After an inert debut, Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone manages to get a bit off the ground with its second entry, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” an homage to Richard Matheson and Richard Donner’s classic ‘monster on a plane’ story from Season 5 of the original series. Though it does suffer from an overabundance of moving parts and a dud of an ending, fantastic direction by Greg Yaitanes and a jittery performance from Adam Scott inject just enough spookiness and personality to almost save the day. Almost.
Like with the 1963 original, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” introduces us to a man who has recently recovered from a nervous breakdown and is about to board a flight. Investigative journalist Justin Sanderson (Scott) seems all better now — despite occasionally mumbling to himself that “the past is past” — and is set for the long trip to a relatively stress-free assignment in Tel Aviv. However, the discovery of what looks like a vintage mp3 player in his seat pouch leads to Justin tuning into a mysterious podcast that presents as its subject his very flight — including its potentially tragic future. After listening to details that prove eerily prescient, Justin works to uncover the truth of what is happening, and possibly save the lives of everyone aboard in the process.
It’s a clever setup that makes for a fresh take on a Cassandra-like character — one who speaks only the truth, yet is never believed — with Justin’s shifty eyes and mousy demeanor the perfect foil; we know he’s right, but can absolutely understand why others would doubt this guy’s credibility. He sneaks up and down aisles, makes odd requests to flight attendants, bothers his neighbors, and defies instructions, all while growing increasingly anxious as the clock ticks down to whatever unnamed event supposedly causes disaster. Enough credit can’t be given to Adam Scott, who manages to portray bumbling instability and sincere integrity within the same moment, and carries nearly the entire load. However incapable of dealing with this situation Justin may be, Scott never let’s us forget that his intentions are good, and the best episodes of The Twilight Zone usually have someone to root for.
The reason for that, of course, is so that the show can pull the rug out from under their feet. Unfortunately, this is where “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” falters. While the premise is somewhat simple, once again the show’s writers (Marco Ramirez is credited in this case) toss in so many balls to juggle that they lose sight of character in favor of plot machinations — which naturally causes them all to tumble down. Having a podcast that tells the future is enough to focus on, offering plenty of wrinkles involving frustration, fear, and sanity. Yet for some reason there are side stories involving the Russian mafia, an enigmatic fan, and a guessing game around which passenger might be an air marshal. None of these contribute in any meaningful way, yet they all serve to distract from and muddle any underlying themes.
Is Justin questioning his own sanity? Not enough time is spent on his recovery from the breakdown to make that an issue. Is he a busybody that can’t keep his nose out of others’ affairs? Outside of exposition that reveals he’s an investigative journalist, we never learn of any flawed tendency toward intrusiveness. Is he a martyr, a do-gooder who always wants to save the day? Again, no evidence of this is provided beforehand. Because of the lack in foundation, the eventual twist of fate has no moral or behavioral leg to stand upon, and so must succeed solely on its own terms. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.
Thus far this new iteration of The Twilight Zone has yet to demonstrate a lack of understanding that what really made the original show so lasting was its exploration of humanity, not just supernatural twists and turns. Still, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” shows promise in other respects. Even when the script squanders opportunity, director Greg Yaitanes does a fantastic job at keeping the tension high with outstanding camera placement. He wisely updates those trite Dutch angles with unsettling shots from fly-on-the-wall vantage points, and floats down the aisles with a fish-eye lens that distorts the reality around Justin. Scenes that might otherwise be absurd (e.g., reaching into a passengers carry-on) end up nail-biting due to tilted perspectives and efficient staging. A blue filter urges calm, but also projects a cold sterility — an unstoppable fate.
The craft makes a huge difference, and projects a brighter future for the series. While “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” doesn’t live up to the classic versions, it charters a better course for The Twilight Zone to follow, suggesting that we may yet reach that dimension of not just sight and sound, but mind.