Screenplay : Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Bill Paxton (Bill Harding), Helen Hunt (Jo Harding), Cary Elwes (Dr. Jonas Miller), Jami Gertz (Melissa), Lois Smith (Aunt Meg)
Unfortunately for "Twister," special effects alone do not a good movie make.
Having said that, let me quickly praise Industrial Light and Magic for the outstanding job it did on the visual effects in this film. The computer-generated tornadoes rushing across the Oklahoma plains were so realistic as to be unnerving. You could literally feel the wind blowing across your face as the roar of the twisters surrounded you on all sides.
But now, on to the rest if the film. Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin, co-writers of the screenplay, should have started by taking notes on Steven Spielberg's "Jaws." What Spielberg knew back in 1975, that Crichton, Martin, and director Jan De Bont still haven't figured out, is that too much of a good thing -- no matter how spectacular it is -- will ultimately kill a movie.
Spielberg agreed to helm "Jaws" under one condition: he wouldn't have to put the shark on screen for at least an hour. That way, he could slowly build up the idea of the beast, making it more and more terrifying, until you finally get to the last third of the film, and there it is with jaws agape and sharp teeth glaring. The ending of "Jaws" is so great primarily because you haven't been overexposed to the terror, and thus numbed to it.
"Twister" starts out with that idea in mind, then throws all caution to the wind. The film opens in June 1969 with a father, mother, and their five-year-old daughter with a dog in tow hurrying down to the storm cellar as a tornado moves toward their town. It is a terrifying scene because we only catch glimpses of the action by the light of random lightning bursts, and it gives you the unmistakable feeling of actually being there, shivering in the dank cellar. De Bont makes great use of sound and quick, teasing images to build up the idea of the tornado, and it works to a horrifying climax when the storm rips the cellar door off the hinges and pulls the father into its vortex.
Fast forward twenty-five years, and we meet the little girl again, only this time she's a grown woman chasing tornadoes for a living because she is driven by the memory of her dead father. Her name is Jo Harding (Helen Hunt), and she's teamed up with a vanful of computer geek storm chasers. I don't know what kind of statement Crichton is trying to make about real-life storm chasers, but I can't imagine they're happy being represented by this bunch. Jo's soon-to-be ex-husband, Bill Harding (Bill Paxton), and his new fiancee, Melissa (Jami Gertz), end up in the mix, and the rest of the movie follows them as they chase tornado after tornado, competing with the mean, corporate-sponsored storm chasers led by Dr. Jonas Miller (Cary Elwes).
Granted, the story is a little goofy and lies somewhere on the soap opera level, and yes, the characters are a little shallow and one-dimensional; but what really kills the suspense and tension in "Twister" are, ironically, the twisters themselves. There are just too damn many of them, and by the time you get to the fifth tornado, which is supposed to be the biggest and the baddest of them all, it's not scary because it looks just like all the others.
De Bont proved himself a master of action as the cinematographer of "Die Hard" and director of "Speed," but with those films he had a wide variety of dangers and action sequences to assault the audience with. In "Twister," he has to return again and again to Paxton and Hunt running from a tornado. It's absolutely exhilarating the first time, pretty exciting the second time, a little tensing the third time, getting dull the fourth time, and taxing our nerves the fifth time. Not to mention this all takes place during twenty-four hours (I guess that averages them running into a tornado every 4.8 hours -- surely a world record).
Of course, there are some clever action sequences, and some that are downright ludicrous. Among the better scenes is the tornado tearing up a picket fence, turning the pickets into deadly, hurtling spears. Another clever sequences involves an eighteen-wheeler that gets sucked up into one of the storms, and then thrown out at our heroes.
Among the more ludicrous and taxing episodes, there is the scene where Paxton and Hunt have a farm house thrown into the highway before them, and Paxton drives his truck through the front door, right up the stairs, and out the other side. And then, of course, there's the grand finale where they find themselves actually inside the epicenter of a tornado. I won't even begin to explain how they manage that, but it definitely pushes the limits of common sense. And then, of course, there's the flying cow . . .
My advice is to watch just half of this movie. By the midway point, the big, bigger, biggest series of tornadoes is beginning to wear thin, and you know Paxton and Hunt will wind up together again, so what's the point of spending another hour, watching what you've already seen enough of?
©1998 James Kendrick