Jan de Bont’s Twister (1996) is a one premise wonder – two hours into the oft’ thoughtless and occasionally mind-numbing stupidity of a particular group of storm chasers obsessed with getting up close and personal with Mother Nature’s most awesome forces of destruction. And yet, in hindsight, and particularly in lieu of the dreck being peddled in America’s cinemas today as ‘action’ entertainment, it could almost pass as high art. America’s ‘tornado alley’ is a perennial nightmare for its mid-western residents, stretching from northern Texas, through Oklahoma, Kansas and into Nebraska; an ominous, if seemingly uninspired stretch of flat rural plains, occasionally dotted with the imposing wood-framed farmhouse or modern day metal-constructed barn; neither particularly weather resistant against the howling F-5 wind tunnels barreling through town when the barometer suddenly falls and the toxic clash of cool dry air mixes with a warm body of humidity traveling south.
Okay, big surprise; you’re not watching a movie like Twister for plot. And yet, the narrative loosely strung together by screenwriters, Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin in between hellish touchdowns is not as bent on clichés as one might expect. Oh sure, we still have the feuding love/hate thing happening between butch weather guy, Bill Harding (Bill Paxton) and his tart-mouthed soon (never to be) ex, Dr. Jo Harding (Helen Hunt). There is even more foreseeable male chest-thumping concerning Bill – ostensibly retired from the fray and thus considered something of a sell-out and figure of fun - and rival storm chaser, Dr. Jonas Miller (Carey Elwes) – an anemic egghead who fatally relies on scientific instrumentation rather than intuition to pursue his kicks. Finally, and, of course, we get a lovable assortment of ragamuffins, played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (looney tune, Dustin Davis), Lois Smith (as Jo’s aunt/I-Mother Earth metal artist, Meg Greene) and Jami Gertz (a basket case psychoanalyst – and Bill’s fiancée, Dr. Melissa Reeves). No one could ever accuse Twister of being the new ‘Gone with the Wind’ (pun intended), even if this is the mother of all gales taking Dorothy back to Kansas. Even so, director, Jan de Bont has come up with a summer blockbuster that, so many years later, continues to divert, entertain and numb the senses; just the sort of caliginous claptrap of CGI and melodrama one might expect from a TNT movie of the week/Weather Channel hybrid.
I may sound like I’m bashing Twister, but actually, upon renewed viewing I have discovered – much to my own shock and amazement – its cornball idiocy and then state-of-the-art special effects hold up rather nicely, even under my jaded scrutiny. Miraculously, the plot (such as it is) is more than sustainable. Like so many summer blockbusters that were to follow and less successfully copy it, Twister is not a narrative movie per say (although there is something of a ‘story’ to be had between funnel clouds). But in hindsight, Twister is merely an excuse for digital effects artists to show off some of the uber-clever tricks in their CGI toolbox. And, having seen enough truly awful CGI since to know the difference, I have to say what’s here is fairly competently rendered; the digital world colliding rather succinctly – and invisibly – with the live action and dumb show from our actors. The Crichton/Martin screenplay plays it safe, distilling the science of storm chasing into bare bones factoids so as not to bore the audience. Instead, we are left with the occasionally stomach-churning and usually woeful and pedestrian lamentation of a severely flawed lover's triangle, relying almost entirely on star personalities to carry the menial dialogue sandwiched between harrowing sequences of gale force annihilation.
