You Are About To Enter…The Twilight Zone: 60 Years Later

“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.

Opening narration by Rod Serling to The Twilight Zone in its first season

The Twilight Zone is celebrating its 60th anniversary and is still regarded as one of the most influential sci-fi and fantasy TV series of all time. Its combination of surreal sci-fi and fantasy storytelling and eerie plots has made its many classic episodes quite memorable for genre fans of all types. Hosted and created by the late Rod Serling, his matter-of-fact introductions led viewers to witness many memorable stories that ranged from a gremlin trying to sabotage a passenger jet seen only by one hapless man ( played brilliantly by William Shatner) in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, to a bookworm (Burgess Meredith) who shuns society and yearns for solitude, and gets his wish after a nuclear war only to meet a cruel fate in “Time Enough At Last”.

The pilot episode “Where is Everybody?” started things off 60 years ago this month with an Air Force pilot in a seemingly abandoned town, who slowly succumbs to paranoia, as things are not what they seem. The plot twist at the end of “Where Is Everybody?” would set the tone for the whole series. Countless episodes had twist endings and examples of being careful what you wish for, as well as bizarre otherworldly happenings. Notable examples include: a woman chased by her double during a solitary road trip in “Mirror Image”, “The Howling Man”, which has a man chasing the Devil across the world using the staff of truth to keep him locked up in, a woman going to the top floor of a department store with creepy mannequins in “After Hours” or even seemingly benign aliens giving humans solution to world problems until their true sinister agenda is revealed in “To Serve Man”. These are just the tip of the iceberg with The Twilight Zone.

All of these many great moments have cemented the status of The Twilight Zone and led to many other anthology shows in its wake. Serling himself had a follow-up series Night Gallery starting in 1969 that was horror focused and not as well remembered. There have been two revivals in the 1980s (a film co-directed by Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Joe Dante and George Miller, and a TV show on CBS), a TV film in the 1990s based on Serling’s unused stories, a 2002 revival on the defunct UPN network, and one streaming right now on CBS All Access. Even shows like Amazing Stories, which was more fantasy based, and Tales From The Crypt can all trace their origins back to The Twilight Zone, which had all kinds of genres in its pallet.

The fact that it debuted in 1959 is also quite interesting since there was nothing like it on TV at that time. Unlike today with sci-fi being a huge industry, the era in which it came about was pre-Star Wars and Star Trek. Nevertheless, the show captivated audiences and even today it still holds up with its timeless stories and issues that it tackled. “Eye of the Beholder” dealt with body image and conforming to society’s standards of beauty and “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” showed how fear of an outside force can destroy a town. The fact that The Twilight Zone was a genre-based show allowed it to talk about issues such as these in an allegorical setting whereas a more realistic show could not, especially in the the late 1950s and early 60’s. It was one of the reasons why Serling created the show. He wanted to avoid censorship issues when crafting his imaginative and thought-provoking stories. This again, paved the way for later shows like Star Trek to do the same thing with its many takes on issues like civil rights and racism masked in the sci-fi setting of starships and aliens.

The Twilight Zone still gets accolades and is always included in listings of the top TV series of all time. TV Guide ranked it at #5 in their list of 60 greatest shows of all time in 2013 and in 2016 Rolling Stone ranked it at #7 for 100 greatest shows of all time. The Twilight Zone’s impact on pop culture also expands to other areas as well with a theme park ride in Disney’s Hollywood Studios park and numerous spoofs on The Simpsons. All of this for a show that was on the air when there were only three networks on TV and decades before the proliferation of science fiction, horror and fantasy in movies and television.

The power of these stories is still going strong after more than half a century and should continue to excite fans who have seen them countless times and gain new fans who will no doubt be drawn in by the iconic theme music that is still creepy to listen to even today, as well as Rod Serling’s famous words “Submitted for your approval…”

C.S. Link

*The intro shown below for The Twilight Zone is based on its first season. It’s not as famous as the iconic theme we all know of, but IMO is much eerier and more effective.

