Directed By: Jan de Bont
Starring: Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Cary Elwes
Tag line: "The Beautiful yet Destructive side to life"
Trivia: A jet engine from a Boeing 707 was used to generate wind in some scenes
In many ways, 1996’s Twister is the perfect summer blockbuster; a loud, effects-heavy action flick with one-note characters and dialogue that, at times, is as trite as trite can be. What saves the movie from drifting into obscurity are its intense storm-chasing scenes, where the leads get as close to a tornado as you possibly can without getting sucked up into it.
As a young girl, Dr. Jo Harding (Helen Hunt) witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of a tornado when one tore through her family’s farm, killing her father in the process. Since then, she’s dedicated her life to developing an early warning system, one that’ll give people enough time to get to safety. To this end, she and her crew have built a device they lovingly refer to as “Dorothy”, a series of four modules, each containing hundreds of sensors that, when released inside a tornado, will transmit vital information (wind speed, density, etc), finally giving researchers an idea of what goes on inside one of nature’s most awesome killers. And with a series of heavy storms set to hit the Oklahoma region, it looks as if she’ll have plenty of chances to put Dorothy to the test.
Jo’s excitement is somewhat dampened, however, by the arrival of her estranged husband (and former colleague) Bill (Bill Paxton), who shows up on the scene asking Jo to sign their divorce papers so he can marry his new girlfriend, Melissa (Jami Gertz). What’s more, Jo’s chief rival, Dr. Jonas Miller (Cary Elwes), who has access to much better equipment than she does, has stolen the idea for Dorothy, and intends to send his own probe into the eye of a tornado. Bill, who devised the plans for Dorothy in the first place, agrees to stick around for a while, but when the storms prove more violent than they originally anticipated, Bill and Jo wonder just how far they’ll have to go to get Dorothy off the ground.
The supporting cast of Twister features a number of recognizable faces, including Philip Seymour Hoffman as Dusty, Alan Ruck as Rabbit, and Jeremy Davies as Brian, all of whom are members of Jo’s crew. Even future filmmaker Todd Field, who in a few years’ time would write and direct a pair of excellent, award-winning dramas (In the Bedroom in 2001 and 2006’s Little Children), gets in on the fun, playing a storm-chaser named Beltzer. It’s an interesting collection of characters, and one of the most frustrating aspects of Twister is we never get to know any of them. I can’t even say with any certainty what they actually do. I know Dusty has been with Bill and Jo the longest (because that’s what Bill tells Melissa), but what’s Dusty’s role within the group? He sometimes monitors the radio to find out where the storms are, but then so do a few other characters over the course of the film, and at one point he sets up a video camera to record a twister, despite the fact Wikipedia lists this as being Brian’s job. Through much of the movie, it’s well established that Rabbit handles the maps, and is the go-to guy when trying to determine what road will get them to the storm as quickly as possible. So, late in the movie, when the group learns that Jo’s Aunt Meg (Lois Smith) is in danger, why does Jo turn to Beltzer and ask him to figure out the best route to take? I’m pretty sure Rabbit was standing nearby, too.
A bigger problem is the performance of Bill Paxton, who never seems comfortable in the role of Bill, going from warm and friendly one minute (when he’s with Melissa) to unreasonably out of control the next (Paxton over-acts the scenes in which Bill and Jo argue, making them downright painful to watch). Of course, it’s hard to put the blame squarely on his shoulders, especially when you take into account how awful some of his dialogue is. In an early scene, Bill explains to Melissa why he dislikes Jonah Miller. “We all started in the same lab, but Jonas went out and got himself some corporate sponsors”, Bill says, with some disdain. “He’s in it for the money, not the science”. Seriously, it would have been just as subtle to hang a sign reading “I’m the villain” around Cary Elwes’ neck!
All of these problems drift away, however, the moment our heroes are out chasing tornadoes. From the first encounter with a twister, which traps Bill and Jo under a makeshift wooden bridge, to the drive-in theater where an enormous tornado disrupts a showing of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Twister packs plenty of thrills. Yes, there are issues here as well (I’m guessing that, if I found myself trapped in a tornado’s epicenter, I’d be too busy trying to catch my breath to hold a conversation with someone), but thanks to the incredible special effects and Mark Moncina’s rousing score, these hiccups in logic didn’t bother me in the least.
Forget the cast; the twisters themselves are the real star of this show.