This The Twilight Zone review contains spoilers.
The Twilight Zone Episode 1
Where were you when you first realized the podcast host in “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” was Dan Carlin?
I was sitting on my couch, laptop on my coffee table in front of me. It was 6:36 p.m. on Wednesday, March 27, 2019. I’ll remember it like people remember where they were during the Kennedy Assassination.
Anywho, welcome to The Twilight Zone (2019)! And more importantly, welcome to 2019, Twilight Zone. The prominent voiceover role for one of pop culture’s most beloved (and long-winded) podcast orators is just one of the many signs that The Twilight Zone is not only ready for the modern era…the modern era is more than ready for it.
It’s no secret that we’re in a bit of a horror and sci-fi anthology renaissance. Netflix recognized early on that viewers were uniquely invested in techno-horror dystopia, provided that it came it properly digestible bites. Since then, virtually every other streaming service has gotten in on the horror and sci-fi anthology game. Amazon Prime has both Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams and Lore. Hulu has monthly horror film festival Into the Dark. HBO literally went to the other side of the world to nab their own horror anthology series, with the Asian horror-centric Folklore.
With that in mind, CBS All Access may have seen like a Johnny-Come-Lately to the proceedings. Thankfully, they’ve had an ace in the hole this whole time. Not only did they have the second reboot of the beloved Twilight Zone franchise ready, they had Jordan Peele to produce and take over the Rod Serling narrator role. It’s an absolute checkmate on paper. But is it a checkmate now that the first two installments in the series have made it to the stream and people can begin to check them out?
Based on “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” a reimagining of the original’s classic William Shatner vehicle “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” The Twilight Zone isn’t going to dominate the horror anthology scene…but it’s going to fit in quite nicely. “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” feels like a mid-tier Black Mirror installment, and a mid-tier Black Mirror episode is a fantastic thing for any storytelling enterprise to be.
If nothing else, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” makes immediately clear that these updated Twilight Zone yarns will work just fine in a modern context. It’s almost jarring how well “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” is able to establish a discomfiting tone just using the objects and environs available at any given airport. When we’re first introduced to famed international journalist Justin Sanderson (Adam Scott), he’s packed tightly into a full body x-ray machine. From there he makes it into the rest of the airport, which is filled with wide-open windows that capture the dismal weather around him, which matches the equally dismal lighting.
We shortly thereafter find out that Justin suffered some sort of breakdown recently.
“Are you OK?” his wife asks him via phone.
“I am so sorry about before. I really didn’t mean to raise my voice like that,” Justin says.
“You promised me.”
“I am listening to you and I am keeping that promise. This assignment will be the opposite of high stress. Tel Aviv is the opposite of Yemen. Look. I saw some fucked up shit in Yemen. It messed me up. It would have messed anyone up.”
Immediately the visual mood and language matches whatever it is that’s raging inside Justin. It’s an excellent marriage of tone and character made possible by this version of The Twilight Zone’s understanding of modern anxieties. The mood carries over when Justin and his new friend Joe Beaumont (Chris “This guy fucks” Diamantopoulos) take their respective seats. Justin discovers the ancient MP3 player in a seat pocket that contains the Dan Carlin (though named Rodman Edwards)-narrated Enigmatique podcast that begins the story of the disappearance of Northern Gold Star Flight 1015 That just happens to be the flight Justin is on right now. Pan out; Jordan Peele delivers narration; begin.
I must make a confession real quick before we continue. I had never seen any episodes of the original Twilight Zone before watching “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” though I was aware of the general gist of the original. After watching this new version, I went back to the original for the first time. Obviously the original is superior if only because the very concept of plane-related terror was cast into the public consciousness there and has since stood the test of time.
An advantage that “30,000” has over “20,000” is that the story begins before the boarding of the fateful plane. By including the pre-boarding process, The Twilight Zone is able to create a real anxious symphony that makes Justin’s worries more relatable once he gets to the podcast. The causes of Bob Wilson (William Shatner)’s and Justin Sanderson’s respective mental breakdowns are equally vague but Justin’s is grounded in the modern moment much more clearly and is therefore more relatable in a way.
This version of “Nightmare” excels at finding the devil in the details. In that same pre-flight sequence, we find out that Justin penned a recent essay for Progressive Point called “The End of Civility (peep Kumail Nanjiani’s face on the magazine above it, by the way).” “The End of Civility” feels so on point to our current cultural moment that our brains naturally understand to index that concept should it pay off later. It kind of does when Justin is torn apart Lord of the Flies style on a deserted island but it feels like there should be more to it than that – something less literal and on the nose.
The details on the plane, however, are mostly equally as excellent. Carlin is obviously the perfect choice for the host of a potentially supernatural podcast. The nice little in-story twists work well, like the woman who smiled at Justin turning out to be an air marshal and Justin mistaking a Russian soccer star for Russian mob whistleblower Igor Karloff. “Nightmare” really excels in creepy tone and creepy detail, which is like 90% of all visual horror content.
But there’s an issue…and his name is Joe Beaumont. It’s not that Joe is obnoxious (though he is.) It’s that the symbolic role he plays in the role of Justin Sanderson’s journey is unclear. Like the original, a big part of the tension in “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” is whether the main character is crazy or not. It’s not really clear what the episode gains from introducing a second maybe-crazy character, aside from a convenient plot engine to crash the plane. I
The crash itself is also frustratingly vague. This is likely by design as despite not being written or directed by Jordan Peele (those honors go to writers Glen Morgan and Marco Ramirez and director Greg Yaitanes), the ending has quite a bit in common to the ending of Us. The “twist” that the podcast may have been Macbething Justin into crashing the plane begs a lot of questions and invites a lot of interpretations. Is that really what happened? Was the plane ever really in danger? The frustrating part is that unlike Us, pretty much all of the options are dramatically unappealing.
In “20,000 Feet,” viewers are granted the sight of the plane’s destroyed wing, which acknowledges that perhaps Bob Wilson wasn��t so crazy after all. “30,000 Feet” opting for a more ambiguous ending is admirable, but unsuccessful.
“Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” begins with a head full of steam and gradually loses some of it in each passing moment. Still, the central mystery is so well-conceived and the storytelling so economic (35 minutes, woo!!!) that it doesn’t register that you’ve been slightly disappointed until Jordan Peele’s final monologue doesn’t spell everything out.
“Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” is an imperfect episode of The Twilight Zone, but a perfect reintroduction to what the show is capable of doing in our twisted modern age.
The past is the past. And that will help The Twilight Zone get through the now.