Science Fiction & Horror: The Perfect Combination

Science fiction and horror have blended well together like peanut butter and chocolate for a long time. One of the earliest examples is Mary Shelley’s classic literary work Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus and the melding continues to this day with assorted books, films, comic books, games and other media. Some of the standouts include the Alien films, I Am Legend, The Tommyknockers, the Predator films, Resident Evil, Event Horizon, The Fly, Dead Space, 28 Days Later, A Quiet Place, The Thing (and its source novel Who Goes There?), etc.

Why have the two genres been able to be combine so perfectly? That is to be debated since there are so many reasons and it may not be clear to many. But it can arguably be due for one factor and that is that the genre combo zeroes in to the fear of the unknown. Think about it, what makes horror so tantalizing is that it addresses what we’re afraid of, and that is ultimately death because it is the great unknown. What lies beyond death? Is it truly the end or the pathway to something truly horrific? Science fiction works have dealt with the nature of death and what it entails. As mentioned before, Frankenstein was all about defeating death and the horror of achieving this as Dr. Frankenstein found a way to bring the dead back to life through scientific means rather than using the supernatural.

Obviously it is the use of science or its grounded setting that sets science fiction horror separate from regular horror. And it is why it can be more unsettling…

With the regular horror genre, anyone experiencing it can take some small comfort with the idea in the back of the head that the horror story is implausible. There isn’t any way that a dead corpse will come back to life and start eating you, and despite all the so-called reality ghost hunting TV shows, the existence of spiritual entities still has not been scientifically proven. With films like The Thing, Alien or A Quiet Place, what makes them so terrifying is that we can encounter extra-terrestrial life that means us harm. Science experiments, research and discoveries that should benefit humanity can lead to disastrous results as seen in The Fly, Nightflyers, Event Horizon, Demon Seed, Blindsight, and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Then there is the sub-genre in science fiction and horror of humanity grappling with devastating diseases that falls into horror. Some like The Andromeda Strain are clear cut stories where diseases outright decimates us, but other works uses diseases to bring about body horror tales or create tenuously plausible zombie yarns. Examples include The Fireman, Black Hole, 28 Days Later, Cross, I Am Legend, and the Resident Evil franchise. Of course, saying that the events shown in these works are plausible is stretching things and as with any fictional work requires suspension of belief. But when the stories work and terrify us, they work quite well to the point that our rational brains stop questioning and start reacting to the horror of these stories.

Another thing to consider about how well the two genres blend so well is that the stories are often contemporary or take place in the future. These settings also lend to the feeling that what happens in them are possible. We don’t know that the first alien life we will encounter in the future will try to eat us or that using FTL will open a gateway to a hellish dimension. We cannot say for certain that these horrific events will happen.

What is even more unsettling is that what will actually occur in the future or just a few minutes from now can be far worse than what our puny minds can imagine. It all feeds into fear of the unknown and is why science fiction and horror are the perfect combination for storytelling.

 

Spidey’s Back At The MCU! (For Now)

 

Ok everyone, take a deep breath, the nightmare is over. Spider-Man will remain at the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) for at least two more films.

After weeks of anguish (let’s admit this is solely a First World problem!) we can all rest easy because Sony Pictures and Disney/Marvel Studios were able to reach an agreement over Marvel Entertainment’s most popular superhero. As we know this all started weeks ago this past summer when after the MCU-set film Spider-Man: Far From Home killed it at the box office, it was reported in the trades that Spider-Man, whose film rights lie with Sony, would no longer be in the MCU. This news exploded the Internet and outraged fans who blamed both Sony and Disney for being so greedy at the expense of fans. There were many reasons why negotiations fell apart back then and frankly both sides were at fault. But despite Sony’s announced plans for the Wall-crawler in their own start-up cinematic universe, many swore to boycott Sony films and even Disney suffered a black eye in the midst of their announcements for their upcoming MCU films.

What was worse was that Spider-Man: Far From Home ended in a cliffhanger where Spider-Man’s secret identity was revealed to the world while he was framed for murder. This led to questions over how this would be resolved in an MCU-film, if at all. That in turn led to anxiety over who would be calling the shots in a Spider-Man film now that Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige would not be around to oversee future Spider-Man films.

