It may be the most iconic episode of the original series The Twilight Zone. It was called “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” back then, and William Shatner starred as a man recovering from a nervous breakdown on a flight back home with his wife after six months recovering in a hospital.
He is markedly nervous as the plane takes off, and even more so, when he begins seeing a creature on the wing of the aircraft inflicting damage to the plane.
That original story, written by I Am Legend scribe Richard Matheson, became synonymous with the original series and was not only remade for The Twilight Zone: The Movie but it has been parodied, spoofed, and paid homage to more times than we could count.
Perhaps it was only natural, then, that when a new version of The Twilight Zone went into development for CBS All Access, the writers decided to bring a new adaptation to the screen.
To reiterate, this will be a spoiler heavy discussion of this episode. If you have not seen it and want to avoid spoilers, turn back now.
As the new version, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” opens, Justin Sanderson (Adam Scott), an investigative journalist, is at the airport preparing for a flight overseas. As he walks through the airport, he speaks to his worried wife on the phone. It becomes clear that he has not been in the best mental health after recent assignments to war torn regions of the world, and she wonders if he’s ready for this trip.
After multiple assurances that he will be fine, none of which she seems to believe, he hangs up and heads into a shop in the airport where he meets a mysterious man name Joe (Chris Diamontopoulos) who recognizes him and asks for an autograph. They chat for a few minutes before Justin heads to his gate to catch his flight.
It could be any flight on any given day anywhere in the world, but this is The Twilight Zone and we know that normal won’t last long.
Upon boarding the plane, Justin finds that Joe is on board. He also finds, as he settles into his seat and turns on a podcast to pass the time, that the very flight he’s on will disappear in a matter of hours.
As more of the podcast’s “known facts” become a reality around him, Justin becomes increasingly wary of his fellow travelers and the bane of flight attendants, pilots, and air marshals alike as his outbursts and accusations become more harried and pointed.
That original episode back in 1964 was interesting study of the way that we view and treat mental illness in America. Psychology and psychiatry were very different 60 years ago, all things considered, and the stigma that hangs over mental illness today was amplified 100 fold then.
What was interesting about Serling’s story was in the end, Shatner’s character would be vindicated. There was indeed damage to the plane. I like to think that, knowing what we do now of Serling’s own mental health issues, he made that episode specifically to combat some of that stigma.
I’m not entirely sure the writers fully thought through what the focus of their story was going to be in the modern iteration.
As Justin descends deeper into the idea that the podcast was sort of gifted to him to prevent the plane from disappearing, his one confidante becomes Joe. Joe believes him, and Joe doesn’t want to disappear either.
That’s where the real complication of “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” begins. On the surface, we see a debate between free will and fate. If Justin has this knowledge, surely he is meant to stop the plane from disappearing.
There’s one glaring issue here, however, because upon a second viewing I noticed that no one seems to interact with Joe other than Justin.
Joe reassures Justin that everything he is thinking and feeling is correct. He urges Justin to keep digging and searching to find the culprits who will ultimately…do whatever it is that they will do to make the plane disappear. That part is never entirely clear.
So, from what we’re seeing Joe could very well be a manifestation of Justin’s illness, a hallucinatory encouraging angel on his shoulder helping him make decisions.
But we can’t forget the podcast which supplies Justin with information that he had no way of knowing previously.
For example, there’s a Russian man on board who has ties to the mob and turned on them. Surely, they’d love it if he disappeared.
Are you confused yet?
Believe me when I say this episode is dense. There’s a lot to unpack, and for me, it took a couple of viewings to know how I felt about it. Personally, I love the complexity. I love that a lot of the story is open to interpretation.
And then there’s the last five minutes.
So, long story, short…Is it too late for that?!
The plane disappears off the map after the machinations of Joe and Justin’s complicity. Justin wakes, washed up on a beach, and surveys the wreckage around him. When he notices another survivor and another and another, his first reaction is relief.
Then he notices how they’re looking at him. They know he’s the reason they’ve crashed. He spies his MP3 player and rushes to grab it up, and begins the next episode, only to discover that the survivors will be found…all of them except him.
What happens next is akin to the primal justice of Lord of the Flies, and ultimately, the interpretation of the preceding events of the episode colors how the ending plays to me.
IF, in fact this is an exploration of fate vs. free will, then this is almost like cosmic justice, and there’s really no more to be read into it.
If, however, you fall on the side of the whole episode being triggered by Justin’s mental illness, then you have a rather bold statement about how the world reacts to this issue. How people are punished for ailments they cannot control.
Oh and by the way, I didn’t see Joe anywhere on that island among the survivors…
Overall, the episode is rich and plays well. Scott gives a top notch performance as Justin, and there are subtle nods to the previous incarnations of this story, particularly in that the pilot’s last name is Donner. Richard Donner directed “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” all those years ago.
You can watch “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” today on CBS All Access, and I encourage you to see it for yourself!