Twister isn’t high art or even high concept; just a good ole-fashioned schlock yarn for which de Bont has gleaned the well-established principles of the classic disaster epic and streamlined the process somewhat to include less star-power and more bits of catastrophic destruction. And de Bont makes no bones about the real star of his picture; the raw unpredictability of Mother Nature; the opening credits swept away by a few threatening bars of composer, Mark Mancina’s underscore, dissolving to an unhealthily still late evening sunset in rural Kansas and then, the deluge; young Jo Thornton (Alexa PenaVega) hurried into a storm cellar as her family, (Rusty Schwimmer and Richard Lineback) race on foot to escape a midnight twister tearing up the farmland directly behind them. Dad doesn’t make it out alive, and this becomes the impetus for adult Jo’s fascination with storm chasing. We flash ahead to the present, de Bont giving us the lay of the land – literally – with an exhilarating helicopter shot across the flat landscape, zeroing in on a Ford pickup catapulting down a dirt road, Bill and his fiancée, Melissa, hurrying to catch up to Jo and her storm chasing team. It’s been months since Bill served Jo with divorce papers she has yet to sign. This delay basically serves as the crux for the rest of the movie’s plot; Jo, outwardly agreeing to the divorce but somehow never getting around to affixing her signature to make it official. Refreshingly, and despite being something of scatterbrain, Melissa is not the cliché of the evil – or at the very least, possessively demanding – ‘other’ woman. She loves Bill and is fairly sympathetic toward Jo too. But she really has no concept of what or why storm chasers do what they do and this leads to some friction along the way.
Jo shows Bill ‘Dorothy’ – a prototype weather satellite they designed while still together but built with funds accrued after their split; a means to measure wind velocity inside the core of a tornado. Bill is enthralled to realize his pipedream has become a reality. Leaving storm chasing for the relatively safe profession of becoming a weatherman was one reason why he and Jo split. But now ‘Dorothy’ seems to have brought the couple together; Bill, with Melissa’s complicity, electing to follow Jo and her team toward the site of a brewing natural disaster. Unprepared for what lies ahead when man confronts nature, Melissa is mildly shell-shocked as debris and a wayward cow float through space between a pair of waterspouts spawned by a natural depression. A short while later, while stopping at a nearby truck stop for some coffee and lunch, we are introduced to Dr. Jonas Miller – a fairly snarky windbag who once considered Bill his competition, but now quaintly thinks on him as little more than a sell-out and has-been. After another confrontation with Mother Nature, in which Bill and Jo narrowly escape an unpredictable funnel, forced to drive into a ditch and seek refuge under a rickety wooden bridge, Jo elects to take everyone to her Aunt Meg’s for a home-cooked breakfast and a little TLC. Meg is devoted to Jo. Moreover, she has always believed Bill and Jo were meant to be together.
Twister’s middle act is predictable in the extreme. There is never any doubt Jo and Bill are on the way to reconciliation; that poor, cosmopolitan Melissa is destined to go home alone, and the pompous usurper, Jonas, will meet with an untimely end. And so, Melissa becomes the first casualty by her own design, graciously bowing out after another late night tornado all but decimates a small town where Bill, Melissa, Jo and the rest are forced to take refuge inside a mechanic’s garage, narrowly escaping an F-3 monster. We move into the penultimate search and rescue after Meg’s farm is rocked by the wind and Meg is buried alive inside the crumbling remains of her house. Jonas sets his team on a collision course with the F-4, trusting his instrumentation that predicts the funnel will pivot away from them. Instead, it engulfs and carries off his truck; the vehicle crash landing a short distance away as Jo and Bill look on in horror. Jo is now more obsessed than ever to launch Dorothy. Driving toward an F-5, Jo promises Bill this will be the last time for her. It’s time to settle down and get serious about life, especially since it is now quite obvious Bill has decided to remain at her side and forsake the divorce proceedings.
Sending Dorothy into the vortex, along with Bill’s truck (a thorough waste of a perfectly good F-150), Jo and Bill are forced to flee for their lives as the F-5 hellcat turns with a vengeance, seemingly to stalk them. The couple takes refuge inside a flimsy pump house, strapping themselves against its metal groundwater beam just as the funnel strikes. Bill and Jo get an inside view of this monstrous wind tunnel before it dissipates into thin air; the nightmare over for Jo as she quietly observes the family of a nearby farmhouse – mother, father and young daughter – emerging from their storm cellar unscathed. Time to focus on the more important things in life: love, family and the luxury of having survived a thoroughly impossible weather scenario.
