Are you ready to enter a dimension of sight, sound, and mind? To walk that middle ground between light and shadow, science and superstition, fear and knowledge? And do you wish the new Twilight Zone on CBS All Access had given us a sliiiiightly stronger episode as its lead-off?
It’s a bold choice to usher in Jordan Peele’s reimagining of the 1960s classic by riffing on one of the original’s most famous outings, and while this “terror on an airplane” tale gets a properly millennial update—podcasts and turbans and body scans, oh my!—it never quite gels in the way viewers might hope.
This is by no means the fault of Adam Scott, taking on the role of the unraveling airline passenger made famous by William Shatner in the 1963 episode and John Lithgow in 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie.
Scott is Justin Sanderson, a journalist who writes magazine cover stories on the end of civility and grapples with anxiety over some of the horrific things he’s witnessed. Those details aren’t explicitly spelled out, but you do wonder what kind of assignments a journalist might cover that would leave him repeating “the past is the past” as his calming mantra.
Justin endures a TSA pat-down and gamely signs an autograph for a boozy fan named Joe (Chris Diamantopoulos), then waits to board GoldStar Airline flight 1015 to Tel Aviv, departing at 10:15 p.m. on Oct. 15. The coincidence is enough to make even non-paranoid passengers raise an eyebrow.
He boards the plane to ominous music—I hear similarly terrifying music every time I board a plan and navigate those narrow aisles, tbh— and gives up his first-class perch so a family can be seated together. He claims an empty seat toward the back, where he discovers a clunkily retro wood-veneer MP3 player in the seat pocket in front of him.
Without hesitation, he pops on a set of wired headphones and hits play on the queued-up podcast episode from Enigmatique: “The Tragic Mystery of Flight 1015.” He listens in increasing alarm as the host describes the final moments of the doomed flight, which departed from Dulles, just like Justin’s flight.
And then there’s narrator Jordan Peele, popping up on the in-flight screens to offer some cheesy—and I use that word in the most affectionate and excited manner possible—dialogue about an unscheduled stopover…at The Twilight Zone. Yes! The show is back, friends! Let’s do this!
The Enigmatique podcast launches into a discussion of the ominous signs surrounding flight 1015, and Justin looks around and starts spotting plenty. His seatmate bails as Justin starts to panic about the pilot’s name matching the one mentioned on the podcast—although the fact that the guy didn’t move to an unoccupied row even before takeoff makes him the most suspicious character on that plane in my book.
The podcast mentions a bird striking the engine at 10:21 p.m., the exact moment that an object hits the plane outside of Justin’s window. It sends him into his first tailspin of the night, resulting in the flight attendants asking him to lower his tone. Then Captain Donner (Nicholas Lea—hi, Alex Krycek!) comes on the overhead to warn about rough weather ahead due to the storm they’re flying through.
Boozy fan Joe comes wandering up with a tiny bottle of alcohol in his hand to say that he’s a former pilot who doesn’t fly anymore because of “one too many mistakes,” which is so not a thing you want to hear anyone say when you’re strapped into an airplane. Justin then tunes back into the podcast and listens to the host muse about what might have disrupted communication from flight 1015.
This prompts him to prowl the aisle, searching for suspicious electronics. He asks two Sikh men watching a video to turn off their device, even though it’s in airplane mode. The exasperated flight attendants order him back to his seat, and unspoken but throbbing underneath the surface of this encounter are the dynamics of a wild-eyed white man confronting two dark-skinned men in turbans over their unobtrusive behavior.
The podcast then turns to the passenger manifest for clues. Igor Orlov was onboard, flying to testify against the Russian mafia. Could an attempted hit have downed the plane? Was the U.S. air marshal onboard involved, perhaps?
This sends Justin on a search for the air marshal. The flight attendants are no help, and Joe says it’s not him, although he recommends that Justin look for the person behaving deceptively to get into the minds of a terrorist.
As the young woman in the aisle next to him watches with interest, Justin creeps up to search through the possessions of the sleeping Russians toward the front of the plane. When they wake up to confront Justin, we learn they’re actually soccer players, and the bearded Russian in a different part of the plane is Orlov, who bursts from his seat ready to fight. At this point, Captain Donner leaves the cockpit to warn Justin to get it together. Naturally, every passenger on board films the whole incident.
