When’s the last time you last heard anyone mention Twister? Not the weirdly erotic game that forces people to become aspiring contortionists after a couple of drinks; no, I’m talking about the blockbuster from 1996 that saw Speed director Jan de Bont team up with writer/producer Michael Crichton and producer Steven Spielberg to bring an epic take about dangerously shitty weather.
It was huge, like, mile wide tornado huge and it decimated the box office like the gusty meteorological threats that roar through the movie, flipping houses and flinging trucks like a petulant child.
And yet no one talks about it now and the movie, despite being one of the biggest films of that year, seems to have left no lasting imprint on movie history whatsoever – how could this be? Was it a lack of sequels? Was it eventually eclipsed by something far more impressive? Or, could it be, after all that successful busting of blocks, that maybe the film actually wasn’t that great…?
Did Twister…. blow?
After watching her father get fatally blown by a F5 tornado when she was a little girl, Dr. Jo Harding is obsessed with trying to increase the warning time that’s there to protect people whenever a violent twister levels a section of Oklahoma. She and her misshapen group of oddball scientists and taggers on are tornado chasers, guys who drive out right into the path of of these examples of nature gone mental to leave sensors in their path and then get out of the way before it hits in order to gather valuable data and as such, their valiant nature also Mark’s them out as a bit eccentric.
Back into this world drives Bill Harding, a legendary storm chaser and Jo’s ex-huband who has quit the life in order to get re-married to therapist Melissa and settle down in the far less dangerous field of being a weatherman.
All Bill wants is to get the divorce papers signed and get back on the road, but a few matters keep him hanging around – one being Jo hasn’t signed the papers due to the fact that she’s still in love with him – but the other prove to be far more enticing. You see, during to various scientific shiznit going on in the upper atmosphere, there’s going to be a record number of tornadoes whalloping the area which had made it a perfect time to test out a brand new type of sensor Bill and Jo invented during their time together that’s finally been built. Reluctantly heading back out with Jo (with new beau Melissa in tow!) with aim of giving his old team one more day, Bill also finds out that old storm chasing rival Jonas Millar has a state of the art senor of his own and so the race is on to risk their lives for the greater good of anyone who lives in a region that’s victimized by violently bad wind.
Revisiting Twister after all these years not only induces a pang of remorse thanks to a rare lead appearance for the late, great Bill Paxton (we miss ya, Bill) but reveals an oddly quaint inversion of established rules laid out by the disaster movies of the 70’s that mixed it with a breathless type of Spielbergian adventure tale from the 80’s. Instead of a high priced, chiseled, slumming leading man escorting a horde of paniking character actors away from a relentless force of nature (earthquake, fire, tidal wave, etc.) in a test of survival, Twister features a bunch of character actors leading more character actors toward a raging force all in the name of science. It all holds together nicely enough in a 90’s kind of way and the tornado action still holds up pretty well but the movie betrays itself with some bizarrely infantile characterization and plotting that makes some of the more dramatic scenes as tangible as the winds themselves.
So let’s focus first and foremost about the twisters (a move that possibly mirrors the filmmakers attitude at the time) and the titular gusts still make a good impact on after almost thirty years later and a good reason for this is the choice to treat the tornadoes much like Backdraft treated fire: as a living entity that moves with a purpose. The fact that whenever our characters aren’t chasing a twister, a twister usually ends up chasing them only adds to this feeling that maybe the twister should take out a restraining order on the storm chasers in order to get them off its tail. Jan de Bont also takes pains to try and keep each blustery encounter different from the one before so one twister is water based and famously flings cows around while another is a particularly violent encounter at a drive in cinema as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is memorably projected on a wall of raging wind.
However, despite some familiar and dependable faces in the cast, the humans tend to be far less memorable that the storms they’re bothering due to some iffy character work. Paxton was possibly one of the most memorable supporting actors out there, but in a rare lead role he’s unable to indulge in some of the usual charismatic tics that usually makes him so great (I call it the Mark Wahlberg syndrome) – alternatively, Helen Hunt seems weirdly lost in a huge special effects epic and her character is obsessive to the point of putting herself – and therefore others – needlessly in danger. Cary Elewes pops up as a highly unnecessary “evil corporate” storm chaser which leads Paxton to distainfully deliver the worst line of dialogue he’s ever had to offer “He’s only in it for the money, not the science.”
We’re presumably supposed to instantly fall in love with Jo’s rag tag, highly eccentric band of fellow chaser, headed up by Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s boisterous Dusty, but they’re all so thinly sketched they might as well be stick figures with only their various personality disorders to distinguish them. As much as we all miss Hoffman as well, there’s a sense that he’s playing Dusty too well and if you were to meet him in real life I reckon you’d wanna punch him in his annoying, booming vocal chords five minutes after meeting him. In fact, watching it now, the group almost have weird, cult-like vibe with the entire cast treating Bill’s new wife-to-be Melissa (a bewildered looking Jami Gertz) as if she’s the weirdo for rationally thinking that running into the path of a natural disaster is a silly thing to do.
Still a fun, lush looking adventure movie, Twister’s simplistic outlook on life kind of seems funny when you consider the input of that “dinosaurs kill everybody” guy, Michael Crichton, but as relentlessly positive as the movie is, the experience is kinda marred by the fact that due to a plot that’s as challenging as a two-piece jigsaw puzzle, maybe Twister just isn’t twisty enough.