Basically an episode of The Twilight Zone stretched out to four hours, STEPHEN KING'S THE LANGOLIERS (ABC, May 14 and 15, 9-11 p.m. each night) nonetheless does have its moments. Based on a novella by horror writer King, The Langoliers tells the story of a crowded Los Angeles-to-Boston airline flight that undergoes, er, Something Mysterious. As a result, everyone except the 10 passengers who had been sleeping during the Something Mysterious stuff disappears, and the remaining small, frightened group has to figure out how to survive, because when they look out the windows of the plane, there's ... nothing.
And what are ''langoliers''? Well, the movie very annoyingly doesn't spill those beans until the second night, so I'm not going to tell you until at least halfway through this review. For its first half, The Langoliers operates like an old John Dickson Carr locked-room mystery story: The passengers are trapped in the jumbo jet and have to deduce what happened. These include thirtysomething's Patricia Wettig as a timid schoolteacher, Bronson Pinchot as a belligerent businessman, and Quantum Leap's Dean Stockwell as a mystery novelist who for some reason calls everyone ''dear boy'' and ''my dear girl.'' Since the pilot in charge of the flight disappeared along with the others, the surviving bunch are lucky that one of their number is also a pilot, played by St. Elsewhere's David Morse.
As is frequently the case in a King story, there's a child who may or may not possess extraordinary powers; in The Langoliers, it's a blind girl (Kate Maberly, of The Secret Garden) who mutters things like ''I hear people's thoughts.'' One way King has remade tales of the supernatural for our era is that, unlike most of the genre's writers before him, he is rarely content to develop just one element of suspense or horror. Instead he throws a bunch of things at us, hoping to keep us confused and hooked. Going over the top is standard operating procedure, and the glee King takes in vulgar excessiveness is part of his charm. (If he'd written Edgar Allan Poe's ''The Tell-Tale Heart,'' there wouldn't have been just a loudly beating heart sealed beneath the floor of a house, but also a vampire troll and a teenage girl whose acne released a deadly virus.)
And so in The Langoliers, we get disappearing passengers, disappearing Earth, an all-seeing blind kid, what someone calls ''a rip in time,'' plus those langoliers, which are flying dark round things consisting mostly of mouth and sharp teeth. One of the passengers calls them ''killer cannonballs,'' but they looked more like malevolent meatballs to me. As adapted for TV by director Tom Holland (Child's Play), The Langoliers is structured like a '50s stage play: You quickly realize that, sooner or later, everyone in the cast is going to stop the action to deliver a little speech explaining him- or herself, even though you'd figured out that character's personality about an hour earlier.
This makes The Langoliers slow going in spots, but it's also a lot more fun than most TV movies. (And given the ratings success of miniseries adapting the King novels It, The Tommyknockers, and The Stand, it would seem that television, not feature films, is where King's sensibility is best communicated, and where his largest audience is waiting for him.) Pinchot turns in a wonderfully delirious performance as a grown-up abused child driven to succeed as a banker by memories of his cruel daddy. And even though the langoliers are pretty obviously computer-animated special effects, these little meatballs are still pretty scary. I'd rather watch them than a Susan Lucci TV movie any day. B