Twister (1996) – A Review

Bill Paxton Helen Hunt Twister tornado disaster movie 1996Bill Paxton is ready to finalize his divorce from Helen Hunt. He’s ready to move on, marry Jamie Gertz, start an uninspiring job and leave behind his tumultuous life he was living with Hunt in the dust. Did I mention Hunt is a storm chaser who risks her life studying and getting up close and personal with tornadoes and Paxton was not only her hubby, but her storm chasing partner too?

Hunt has been haunted by twisters since a childhood tragedy and is determined to make a huge leap forward in tornado research with a new tornado sensor system she and Paxton designed called ‘DOROTHY’. This thing will be able to take readings inside a tornado and will be the first step in creating an early alert system for tornados and to save lives.

So, Paxton pays her a visit to get her to sign their divorce papers, which Hunt seems reluctant to do. What a ill timed visit this is, as it’s about to be one big storm happy day with twisters plopping down all over the place. Hunt, Paxton and their ragtag squad of storm chasers are dodging debris, high winds, flying cows and trying to outrun Cary Elwes, who’s leading a competing storm chaser team.

They’re goal is to get as intimate with as many deadly twisters as they can and get DOROTHY airbourne inside one of these tornados! It’s one very intense setting for these two to make some pretty heavy decisions about their futures, learn what’s most important in their lives and get reminded of their common bond of loving tornados!

Twister 1996 Bill Paxton Helen Hunt Jan de BontRemember when Twister first came out and what a big summer event movie it was?

Everyone is fascinated by tornadoes. We had gotten movies about earthquakes, floods, fires, but never a really big movie about tornadoes. New computer special effects at the time were about to make it possible for a movie to feature them in ways we never saw them before.

They were going to be front and center onscreen and we’d get to see their powerful forces tearing up the screen for two hours! This wasn’t just going to be some wind machines against actors faces.

Big special effect movies were fewer and far between back in the 90’s. It was much easier to build anticipation and get everyone pumped for an ‘event film’ then. Then add in director Jan de Bont, who had just thrilled us with Speed a few years earlier and Twister was destined to be a huge hit.

And it was! Twister raked in the cash, took home Oscars for its cool special effects and sound and helped initiate a slew of cheap copycat tornado movies. I remember tuning into FOX to watch Tornado starring Bruce Campbell right around this time. That was a cheapie tv-movie that actually coincided with Twister’s release. They had already anticipated this movie was going to be a big deal and were primed to jump on the tornado bandwagon.

Twister 1996 tornado special effectsTwenty years later the influence of Twister is still being felt. Into the Storm, tons of cheap knockoff tornado movies with goofy names, even those Sharknado movies I think could be loosely traced back to Twister. It even got its own amusement park experience!

As for Twister the movie itself – well, there’s some good and bad to it.

There’s no doubt all those tornado effects are impressive and continue to hold up all these years later. I think you can put its tornado sequences right alongside modern day disaster movies and they look just as good. There are few dodgy bits here and there, but for the most part they still pack a punch.

When these twisters start rolling onto the screen that’s when the movie really comes to life and you can’t help but enjoy watching Hunt and Paxton run from them and the destruction raining down all around. De Bont stages all those scenes with real big-budget flourish escalating the stakes and danger each go around. For all of us that went to see tornado carnage we didn’t leave disappointed.

It’s when the twisters leave the screen when things quiet down to a melodramatic standstill. Without its twirly stars, we’re left with a hackneyed story, extremely cheesy dialogue and some very obnoxious and annoying characters that almost splinters the movie apart faster than an old barn that a tornado just dropped onto.

Even for big fans of Twister, I think they’d have to concede there’s an awful lot of downright silliness going on with this story.

The Evil Storm Chaser & DOROTHY

Twister 1996 Bill Paxton Cary ElwesCary Elwes is on the scene as a ‘twister competitor’. The movie is so incredibly ham-handed at showing us that he’s a bad guy to dislike it becomes ridiculous.

We’re told he once used to work with Paxton and Hunt, then left on his own to get corporate sponsorship. BOO! He stole Paxton’s design for DOROTHY and is claiming it as his own! BOO! His storm-chasing team drives around in a black truck convoy and his DOROTHY looks very sinister and impersonal compared to our heroes’. HISS!

