|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 01 June 2004|
TWISTER is the only theatrical feature so far to center on tornadoes and their terrifying, destructive power, although of course they do turn up as punctuation in other movies, notably THE WIZARD OF OZ (which gets referenced here). The two main reasons for the lack of major tornado movies are that the special effects are difficult, and that a story centering on tornadoes isn't exactly obvious.
In TWISTER, the effects challenge was met with terrific, exciting results: the tornado scenes in the movie are stunningly realistic, imaginative and distinctive. Directing his second film, Jan De Bont knows how to crank up action and to keep topping himself: not only is every tornado scene spectacular and different from the last one, he keeps the tension going most of the time even when the weather's calm. TWISTER was one of the most exciting action pictures is easily the most exciting action hits of 1996.
But the script by Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin is routine and obvious, full of clichéd situations and stereotyped characters. The clichés are so obvious, so tired, so shopworn, that they interfere with the dynamic fun of the action and storm sequences in the rest of TWISTER. It is possible to make a thriller in which the "human interest" stories are almost as interesting as the action sequences, but it's almost as if everyone connected with TWISTER didn't think that was an issue. Too bad.
Usually, giving the protagonist a Personal Motivation to do whatever dangerous or unusual thing they do is annoyingly obvious and unnecessary, but it works in TWISTER. When she was a child, tornado expert Jo (Helen Hunt) saw her father carried away by a violent whirlwind; she's now determined to find ways to predict and maybe even control them. Her about-to-be-ex husband Bill (Bill Paxton) shows up at Jo's caravan of crew and cars to get her to sign divorce papers. His fiancée Melissa (Jami Gertz) is along, too, not entirely aware of what all this is about. As she later tearfully tells him in the aftermath of one of the movie's many tornadoes, "You told me you chased tornadoes, but deep down I always thought that was a metaphor." Jo and Bill have invented "Dorothy" -- four of them, fortunately -- devices to be left in the path of an oncoming tornado, which release a cloud of baseball-sized sensors. This will, the script declares, give them more information about a tornado in four minutes than has been gained in the last 40 years, and perhaps can lead to a way to predict these incredibly destructive storms. Meanwhile, Jonas Miller (Cary Elwes), their much-better-financed rival, has his own "D.O.T." device, suspiciously similar to the Dorothy machine. This pisses off Bill, but the two groups -- Bill & Jo's in ragtag vehicles, Miller's in sinister black minivans -- never really clash, though they keep passing each other as they chase tornadoes across Oklahoma.
Fortunately, there's a lot of this tornado stuff, and it's astonishing, hang-onto-your-seat exciting, with on-set wind effects computer graphic tornadoes and roaring winds creating scenes like nothing else in movie history. Stefen Fangmeier of Industrial Light & Magic was in charge of the tornado effects, and has done everyone proud, to say the least.
So has director of photography Jack N. Green, one of the current masters of the craft. Using a broad Panavision canvas, he fills the screen with activity and scenic beauty, often employing very dynamic aerial photography as well. Of course, Jan De Bont himself is a superb cinematographer, so it's no wonder than with these two guys on the set, TWISTER is one of the best-shot action pictures ever made.
The music is by Mark Mancina, full of sweeping big-sky themes; you'd swear it was John Williams, and in this context, that's praise. The editing is fast-paced, the production design realistic but heightened. Technically, the film can hardly be faulted. The sound effects are particularly good, and are reproduced well on the DVD. It's another demonstration disc for a home theater system, with more exciting stuff on the screen than usua.
Helen Hunt makes a great deal more of her character than I suspect would be found in the script. The lines suggest that she's pretending not to still love Bill, but every glance and movement by Hunt reveals that she's still crazy about him -- but even more crazy about unraveling the mystery of the twisters. In one scene that shades toward actual mental disturbance, she starts to walk directly into a tornado's funnel, dragged back at the last minute by Bill Paxton. Jo is a gifted scientist, but she's not just interested in tornadoes, she's almost pathologically obsessed.
Bill Paxton has a problem as a leading man: he's slightly eccentric, but not eccentric enough to be colorful. And his role is even more stereotyped than Hunt's. Jami Gertz, though trapped in an obvious role, is delightful throughout. The script at least doesn't make her an obnoxious, I-hate-the-country deb; she really tries to fit into this scraggly band of friends who've known each other for years, but it just isn't in her.
The rest of the cast doesn't do much except grab everything from time to time and jump into trucks, then bounce around the Midwest in them while shouting (unintelligibly) at each other over radios, while they track the tornadoes by computers that are linked to satellites. Making the biggest impression is Philip Seymour Hoffman, because his character, Dusty, is depicted in big, juicy strokes, which Hoffman has a great time playing out.
But TWISTER isn't about the actors; it's about the storms, and there it triumphs. Not only does the movie break new ground in terms of intense scenes of really bad weather, but it sets high marks that will be damned hard for any rival production to approach. This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing, and it has its own majesty. I just wish that the parts of the film about the people had been up to the level of the tornadoes and the dazzling special effects.
The DVD is one of the better Warner releases recently. It includes both exciting trailers, and two "making-of" shorts filmed as publicity at the time of the movie's production. One of these, "The Making of Twister," is standard, but the other, "Anatomy of the Twister," is more interesting, focussing as it does on the effects. So does the commentary by De Bont and Fangmeier (both of whom have strong accents, so it's good that their voices are isolated in separate left-right channels). The narration, unfortunately, is not very interesting, and is full of embarrassing self-congratulations. But you're not required to listen to it.