The Twister Gap

Commentary by James Berardinelli
June 12, 1996

Something about Twister's reception strikes me as odd. Although critical response to this film has been less than enthusiastic, nearly every "typical movie-goer" (i.e., someone who doesn't write about movies) with whom I have spoken has enjoyed it. Many viewers have been effusive in their praise, and incidents of disappointment are few and far between. In fact, I have been upbraided several times for being too harsh on the film, and my review is among the small handful of positive ones.

Siskel and Ebert, the two critics who reach the widest audience, both gave Twister thumbs down, accurately remarking that the film has an inane plot and lacks discernible character development. But that's not what the average viewer sees. He or she goes to Twister expecting, and getting, a spectacle. World-of-mouth has been phenomenal. The film has roared through the box office like a force of nature. With a domestic gross nearing $200 million, the money probably won't stop rolling in until Twister has passed the $250 million mark. Beyond that, there are still foreign sales and the video market to consider. Yes, I know that money doesn't equate with quality, but there is a direct link between earnings and popularity. For Twister, everyone tells their friends and relatives to see this movie, despite the forest of *1/2, **, and **1/2 ratings.

Is there a critic/viewer chasm?

Obviously there is, but it takes big-budget/small-storyline features like Twister to highlight it. Critics and reviewers generally appreciate films that present something new or interesting. They look for a fresh point-of-view, an intelligent script, timely themes, and/or a set of believable characters. There are even those who are offended when someone uses the medium of film for lowbrow entertainment instead of highbrow artistic expression. Most, however, simply find Twister too pedestrian to be worth special notice.

Audiences, especially those who venture into theaters on a sultry summer night, look at things differently. For the most part, they could care less about three-dimensional characters, as long as the protagonists are likable. A complex, involving script can be regarded as more of a handicap than an advantage. Average multiplex viewers are out for fun and excitement -- a two-hour cinematic thrill-ride where the seats vibrate and they can pretend they're right in the middle of the action. The $5 to $8 admission price is a lot cheaper than Six Flags or Disneyworld, but the amusement park rush is precisely what they crave. And Twister, more than any previously-released offering, gives it to them.

I rated Twister *** because I enjoyed the experience. I fully agree with the prevailing, negative critical opinion about the plot and characterization, but I didn't see those elements as seriously detracting from the marvel of watching tornadoes roar across middle America. The film is shallow and special effects-driven, but, for that matter, so was Jurassic Park. There's something to be said for pure spectacle. I certainly don't want it from a majority of movies (it gets old fast), or even a significant minority, but, every once in a while, it makes for a pleasant change.

This isn't the first box-office hit to be rejected by the professionals, although it is the biggest. Ultimately, it isn't all that difficult to understand the reasons underlying the "Twister gap". It's just a case of critics and viewers wanting something different from films. But, to those of us who write about movies, it points out an important truth. When it comes to summer blockbusters, reviewers are writing primarily for themselves and a small cadre of loyal adherents. During the best of times, critics have limited influence. With a film like Twister, they apparently have none.

© 1996 James Berardinelli

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