As time went on, people clung on to desperate rumors about last-minute deals and of Sony being purchased. All of this did not amount to anything, until today when both studios jointly announced that they reached a new agreement where Disney will earn 25% of the next film’s earnings instead of the current 5%.

Spider-Man will conclude his trilogy in an MCU film coming out on July 16, 2021 that will resolve the cliffhanger. Hopefully this film will feature the long-overdue debut of Kraven the Hunter, who would make sense as a villain given his namesake and Spider-Man’s fugitive status. Spidey will also appear in one other MCU film, which presumably will be his final MCU appearance. The question is which film? Captain Marvel 2? Maybe he will be in the rumored Young Avengers film. Or he can help introduce the Fantastic Four because of his close ties in the comic books to the superhero team. This would be a perfect way to show, at least once, the rivalry between him and the Human Torch, which was the highlight of their joint appearances in the comics.

At the same time, it is inferred that the superhero will be featured in Sony’s upcoming films like Venom 2 or any of the Spider-Man spinoff films they have planned. It was not clear either if actor Tom Holland would play the Wall-crawler in the Sony films, although it would not be the end of the world if the character was recast while Holland played Spidey in the MCU. It worked for DC when two different actors played the Flash at the same time on film and TV. Now, as to how good those films will be and how they will affect Spidey’s popularity is anyone’s guess, but Sony’ has a very mixed track record with their Spider-Man films.

For all we know, the agreement could very well be a stop-gap measure until a newer deal can be ironed out when the time comes. Perhaps, Sony might really be sold down the line, which would mean Disney gets the film rights to Spider-Man for free (and no Disney will not spend $10 billion dollars, as was recently rumored, for the character. After their Fox acquisition and setting up Disney+, the company is not going to spend that much money for just one character). Or Sony and Disney will be able to extend Spidey’s appearances in the MCU. But even if this does not happen and we are left with just two more Spider-Man appearances in the MCU, at least the new agreement gives fans a sense of closure and will prepare us for Spidey’s eventual departure.

 

 

 

Ad Astra Takes Us On A Visually Stunning, If Muddled Voyage To The Stars

poster ad astra

Ad Astra is a new sci-fi film starring Brad Pitt as astronaut Roy McBride who is assigned to a top-secret mission to Neptune. A few decades from now, humanity has gained a foothold in our solar system with bases on the Moon and Mars. Years earlier, McBride’s father, Cliff (Tommy Lee Jones), a legendary astronaut, went to Neptune on a mission to find intelligent life beyond our system. However, the mission apparently failed as Earth lost contact with the elder McBride. At the start of Ad Astra (which is Latin for “to the stars”), mysterious power surges from Neptune engulf the Earth and threaten all life in the solar system. Roy McBride is tasked to establish contact with his father, who is believed to be alive and somehow causing the surges.

brad pitt as roy mcbride

This may sound like a fairly simple plot, but Ad Astra is more complex and thought provoking than one might think. Directed by James Gray, who directed the pensive The Lost City of Z, Ad Astra is just as reflective as Gray’s previous film as it chronicles Roy McBride’s long journey to possibly reunite with his father. The film is certainly not an action-packed fest, but more of a slow burn that for the most part engages the mind. There are arresting sequences that grab attention, such as a thrilling moon rover chase sequence involving pirates, and a claustrophobic visit to a distant space lab. In between these scenes, we are left to ponder Roy McBride’s ambivalent feelings towards his long-lost father and his own failings in trying to live under the shadow of his father’s legacy. In some strange way, McBride’s reflections echo Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the visual look of the film evokes 2001: A Space Odyssey.

On the whole, Ad Astra is a mesmerizing watching experience. The space sequences are simply beautiful with magnificent special effects and photography. James Gray supposedly was insistent on making futuristic space travel as realistic as possible and it shows in this film. There isn’t any ludicrous technobabble and though humanity has expanded into the solar system, voyagers still contend with zero-g conditions and use rockets. The scenes on the Moon best echo 2001 in how commercialization and civilians make a voyage to the Moon feel a bit humdrum. It’s not gritty (that aesthetic is saved for McBride’s visit to Mars), but very average and comfortable as the Moon bases are littered with commercial properties like Applebee’s and D.H.L.

