Original air date: May 14th and 21st, 1995
Running time: 180 minutes
Director: Tom Holland
Writers: Stephen King (novel) Tom Holland (screenplay)
Cast: David Morse, Dean Stockwell, Bronson Pinchot, Kate Maberly, Patricia Wettig
Could this moment, in which we exist, be a safe haven in time that is hostile everywhere else? If that is the case, what happens when we’re left behind, even if for a few minutes, in the past?
While time travel has been a very tempting and popular plot device in countless films, only a few have put the concept of time into the focus of exploration. A prime example amongst those few is the two episode mini-series The Langoliers, adapted for the screen from Stephen King’s novella of the same name.
The film begins with a tremendous sense of isolation that sets the eerie atmosphere I still remember from watching it for the first time many years ago. Having departed from Los Angeles to Boston on a red-eye flight, ten passengers awaken from a mid-flight nap to a mystery.
The plane is empty; there are only ten people on board, everyone else including the pilot is gone. They’re flying on auto-pilot peacefully through the night. One of the passengers is qualified pilot Captain Brian Engle (David Morse), which means that they’re free from the immediate fear of crashing with the plane. Still, there’s cause for concern; the cockpit door needs to be forced open as it’s locked from the inside, strange objects like hairpieces, and even internally placed items like a dental bridge work are found, apparently left from the missing passengers.
Even more sinister, they can’t contact the outside world with the aircraft’s radio equipment, and where the night lights of the city of Denver should be, there’s only darkness.
Mystery novel writer Bob Jenkins (Dean Stockwell) is eager to speculate about what’s going on and is happy to share his theories with the others. Along with him, there’s Dinah (Kate Maberly), a blind girl who seems to occasionally show abilities beyond mere highly developed hearing. She finds comfort with schoolteacher Laure (Patricia Wettig) who takes Dinah under her wings.
Also in the group – perhaps most memorably – is Craig Toomey (Bronson Pinchot). Toomey reacts strangely to their predicament; he’s very aggressive and looks mentally unstable, but his premonitions indicate that he’s subconsciously aware of being ‘out of time’. He rationalises his desire to get back ‘in sync’ by doing everything he can to get to Boston to attend a meeting as he had planned it.
It’s Toomey whose childhood memories – in my interpretation – are mixed up with visions of what’s about to happen to them if they can’t find a way out. The scare stories told to him by an abusive father, about the Langoliers devouring lazy people, are projected by Toomey onto the creatures rapidly approaching them. He knows they’re coming and this imminent threat is something soon sensed by Dinah as well.
When the morning finally arrives, they’re able to land the plane without the aid of runway edge lights and air traffic control. Much to Toomey’s dismay and anger, Captain Engle redirects the plane to Bangor International Airport from their original destination in Boston. At the airport, the mystery deepens.
The place is completely deserted and the group soon find that sounds are different; there are no echoes, food and drink are tasteless and there’s no smell either. Wherever they’ve ended up, it doesn’t function as the world around us normally does.
Bob deduces they have been wrong in thinking that at some point, something happened to everyone else. Whatever happened, happened to ‘them’, and it has something to do with ‘time’. Captain Engle then remembers reports of ‘aurora borealis’, otherwise known as northern lights, near the original flight path – an extremely unusual phenomenon in that region of the world – which seems to give validation to Jenkins’ theory.
Dinah begins to hear a sinister, rattling sound that gets progressively louder until the others hear it too. The Langoliers from Toomey’s childhood stories – or perhaps mere creatures of the unknown – are coming, and the group soon finds out what happens to the past when the present is gone.
Apart from being a truly fascinating story about time, Stephen King also suggests that when we’re asleep, we’re somehow shifted into a different kind of existence. Jenkins is the first to realise the only thing they all have in common is that they were asleep before they found themselves in the midst of the mystery.
In spite of several decades of intense research, what the scientific community knows about sleep is next to nothing, and the film, combining this mysterious state of mind with travelling through what Jenkins calls a “time rip”, is very thought-provoking.
Time travel is very gritty and plausible in The Langoliers. Going freely back and forth in time in so many other films and stories begins to look silly when we see the past being devoured here.
The present being the only point in time that’s capable of sustaining life and matter was an idea that stayed with me long after watching The Langoliers. The film has a few lines of campy dialogue, but it adds to the atmosphere and besides the wonderfully creepy Craig Toomey; Bob Jenkins – whom no doubt King modelled after himself – also steals the show with his frequent deductive reasoning.
The Langoliers is one of those films I can watch over and over and never get bored. The music is somewhat reminiscent of The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits which underlines the mystery perfectly – this combined with the relatively slow pace allows us to submerge and really think about time.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.