Stephen King gets another TV miniseries in Tom Holland’s turbulent chiller.
Who made it?: Tom Holland (Director/Co-Writer), Stephen King (Co-Writer), David R. Kappes (Producer), Laurel Entertainment Inc./Spelling Films International/Worldvision.
Who’s in it?: Patricia Wettig, Dean Stockwell, David Morse, Mark Lindsay Chapman, Frankie Faison, Baxter Harris, Kimber Riddle, Christopher Collet, Kate Maberly, Bronson Pinchot.
Tagline: “The grand master of suspense transports you to another dimension.”
IMDb rating: 5.9/10.
Let me make something clear: I don’t think The Langoliers is a great movie or even a great miniseries. Show anyone who has no interest in Stephen King novels or horror in general the final scenes of naff CGI monsters tearing up the landscape, and it will not be terror that makes them run away screaming. Yet I love it! This is the kind of project I would pinpoint as a guilty pleasure, for those times when Commando just won’t do. I will admit to being a huge fan of the original short story. This might have clouded my judgement as I am always thinking of little details from the source when I see it, but I do believe that it has enough merits to make it worthy of a viewing by those interested in horror and science fiction.
The plot follows a standard American Airlines flight that goes through a time vortex, wiping out all of those wide awake. The remaining passengers (including a pilot) manage to land the plane at a seemingly abandoned airport, and they try to figure out what exactly is going on. They discover that time itself does not simply vanish… it is eaten by the creatures of the title. The group must find a way out of the past before they are gone forever…
What makes The Langoliers work is that the concept behind it is intriguing. From the plane filled with hearing aids and wigs to an abandoned airport, the settings add real atmosphere. Douglas Coupland referenced it in his recent book Player One, and it’s because the concept is a novel one, taking place in locations we can all relate to. Although the science is total hokum, there is a tangibility to the aeroplane and airport locations that keeps it grounded. The fact it is a three-hour miniseries rather than a standard feature-length movie works perfectly. This makes it an extremely faithful adaptation of the novella, rather than just a vague translation tied around a time-travel concept. Because King’s characters and storylines are generally pop-culture ideas with a literary depth attached, those brave enough to take them straight on to the screen often end up with a script much stronger than the usual genre fare. King may be seen as the “Master of Horror,” but he is also great at thinking up cool ideas and unpacking them around humanistic characters. The Langoliers by Tom Holland (Fright Night, Child’s Play) is not a classic, but in lieu of its origins, it has a stronger core than its 90s television label suggests.
Also, as a time-travel film, it is a genuinely interesting one. This idea of time vanishing behind us is creepy, and presents an excellent backrop for the miniseries as a whole. Its closer to a piece of apocalyptic fiction than something like Back to the Future, and for anyone interested in the concept, this may contain ideas you have not seen before. The Langoliers themselves are a great menace in the background, and the sound of them munching alongside shots of the world disappearing are genuinely scary. It is just a shame they never quite come to fruition (see below).
Although not a stellar cast, the great Dean Stockwell (Quantum Leap, Battlestar Galactica) stands out as a crime writer suggesting various scenarios behind the strange phenomena. He plays a classic King archetype who could be from any of his books from the seventies to the present day. Also, with his background in character acting and science fiction, he can pull off ridiculous situations stoically. The rest of the acting is hit-and-miss, but at the very least the cast is likeable. Ironically, the Langoliers themselves are by far the weakest of the ensemble. The CGI does not come close to the top projects of 1995, let alone current standards, and you will find scarier creations in a Soundgarden video from the same period.
Luckily, they are by no means the focus of the script. As with much of King’s work, there are some strange subplots thrown in for good measure that might distract non-fans from the main strand. King often spends a great deal of his books delving into the psyche of a minor character, and The Langoliers is no exception. Craig Toomey and Dinah Bellman provide the main focus of his observations, playing a businessman in the middle of a breakdown (who provides the inspiration for the names of the creatures), and a psychic blind girl. Toomey might be too much for some viewers, and there is no doubt Bronson Pichot is on the loud side of chewing the scenery, but he does provide a real threat that keeps the clock ticking as the Langoliers move in. Bellman, on the other hand, is a classic King character, providing telekinesis which has already driven several of his stories. In many ways, King writes about this power more than any other – it is the common link between most of his work, and I do mean link (read The Dark Tower series and you will know what I mean). No doubt that it all leads to a dues ex machina, but at the very least the telekinetic powers are not just put in to pad out the running time.
What these subplots do is give legs to a narrative that may well have dragged over three hours. This is why I like it so much; you have an interesting concept explored via the characters rather than constant action set-pieces that would look dreadful with a budget of this scale. And finally, there is definitely something spooky to the series. It suggest a universe far beyond our control, going back to a Lovecraftian concept of humanity being a tiny blot on the face of existence. Working around locations we never expect to see empty, vacant of all life and feeling, the atmosphere remains unnerving throughout. When a surreal vision of a set of businessmen on a airport runaway appears, it does not feel out of place – there is a surreal dreamlike quality to the proceedings that sticks in your mind after viewing.
You can probably tell that I’m fighting to sell The Langoliers, and I can understand why your reaction to my defence may be blank-eyed amusement. Without a doubt, this is easier viewing for King fans but if you are looking for a genre piece to kill a few hours, you will find far, far worse fare than this yarn. It certainly isn’t cynical. No doubt the production values let it down, but for me, this is the modern equivalent of a fifties monster movie. You know already whether you want to sit down and spend your time watching it. Whilst inevitably limited by its resources, the joy of King’s writing shines through. Anyone fancy updating that CGI?
The first scene where Dinah wakes up on the aeroplane is by far the stand out – just imagine it happening to you!
The whole series can be seen below.
- When Dean Stockwell’s character says that it is not possible to travel through time, he mentions stopping the Kennedy assassination. In Quantum Leap, Stockwell’s character helped Sam (Scott Bakula) try to stop the Kennnedy assassination through-time travel.
- In the scene were Craig Toomey hallucinates that he is in a board meeting on the runway, the man at the head of the table asking him how much money he has made for the company is Stephen King.
- Filmed in and around Bangor International Airport in Maine (King’s hometown).