Twister (1996)


This is a review of two films.

The first film is an eye-popping, jaw-dropping action/adventure, a study of tornadoes and the carnage they create wherever they land. A story of two maverick ‘stormchasers’ who try to launch a data-gathering probe into the heart of one of these twisters and risk life and limb in doing so.

The second film is a lifeless character drama, a tired old story about a couple going through a divorce, the man with his prissy wife-to-be, the woman still pining for their old relationship. It is also the story of a second, group of cartoonishly ‘evil’ stormchasers who compete to launch their own probe into a tornado.

The first film is fantastic. The second film is awful. And they are both called Twister.

Never before have I experienced a picture that could have been so good and that had so much going for it, that blew it so badly. Twister‘s groundbreaking effects carry it a long way. These include, but are not limited to, a tractor dealership being sucked into the air, a semi dropped from the sky, a house rolling across the plains (which is driven through on its side), flying bovines, and of course, lots of faux tornadoes. I can’t remember how many times I muttered ‘Oh my God…’ during the screening. (Thanks go to Speed director Jan de Bont.)

I likewise can’t remember how many times I started to doze off during the predictable, shopworn, boring ‘character development’ scenes, none of which are effective. You’d think that in an hour of development, we’d learn more about the leads, all of whom can be fully described in 15 words or less: Bill (Bill Paxton), leaving the stormchasing world (and his wife) for more peaceful conditions; Jo (Helen Hunt), Bill’s maniacally devoted wife, driven to near-madness by a tornado trauma as a youth; Melissa (Jami Gertz), Bill’s hollow and uptight girlfriend (and Chicagoan Gertz looks ridiculous made-up as a Southern belle); and Jonas (Cary Elwes), the stormchaser who ‘sold out’ by getting (the horror!) a corporate sponsorship (and Brit Elwes is even more ridiculous as a Southern beau). There’s even an Aunt Meg (Lois Smith)! Welcome to Oz, folks.

The film follows a pattern more predictable than a Tyson fight: a big tornado scene, then a boring talking scene, then a big tornado scene, then talking…and on and on. After two hours, the tornadoes go away and so does the talking. Thank God for the latter. And fortunately, the action scenes are much more memorable than the drama scenes, and they serve to sway this critic into the recommend side of the ratings scale.

Now you know what you’re up against when you see the film, and like its precursor, Jurassic Park, you should see it on the big screen, or else you’ll be wasting a video rental. I think Twister might mark the first time where the only real response the heroes have against the enemy (the tornadoes) is to run away, and we cheer for them to do so. It’s also the first time since His Girl Friday that an estranged leading couple were so obviously perfect for each other.

And as for tornado-knowledge, this is what I got: if you’re in a tornado, just hold on to a big metal pole in the ground and everything will be just fine. Promise.

The 2008 two-disc special edition DVD includes commentary from De Bont and effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier. A second disc ofers four making-of featurettes and documentaries, including a History Channel piece on tornadoes.