Clearly, the first half of Ad Astra is the most engaging as it presents us with a grounded travelogue of space travel in the future. But issues with the film’s plot and pace come up in the second half. The film requires constant attention, but it becomes a bit too ponderous and the payoff at the end doesn’t quite resonate, Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross try to present an important message and an intense spiritual journey, but the delivery is muddled and the payoff feels anti-climatic. There isn’t anything wrong with their message about ourselves, but unlike the stunning visuals of the film, it doesn’t have much emotional impact. What lessens the film’s flaws, aside from the visuals, are Brad Pitt’s charismatic performance. This kind of film demands a certain type of actor that audiences will want to empathize with and Pitt fills the bill perfectly. Other supporting actors have small but memorable appearances throughout.

Mcbride at space elevator

Ad Astra is the kind of film that is meant to marinade after viewing it. Anyone hoping for an action film or a thriller are better off seeing Rambo: Last Blood or It: Chapter Two. Others who are seeking a cerebral experience, or a vehicle for inner reflection, or just want to see an unforgettable and plausible look at our future will appreciate Ad Astra.

Bridging The MCU Disconnect

A common complaint about the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and its related television shows is how disconnected they are. There is lip service from the powers that be that all the films and TV shows are interconnected, but there is scant evidence. At least, when it comes to the films. Fans are desperately grabbing at straws and blurry screen shots to find evidence of the TV side of the MCU in the films but without success. To date, none of the characters that originated in the TV shows have shown up on film, aside from one exception. Howard Stark’s butler Jarvis, portrayed by James D’Arcy in Agent Carter, made a brief appearance in Avengers: Endgame. This lack of TV characters in the films implies that the two medium are not connected, resulting in an MCU disconnect.

jarvis in avengers endgame

However, the television shows made it clear, especially older ones, that they were set in the MCU. It’s hard to dispute that fact where Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. stars one of the secondary characters featured in the films (Agent Phil Coulson) and had appearances by Nick Fury, Sif and Agent Maria Hill, among others. They were portrayed by the same actors and were, in fact, the same characters. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has made numerous references to the films. Lately, this has not been the case as it appears that the producers have given up hope that their shows are part of the MCU and are ignoring what is going on in the films. A good example is the recent sixth season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which takes place after the fifth season and that season referenced Avengers: Infinity War and Thanos. In the recent season nothing about Thanos’ snap was ever mentioned nor were other film characters. In a way, it’s good that the TV shows have thrown off the shackles of film continuity and are branching off on their own. The fact that Cloak and Dagger takes place in New Orleans and is far removed by the events in Avengers: Infinity War gives the impression that the MCU is much larger and complex. Like real life not everything has to be connected and it is fun for sharp-eyed viewers to spot obscure Easter eggs, such as Typhoid Mary mentioning the fictional country Sokovia in Iron Fist’s second season. But it can make it hard for some viewers to care about the events in the TV shows since they can rationalize the shows don’t have anything to do with the proper MCU.

That is changing though. With the new Disney+ streaming service, there will be numerous TV shows that are decidedly part of the larger MCU as they will star important characters like Loki, Hawkeye, Falcon and the Winter Soldier. MCU head Kevin Feige promised that the new shows will intertwine with the upcoming MCU films and held up the example of how the show WandaVision will directly lead to the upcoming film Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

Alright, that is all well and good but what about the existing TV shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Runaways or Cloak and Dagger? That is still up in the air and most likely nothing will change. But there are rumors going on that the cancelled Netflix Marvel shows, Daredevil and The Defenders are headed to either Hulu or FX some time next year or afterwards. The rumors also has it that actors like Charlie Cox will reprise their roles, which means the revivals of the shows will not be reboots. If this is the case, then this will validate that shows like Daredevil and Jessica Jones are indeed part of the larger MCU. This, not the Disney+ shows, will certainly go a long way to bridging the current MCU disconnect between the film and TV medium and create a richer and more complex universe.