Twister won’t win any awards, but this was never its intent. It’s a disaster movie – cribbing from fairly standardized clichés and straight-forward to a fault. There’s just enough tangible melodrama in between the touchdowns and narrow escapes to keep the audience mildly amused and focused. De Bont has made a formidable popcorn muncher. It can still rattle the nerves in increments and distract from the fact it’s not an outstanding achievement in the cinema firmament. Not every move has to be Gone with the Wind. But each should at least strive to be the best of its kind. Twister isn’t the best. But it doesn’t miss this mark by all that much either. The characters – cartoony in spots and painted in very broad brush strokes throughout – are nevertheless engaging; I suspect more so because it is Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton we are invested in - not their fictional alter egos. Even more gratifying: de Bont and his cameraman, Jack N. Green have resisted the urge to overdo the whole ‘hand-held’ camera jitteriness that continues to plague far too many contemporary action movies; instead, relying on some classic and stable long shots, evenly paced set-ups with a few jump cuts to get the adrenaline pumping; thus proving (as though proof were needed) you can still make a competent (even good) thrill ride and not offset the audience’s equilibrium to the point of nausea. There are enough discombobulating SFX on tap in Twister without any help from a cameraman suffering from an artistic attack of faux Parkinson’s.
Fair enough, the meandering subplot involving rival storm chaser, Jonas Miller is a bit too timid to be believed and far more predictable in its outcome; de Bont playing up Miller’s high tech gadgetry as no match to copycat Bill's earthy gut feelings; the egghead vs. the sensual man, so to speak. Alas, this rivalry is not nearly antagonistic enough; Cary Elwes entirely the wrong type – physically – to pull it off. Beefy Bill Paxton could mop the floor with Elwes’ ghost of a man given half the opportunity. But we never get this ‘gloves off’ altercation; just an interminable amount of Elwes simpering and plotting, eventually resting on his bony haunches and following Bill’s lead like a lap dog. The one time he deviates from this indecision gets him killed, proving to the audience who the real he-man is of our story. A shame too we don’t get more of Bill’s relationship with Melissa. She is exceedingly patient, compassionate and understanding to a fault. In any sane life scenario, Mel’ would win her man. She clearly represents the more loving choice. Then again, Bill’s toxic decision to discard Mel’ in mid-plot and slink back to his seriously damaged relationship with Jo, arguably, never having worked in the first place, is decidedly in keeping with his own flawed character.
Twister is improbable, silly, good fun. The epic winds are all computer generated, hurling farm machinery, tankers, people, homes and even a cow about the vast flat plains while the principles react with faux conviction and awe. But De Bont knows how to build dramatic tension. He cleverly starts us off with an invisible colossus; an F-2 unseen under the cover of night, whetting our appetites to strain and learn more as he gradually unleashes bigger and more graphically illustrated funnel clouds. Twister is more expertly crafted than practically any disaster flick currently playing at your local cinema. So, get ready to swing and careen around the room; experiencing this ‘dark ride’ and its inevitable conclusion. Twister is diverting. But it also holds up rather nicely; a prelude to the summer storms yet to come and, I suspect, an ominous aide-mémoire of how cruel Mother Nature can be for those living in the real-life disaster belt. The irony of Twister is there is not a whole lot to recommend it and yet, it entertains. Mid-westerners will likely wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, they can see the real thing for free. But for those unaccustomed to 'tornado alley' Twister delivers movie excitement without the messy post-storm clean-up. There is enough voyeurism here to satisfy the adventurist, settling in for a night in the relative safety of his/her living rooms…leave the cows outside.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is fairly impressive. Colors pop. The 1080p image excels with crystal clarity and a lot of gorgeous fine detail. The storm sequences have all been rendered digitally. Nevertheless, they appear plausible and satisfying throughout. There is enough suspension of disbelief in the artifice to recognize it isn’t real, the fakery washing over without too much obviousness getting in the way of the entertainment value. There’s not much else to say about the image except it will surely not disappoint. The audio is an aggressive 5.1 Dolby Digital – not DTS, alas, but nevertheless really giving the speakers a workout. The subwoofer and rear channels will rattle both the rafters and the floor. Good stuff. Dialogue is crisp and Mark Mancina’s score is appropriately magnificent. Extras include a behind-the-scenes film documentary and a History Channel special on storm chasers, a director’s audio commentary and music video from Van Halen. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)