever linked to the on-set tragedy that killed three actors during its production, 'Twilight Zone: The Movie' is certainly an uneven anthology, but it’s not without its merits. As an HD DVD release, I found this one a very nice surprise, with both the audio and the video first-rate for a catalog title. Some actual supplements would have been nice, but for fans who’ve waited for over a decade for 'Twilight Zone: The Movie' to arrive on disc, this one definitely delivers on the bottom line.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.