One of the most referenced and popular episodes of the original 1960s Twilight Zone run was an episode called “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” featuring William Shatner in the starring role. That episode was faithfully remade in 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie, featuring John Lithgow. I still have nightmare visions of that installment in the movie, often while I’m flying. It’s about a mentally unwell man just released from a mental hospital who slowly goes mad while flying because of visions of a gremlin he sees on the wing of a plane. A full-blown panic sets in during the flight, he steals a cop’s revolver and attempts to open the door of the plane to shoot the gremlin. After the man is secured and the plane lands, however, the man is taken away in a straightjacket. While no one believes him about the gremlin on the flight, the final scene of the episode reveals gremlin-inflicted damage to the exterior of the plane.
2019’s “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” directed by Greg Yaitanes and written by Marco Ramirez and Jordan Peele takes a different approach, and I still have some mixed feelings about how successful it is. This one stars Adam Scott as Justin Sanderson, an investigative journalist with his own history of mental problems. When he jumps on the plane, however, he doesn’t see a gremlin. He finds an old MP3 device in the pocket of the seat in front of him and hits play. What he hears is a podcast from the future investigating the disappearance of the very plane that Justin Sanderson is on.
The podcast host only has a few facts upon which to investigate, namely the exact time in which the plane disappears, the pilot’s last words (“Goodnight, New York”), and the passenger manifest, which reveals a few potentially unscrupulous characters. Sanderson, who is already feeling emotionally fragile about flying, finds himself listening to the podcast and doing his own investigative work, which basically amounts to harassing suspicious passengers and annoying the flight crew. He also knows, from the podcast, that there is an air marshall on the flight, but he doesn’t know who it is.
Justin can’t talk anyone into listening to the podcast themselves (they don’t want to get lice from the headphones), but he does find one man — “The Pilot” (Chris Diamantopoulos) — who says he believes Justin. The Pilot is a pilot himself, and by the end of the podcast, Justin is so convinced that the plane is about to crash that he encourages The Pilot to take control of the plane and land it. The podcast happens to have the access code to the lock on the cockpit door, which he gives to The Pilot, who knocks out the pilot and takes over the plane. “The Pilot,” it turns out, is on some kind of suicide mission, and he’s responsible for the disappearance of the flight. His final words are, “Goodnight, New York.” In other words, Justin basically made it possible for the events described in the podcast to happen.
There is a coda, however. Justin wakes up stranded on the beach of an island and finds the MP3 player again. When he hits play, he learns there is a Part 2 to the podcast, which reveals that every single person on the flight survived, except for one: Justin Sanderson, whose body was never found. As Justin hears this, he looks up to see all the angry passengers on the flight converging around him.
It’s a decent twist on the original version, although frankly, it’s nowhere near as terrifying. Moreover, it’s fairly obvious shortly into the episode where it is headed. That was mostly true of the original episode, as well, but it had a terrifying gremlin. It’s hard to beat a terrifying gremlin. In either respect, ‘Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,’ like “The Comedian,” is skillfully done, and well acted, even if the storytelling is a little pat.
After two episodes, like Joelle, I like the series, but it does struggle to live up to comparisons to Black Mirror, which is basically a contemporary version of The Twilight Zone. In fact, the introduction of a podcast here almost feels like a nod — or at least a concession — to Black Mirror. Indeed, as well done as Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone is, it has not yet proven that through two episodes that it, alone, is worth a subscription to CBS All Access (although, in combination with The Good Fight, the streaming service is worth at least the investment of a one-month subscription).
Header Image Source: CBS All Access