I will never forget the first time I saw the trailer for Get Out: the audaciousness of the basic concept - Stepford Wives with race - as well as the is-it-a-comedy-or-isn't-it tone was such a mind-blower that I immediately texted my friend who works for Blumhouse, the production company that made the film, and asked if what I'd seen was real, because I needed confirmation that this wasn't just the most elaborate fake trailer ever made:
Little did I realize that I had witnessed the beginning of a phenomenon. Get Out not only recouped its budget several times over, it never left our cultural conversation, resulting in four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, the first for any horror film since The Sixth Sense. On Monday, AMC theaters will hold a free President's Day screening to celebrate the film's first anniversary (for showtimes and locations click here.) For everyone who worked on the film the sky is the limit, especially its writer/director Jordan Peele, who last December, announced he would reboot The Twilight Zone for CBS All Access.
This is a perfect match of creator-to-material. As tired as I may be of seeing old properties rebooted, a Jordan Peele Twilight Zone will be the first of the franchise's subsequent incarnations to live up to Rod Serling's original because of the fact that Peele was willing to change the original ending to Get Out. This may seem like a small thing to focus on as the X factor that gives me confidence in the project, but having seen every episode of the original series (and having read Marc Scott Zicree's indispensable Twilight Zone Companion more times than I can count), I think it speaks volumes to what Peele and Serling have in common in terms of how they tell stories.
Briefly: last May, it was revealed that Peele had written and shot a very different ending for the film. In it, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is arrested by the police after killing his girlfriend and her family. The film flashes forward to prison, where he's visited by his best friend Rod (LilRel Howery), who asks him to remember the names of the people he killed. Chris refuses, saying only "I stopped it" before he hangs up and walks back to his cell. You can watch it below:
The great director Sergei Eisenstein once said, "you must go where the film leads you." Given what Peele set out to accomplish, this seemed like the logical ending for the film: in the real world, Chris would be arrested for these murders. But test audiences who saw the film with this ending felt it was too real for them. What's more, it didn't add to his film's challenging of the Obama era post-racial narrative. Eisenstein didn't only mean that a film must follow real-world logic; it must also follow story logic. Understanding that the audience needed Chris to succeed, Peele reshot the film to follow through on that, but not before giving us all a lump in our throats when the sirens first appear (and a collective sigh of relief when it's revealed they're not from a cop car, but from Rod's TSA vehicle.)
Movies are fragile, and one mismatched element can be the difference between a classic and a dud. Get Out would never have been a dud with the original ending, but we might not still be talking about it. Which brings me to Rod Serling.
When Rod Serling created The Twilight Zone, he didn't intend it to be a show where aliens, ghosts, or monsters cause chaos every week. He grounded it with a Dickensian morality, where the agents of chaos exist either to punish the villains or give the good guys another chance. There's a reason Serling uses Christmas Carol in his work: like Scrooge, his characters often learn that redemption is possible. Sometimes, like Bleak House's John Jarndyce, they put aside their ego to help others. Serling and his co-writers didn't always heed to these rules - Burgess Meredith's meek bookworm breaking his glasses at the end of "Time Enough At Last" one of the most famous exceptions - but they rarely punished characters for punishment's sake.
The final six episodes of the original series to be produced, all of them written by outsiders, failed to understand this and are generally considered among the series' worst. One example is "What's in the Box?," about a surly cab driver whose TV shows him murdering his wife in the future. The Twilight Zone had done many episodes with magic devices - phones, radios, shoes, etc. - but usually, the purpose for these devices was to reveal deeper aspects of the main characters, like the slot machine which undoes the hapless gambler in "The Fever," or the radio which gives its listener a chance to restart his life in "Static." In "Box," all that happens is the cab driver sees the murder and then he does it. The TV serves no purpose other than to cause chaos, and it renders the whole episode pointless.
The Twilight Zone reboots fell into this trap as well, most notably the one from the early 2000s. In the pilot episode, "Evergreen," Amber Tamblyn plays a girl whose family moves to a strange gated community where unruly teenagers disappear and are never heard from again. The premise, while a good one, never goes beyond sheer chaos, since after Tamblyn's character finds out the community's secret (they turn the bad teens into fertilizer), she becomes their victim. It's Soylent Green without the environmental message. I knew while watching it that the series would never last, and was proven right, since it was cancelled after only one season of episodes that relied only on gimmicks and chaos.
The sci-fi/horror tropes of The Twilight Zone existed not to shock, but to illuminate the human condition. As a huge fan of the genre, Peele must know this, and his willingness to change Get Out's ending shows a commonality with Serling's Dickensian impulses. I don't know exactly what his reboot will look like, but I believe it will share the same philosophy as the original: the moral arc of sci-fi/horror is long but it bends towards justice.