Twister (1996)

Dir. Jan de Bont. Starring Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt, Philip Seymour Hoffmann

The roving band of free spirits who chase tornadoes, who each have their own weird nickname and their own competency within the group, have seen it all in their years of following twisters…except for an F5. Only Jo (Hunt), whose father was killed by one when she was a little girl, has seen such a tornado up close. (Some basic Wikipedia research confirms that seeing an F5 would be difficult even for such experienced types as these; there have been about sixty in the past seventy years in this country, so one would need some “luck” to be in the right place at the right time.) Everyone will see one by the end of the film, though. Some will see it in more detail than others; by a stroke of luck, simultaneously good and bad Jo and her husband, Bill (Paxton) will actually see the inside of an F5 and live to tell the tale.

It’s a massive monster of nature, with a base about a mile across and winds probably kicking up around 300 miles per hour. And to the credit of the people doing special effects on Twister, before the great CGI revolution of the 2000s which has totally changed the way films are shot, the big F5 looks pretty good. It is not hard to believe that this tornado could inflict apocalyptic damage. The skies darken appropriately, and the rain pours, and a truck is swept up into the massive maw of the swirling beast. The SFX folks have done their best to make the F5 as dangerous in appearance as possible, just as they lent danger to tornadoes earlier in the movie. One goes right over Jo and Bill, flinging Jo’s truck right in front of the car driven by Bill’s new fiancee, Melissa (Jami Gertz). A pair of waterspouts spin Jo and Bill around at one point and then disappear. And before the F5 catches up to them, Jo and Bill (and two horses) have been running away from the tornado for a couple of minutes. Twister takes tornadoes and makes them seem about as dangerous as a lightning storm. One probably shouldn’t go out in the middle of one, but if you do, you’ll probably be just fine. Three characters are killed in the film by tornadoes; one of them is Cary Elwes, playing Jonas the corporate sellout, and the other is his driver who gets sort of a raw deal. One other named character gets really big boo-boos. Two dogs make it out just fine. And no one else even gets as much as a scratch.

The acting is middling. Hunt is fine, doing as well as she can in a role where an adult woman with a doctorate is consistently reckless around tornadoes because, as Bill says, she thinks it will bring her dad back. Paxton acts like someone who woke up an hour late for filming and didn’t have time to figure out what his character was supposed to do. Elwes’ accent is weird and doesn’t necessarily contribute any sort of interest or menace to his eyebrow-arching pseudo-villain. (I’m not sure the film ever gives us a good reason to dislike him. He takes a lot of money despite not being terribly good at his job, which is the same bad reason people got mad at Ryan Howard. He’s smug, certainly, but Paxton is arrogant enough and is nicknamed “The Extreme,” which is the kind of thing I would have nicknamed someone I thought was cool at age nine.) Gertz’s entire performance is weird, even by the low and wide-eyed standards her character is held to; she provides tension between characters that is undone when she decides to get out of Dodge and let Jo and Bill be together doing what they really want to do. It’s honestly hard to understand what her purposes is in the movie; she stands in for our questions, but it’s not like Inception. The questions she asks are ones that even if the audience didn’t know could be picked up by context clues. As a romantic foil to Jo, Melissa is basically useless; there’s never a moment where it seems like Bill might actually choose her for good, and their parting about three-quarters of the way through the movie is so anticlimactic that one wonders why the screenwriting team (led by Michael Crichton) thought she was necessary. Hoffmann, Alan Ruck, (the frankly inexplicable) Todd Field, and the rest of the storm chasing crew are fine but necessarily have less to do than the leads. Their job is mostly to shout through the wind, eat steak and eggs, and to sing the praises of “The Extreme.”

Twister, if not for its sensational box office take, would be a great lesson in what happens if you don’t make your dangerous elements dangerous. (It was the second-biggest earner of 1996, so apparently that didn’t hurt it much.) As it is, it remains a lesson for the quality of the film. Twister, if it treated its namesakes like something nearly as dangerous as Jaws treats its namesake, might be a really solid action flick. But it’s hard to feel anything watching the movie twenty years on. The special effects are ’90s good, but not ’17 or even ’07 good. And without the threat of the tornado, Twister is just dull. It expects me to worry for Jo and Bill as they run through a cornfield, trying to stay ahead of a tornado; why doesn’t it expect that I will think their effort to run away from an F5 tornado is so ridiculous that it makes me wonder why I’m watching? It expects me to marvel at the two – then three! – waterspouts attacking a truck, and doesn’t expect me to wonder why they haven’t done more than spin it around like a painted horse on a carousel.  The power of a twister is like the hand of God from the perspective of human beings: awesome, hypnotic, unpredictable and totally inscrutable to human beings. And in some cases we get the sense of it when the tornado is nowhere to be seen. The town of Wakita receives some tremendous damage from a tornado, and that scene is the one which filled me with the most fear. Houses are torn apart; one of them collapses while we’re watching. “They had no warning,” one character says. Once again, it’s the implied threat which makes something fearsome or thrilling; the tornadoes themselves rarely create that sense in the viewer. In one scene a tornado takes apart a drive-in theater showing The Shining, and watching Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall disintegrate is impressive enough. But it’s only when we see the end of the tornado that we get the full sense of its destructive capability, which is best expressed on towns. (Part of the reason the F5 fails to capture the imagination is because it takes out its wrath mostly on plants.) The big one dismantles a barn around the same time that Jo and Bill survive it; all I really wanted was for it to dismantle the people as well. It’s not that I bore the characters any ill will, but it would have made it seem like they weren’t standing around in front of a greenscreen.

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