Twister (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

As movie-goers, we expect different things from big-budget summer blockbusters than we do from "normal" films. Considerations of theme and character become secondary to action and mind- numbing excitement. The plot is expected to be very basic -- only complex enough to frame the spills and chills. Jurassic Park is a perfect example of this sort of thing, as is last year's Die Hard with a Vengeance. This year's first entry is the eye-popping, ear-blasting Twister, Jan De Bont's violent weather follow-up to Speed.

Twister, which follows a team of tornado chasers as they track down storms, is exciting, if a little shallow. This particular disaster movie, which pits man against an implacable, unstoppable enemy, owes as much to Godzilla and Jurassic Park as to The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. It's a perfect motion picture roller coaster -- fun, fast, and furious... as long as you don't think too hard.

In real life, violent weather can be both terrifying and exhilarating. There's nothing quite like standing in the path of a monster storm, even if it earns you the label of having a death wish (in fact, it's the possibility of death that gets the adrenaline pumping). Twister tries, with limited success, to capture that sensation. There are times when the tornado strikes seem a little too "glamorized" by the special effects gurus, but, in general, these ILM-fashioned monsters generate enough awe to make us feel that we're watching the "finger of God."

In real life, tornado chasing has a higher percentage of misses than sightings, so the fact that every expedition in Twister unearths a powerful storm comes across as a too-obvious-to-miss plot contrivance. Not that we really care. De Bont keeps things moving, and, except for a few feeble character-building scenes, our heroes are on the road speeding after, or away from, spinning devastation.

Twister opens with a short prologue in June 1969. It's one of the film's most effective sequences, as a family of three flees into a shelter to escape an oncoming storm. The father is killed, sucked into the vortex while his wife and five-year old daughter, Jo, watch. More than twenty-five years later, that little girl has grown up to be a tornado chaser. Played by Helen Hunt, Jo is obsessed with increasing the pre-storm warning time. Accompanied by her old partner and soon- to-be-ex-husband, Bill Harding (Bill Paxton), her usual crew, and Bill's fiancee (Jami Gertz), Jo is about to try out "Dorothy", a specially-built instrument designed to spit out data from inside the vortex. So, in the midst of "the biggest series of storms in 12 years", Jo and Bill hit the road, vying with a rival scientist (Cary Elwes) to reach each new storm first.

Apparently, nature doesn't make a good enough villain, so the writers of Twister decided to add some nasty human rivals. Unfortunately, Cary Elwes' character is both unnecessary and irritating; the tornadoes are enough. Equally superfluous are the romantic complications in the relationship between Jo and Bill. It's a rather boring subplot, and, if these two had been together from the beginning (they are married, albeit almost divorced), we would have been spared the presence of Jami Gertz' unappealing character.

Author Michael Crichton, not relying on one of his ultra-popular bestsellers, dips into his bag of tricks to come up with a completely artificial plot. Without De Bont's energetic direction, the seams in Crichton's script (which was co-written with his wife, Anne-Marie Martin) would have been more apparent. Fortunately, the film's fast pace and stunning audio/visual elements camouflage the deficiencies. And it helps that both Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton, while not "major" stars, are likable and share a pleasant camaraderie. They're our guides through tornado territory, and we need their stability with De Bont throwing everything at us -- including the kitchen.

Twister is peppered with bits of information about how to react if a tornado approaches, how dangerous the storms can be, etc. Despite these snippets of safety-conscious advice, the movie doesn't function as a public service announcement, nor should it. Twister doesn't have any pretensions. It is what it sets out to be: an effective piece of big money, early summer entertainment designed to blow viewers away.

Twister (United States, 1996)

Director: Jan De Bont
Cast: Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Cary Elwes, Jami Gertz, Lois Smith, Alan Ruck, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Screenplay: Michael Crichton & Ann-Marie Martin
Cinematography: Jack N. Green
Music: Mark Mancina
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 1996-05-10
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Mayhem)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1