And that’s how Justin ends up as the third passenger of interest mentioned in the podcast; video of him causing the disturbance we just witnessed was uploaded moments before the plane disappeared.
That’s the final piece of evidence Justin needs, and he begs Donner not to say “Good night, New York” in fourteen minutes, as that’s the final transmission from the plane, according to Enigmatique.
The woman in the aisle next to him has had enough and announces that she’s the air marshal, zip-tying his hands and promising to have help waiting for him when they land. He begs her to believe him that, although he’s had a mental breakdown in the past, this feels different.
She gets up to consult with Donner, leaving him alone with the MP3 player, which was unwise. He listens to the episode’s final minutes in which the host asks what could have prevented the disappearance. In desperation, Justin enlists Joe’s help; since Joe’s a pilot, could he assume control of the plane and delivery them safely to Canada?
Joe immediately agrees and offers to incapacitate the crew and then drop the cabin pressure, putting everyone to sleep while he lands the plane. Although the cockpit is locked to prevent invasions, Justin guesses the access code will be—what else?—1015. Joe leaves Justin with a canister of oxygen so he’ll be awake as all 117 people on board are saved.
Then Joe rushes the cockpit, and the in-flight screens broadcast the cockpit camera as he beats the flight crew unconscious. Once Joe’s in control, he gets on the intercom to announce, “Time for everyone to relax.” A few flips of a switch and the only people awake are him and Justin.
Over the intercom, Joe tells Justin that the past is the past, and now they can both escape it. “Good night, New York,” Joe says into the headset before slumping in the pilot seat with a satisfied smile.
As the plane makes its final descent through the turbulent sky, Justin realizes something terrible: “He’s the pilot.” Nobody was saved here today.
But wait, did you think The Twilight Zone was finished with Justin? Not quite yet.
The next thing we know, we’re in the opening moments of the Lost pilot—er, Justin is waking up on a beach next to washed-ashore luggage, the plane fuselage jutting out of the water behind him.
He scrambles for the MP3 player and tunes in to “The Mystery of Flight 1015 Part II: The End of Civility.” The Enigmatique host explains that a cargo ship eventually rescued all the passengers from a near-abandoned atoll—everyone except Justin Sanderson, who vanished.
He then looks up to discover all of the passengers, bloodied but alive, staggering toward him, surrounding him, blaming him for their situation. Justin picks up a rock to defend himself, but the last thing we see is the people of GoldStar Airline flight 1015 swarming the architect of their doom.
Overall, the premiere episode of this splashy reboot features slick production values, gorgeously off-kilter shots, and a pitch-perfect spoof of mystery podcasts, from music to writing to delivery. If this is the hallmark of production values to come, we’re in for a treat. While I wish the beats that drove Justin to increasing degrees of desperation had been layered together in shorter, sharper, and more gradual ramp-ups, it overall worked beautifully to create a potent sense of inescapable doom.
The Zone zone
- Doesn’t Jordan Peele look like he’s having a great time wryly delivering those lines as the narrator?
- Some cool little touches in this episode keep things juuuuust enough off-kilter for discomfort: the clunky MP3 player and the airport billboard advertising trips to Mars exist alongside the expected AirPods and cell-phones. Plus, was that beloved comedian Samir Wassan on the cover of a magazine in that airport bookstore?
- In 1963 and 1983, the terror was at 20,000 feet. Today, it’s at 30,000. Did we all just learn something about the evolving altitudes of air travel? Also, Easter Egg alert: The Omen director Richard Donner helmed the 1963 episode, which is no doubt where the 2019 version found its pilot’s name.
- For the record, it’s much more satisfying to imagine this all befalling Trevor from The Good Place and much less satisfying to picture it happening to our beloved Ben Wyatt.
- What was real, and what was a product of Justin Sanderson’s overtaxed mind? Was there really an MP3 player? Was there even a Joe? And can we interpret the podcast’s second installment as Justin’s continuing delusions once he’s met by mental health professionals at the end of the flight, or was he truly torn apart by his fellow travelers? I suppose that all depends on how far you’re willing to travel into…The Twilight Zone. (Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.)