Monday, June 12, 2006

Twilight Zone: The Movie

Directed by John Landis, USA, 1983, 18 minutes (101 total)
(Other directors: Steven Spielberg- Segment 2, Joe Dante – Segment 3, George Miller – Segment 4)
Source: Twilight Zone: The Movie (VDD 263)

“You wanna see something really scary,” the character played by Dan Akroyd asks his friend.
“You bet . . . scare me!”
This interaction opens Twilight Zone: The Movie and foreshadows the campy, eerie, and psychologically intriguing shorts compiled on this film. This omnibus consists of four shorts (inspired by the television series) directed by four different directors. Segment 1 is the only short of the group that is not a remake, yet it fits into the omnibus perfectly and is the most interesting one because of its political implications.

In segment 1, a womanizing racist walks into a bar. Inside he meets his friends where he rants about how awful his day was since he lost a promotion to a Jewish man. During his diatribe he manages to not only make offensive comments about Jews, but about Asians and Blacks as well. However, the true story begins once the man exits the bar. He walks right out of the bar in 1983 (?) and into Nazi Germany where he is quickly stopped and questioned in German by the Gestapo. Before long he is being shot at and on the run. They believe he is Jewish. He is eventually cornered on a ledge where he is forced to jump right into the Deep South during a Klan meeting. This quick change of setting is flawlessly achieved and an interesting plot maneuver. On the ground before the Klan it becomes apparent that despite his white skin, the Klan members see him as Black. He is tied up and prepared to be hanged. Yet just as dexterously as before, he escapes his captures and dives into the river. There, he emerges in Vietnam where he is the suspected enemy being shot at by American troops. Finally, he is blasted back into Nazi Germany where he is detailed and placed on a rail cart certainly to be shipped to a prison camp. However, as he train pulls away, he sees his friends from the bar exiting that same bar in 1983. Though he yells and pleas, they cannot see or hear him.

Like every other short in this feature, this homage to the classic Twilight Zone television show is supposed to be scary, but ends up being predictable and a bit campy. However, what is interesting about this short is the filmmaker’s topic. This film is overwhelmingly didactic as it serves poetic justice to the racist. There is also a subtle comment here on war. The scenes here of the Vietnam war are grouped along with the Klan meeting and the Nazis. So is the viewer to equate American troops in Vietnam with Klan members and Nazis? Though this filming took place long after the Vietnam War, it is interesting to see this sort of blatant propaganda hidden in such a random place: a scary movie.

The other shorts included in this movie are less politically aware but all do end with a moral or comment on life. In Segment 2, directed by Spielberg, the character of Mr. Bloom brings levity to an otherwise drab retirement home and uses magic to physically transform the elder residents into youth through a game of kick the can. Near the end, however, the transformed individuals realize they want to be their old selves again, though they’ve now learned to remain mentally young. Segment 3 features a manipulative young boy who mentally and physically controls his “family” and an interloper who he lures to his house. The lured woman soon discovers that the people in the house are afraid of the young boy’s powers. Yet in a plot twist that is as irrational as predictable, she sees the boy as a charity case and decides to take him with her where she’ll teach him to be a more rational individual who controls his supernatural powers. The final short, one that has been parodied too often, a plane full of unaware passengers is tormented by a monster. One passenger sees the monster but cannot convince the others about the creatures presence. In the end, an engineer spots the damage caused by the monster and basically validates to the audience the man’s sanity. The lesson: perhaps the importance of trusting people?

As a whole, the most interesting aspect of this omnibus is seeing how each director updates the classic Twilight Zone style. Each teaches a lesson through gloom and/or fantasy and maintains a dark feel throughout by unnatural lighting. Yet the effects are still a bit amatuerish by today's standards and I found myself bored and/or laughing more than scared. However, the shorts did provide for some intellectual contemplation. I noticed that in some cases, these shorts are reminiscent of Greek or Shakespearean tragedies where bad things are happening, yet perhaps at the fault of one of the characters’ hubris. Perhaps this is what the Twilight Zone does for us, it provides a catharthic experience and life lesson similar to the tragedies of long ago.

1 comment:

Jay said...

If Segment 1 were to be re-made or re-imagined to fit into a modern-day, 2000's-era context, Paul Haggis (of the train wreck known as "Crash") would probably be the modern-day director in line to take the helm. While the racial message of this segment has a quality of hammer-you-over-the-head obviousness reminiscent of Haggis's racial treatise, its imaginative conceit gives its narrative wings and adds an element of wonder and entertainment. In particular, the segment manipulates time and space very well filmically, keeping the viewer on his toes as the racist protagonist falls, dives, or gets exploded into the next frame, transitioning seamlessly into an historical time and place relevant to the moral lesson being beaten into him. I particularly liked the transition from the water into which the protagonist dives to escape the KKK, to the river in Vietnam in which he emerges. I thought the close-up of the protagonist's face as it slowly emerges from beneath the night-lit river an unmistakeable homage to Martin Sheen's rising from the water in "Apocalypse Now" (i.e., before he kills Kurtz). As such, the homage helped ground the viewer in the Vietnam War setting of the newly-transitioned frame. A clever segment, in all, and one that holds up relatively well over time.