WARNING: The following contains spoilers for The Twilight Zone, Episode 2: "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet."
With The Twilight Zone reboot, fans are hoping more for the magic of Rod Serling's classics, and less of what the attempts to resuscitate the franchise in the '80s and '00s brought. In an age of short format storytelling like Black Mirror and Weird City, it feels like we're primed for such a venture, exploring the wonders of the world, the mysteries of science, and the horror of things that go bump in the night.
Sadly, though the revival's early attempt at reinventing one of the property's most iconic stories "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," is ambitious and subverts the source material, it also ends up being a xenophobic failure.
"Nightmare at 30,000 Feet" wants to adopt a modern and more visceral approach to the story than its predecessors. The episode focuses on Justin Sanderson (Adam Scott), an investigative reporter suffering from PTSD. It's a far cry from the characters played by William Shatner and John Lithgow in the previous versions, where rather than focusing on madmen thinking they're seeing a monster out on the plane's wing, director Owen Harris zeroes in on the emotional toll war and terrorism has taken on Justin. As a result, he's super-paranoid and a risk to other passengers.
To be fair, it's not a bad idea, but what made this story initially work was its simplicity. The new take gets too convoluted as it tries to play into modern fears, and when you really think about it, having Justin traveling to Palestine of all places, well -- you can easily spot the potential narrative risks. In the end, the episode, rather than trying to avoid certain pitfalls and embrace the concept of "the other," comes off as alienating, elementary and tone deaf.
As Justin listens to a clairvoyant podcast detailing the tragedy Flight 1015 is fated for, he goes about profiling and terrorizing people of color, folks with beards and anyone he thinks might be Muslim. Eventually, he shifts his gaze to some people he believes are Russian gangsters. As the podcast speaks about criminals aboard a plane, the camera pans across the aforementioned people in a manner that's unintentionally unsettling. At this point, it's not clear whether the episode is trying to make a statement on how people perceive their fellow man. But seeing a white man, who at the beginning of the episode had to apologize for abusing his wife, carrying on like this only to receive proverbial slaps on the wrist from the cabin crew, we'll -- it's laughable, and not in a good or intriguing way.
The icing on the cake, though, comes with how Justin treats women. We already get the context his relationship is on the rocks, but when he's dealing with the female flight attendant Asa (Katie Findlay), he's chauvinistic, dismissive and acts superior. When the Air Marshal, Alysha (China Shavers), finally gets her hands on Justin and arrests him, it goes from bad to worse as he scoffs at the thought of her being an authority figure. He's been spending a vast portion thinking this official is some big, bad male, and his disposition here is painstakingly and condescendingly obvious: He just can't fathom a black woman being an Air Marshall, even in this day and age.
While it may seem timely, and some audiences will get something from the remake, ultimately this approach goes against the ethos of Richard Matheson's story which tried to get us to understand the human psyche and its shortcomings. It was about compassion, understanding and believing those battling with mental health. This retelling, however, takes the hero we're supposed to connect with and turns him into a disgusting pig, undoing the entire message the tale was intended to send in the process.
Hosted by Jordan Peele, The Twilight Zone premiered April 1 on CBS Access with its first two episodes, "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet" and "The Comedian," before settling into its regular Thursday slot on April 11.