We’re explicitly TOLD, “He’s in for the money, not the science”. BOOOOO! HISSSSS!

It’s so downright cartoony that it’s hard not to shake your head. They might as well have had Elwes twirl a mustache and tie Hunt to some railroad tracks with a tornado heading down them.

What I always found funny is how this DOROTHY measuring system idea is played as so cutting edge and revolutionary. It always looked to me like it was just a garbage can filled with ping pong balls. It really doesn’t seem like an idea worth patenting or something to be accused of stealing.

Twister 1996 Dorothy tornado measuring systemWhat also got me was how they explain all about the design of this thing and how these little ball sensors are supposed to get sucked up into the tornado and send readings back to them. The big problem we’re told is getting it close to the tornado to allow it to get pulled up into one.

BUT there are numerous times when these DOROTHY’s are strapped to the flatbeds of trucks, Hunt and Paxton are sitting in the middle of tornados – the trucks are spinning around, one even scoops up an entire truck – and these sensor balls never get released! They stay safely in their garbage cans.

Twister 1996 Dorothy Bill PaxtonWouldn’t they have added some kind of remote control to open the lid to these things? Or maybe put some kind of timer onto it to release the balls to allow the wind to carry them up? You don’t need the whole can to go into the tornado, just the sensors right? It always looked like they could have succeeded with this DOROTHY plan with their first attempt if they just didn’t make the lids so damn tight that a tornado couldn’t rip them open!

I also never understood why there’s such a problem with having these balls fly into a tornado the whole time. It takes a final act solution to solve that problem. How can these tornados be picking up tanker trucks, houses, people, cows and somehow these little balls need wings to get airborne?

I just never got that part. Maybe they’re supposed to fly in a specific pattern to take the readings and their circular shapes wouldn’t fly that way until they finally figured out the little wing idea at the last minute. I don’t know. It just always seemed like a pretty simple thing. Maybe I’m missing something somewhere.

Steak & Eggs

Twister 1996 movie cast

Aside from all the tornadoes, one of the most oddly memorable scenes that have come from Twister is the famed ‘steak and eggs’ meal the storm chasing group indulges in.

I think it’s meant to demonstrate the camaraderie and closeness of this group and here we’re expected to like all of them, be amused by their unique behavior and their adrenaline raging lives. It’s also meant to introduce Hunt’s Aunt Meg (who what do you know, makes wind chimes, subtle huh?)  who will be in danger later.

This whole pitstop comes off very strange. It’s like the movie suddenly hits the breaks from all the excitement just to reinforce stuff we already know. Hunt is haunted by a twister, Paxton used to be one radical storm chaser who now is looking to split from Hunt and Elwes is a bad guy.

The only point this all seems to be is to introduce us to Aunt Meg, show us how nice her house and the town is before gusty danger hits later and most importantly to try to get us to like these tornado-loving freaks and geeks, who I always thought were an extremely annoying lot.

Twister 1996 movie cast Phillip Seymour Hoffman Alan Ruck

They cast a lot of recognizable character actors to fill this team out – a young Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alan Ruck, Jeremy Davies, Sean Whalen, Joey Slotnick, Wendie Josepher, Tood Field, Scott Thompson. This group come off as very obnoxious, annoying, unfunny, unprofessional and none of them are folks I would even want to hang out with let alone trust them traversing the roads in the middle of a weather emergency.

Hoffman especially grates on my nerves in this. At points he comes off as such an unpleasant character I was hoping he would get scooped up into the air.

He’s meant to be endearing and it’s supposed to be funny how uncomfortable and awkward he makes the uptight Gertz feel  throughout the day with his unsophisticated behavior. I just felt sorry for Gertz in those scenes and admired her from not slapping this guy.

Twister Jargon

Throughout the whole movie they keep trying to force the idea of how ‘rad’ this team is with all their goofy dialogue, fraternity hand shakes, unfunny jokes and meant-to-be-cool tornado lingo. I vividly recall watching this in the theater on opening weekend and the moment when Todd Field points towards a tornado and screams, “That’s no moon, that’s a SPACE STATION!”

The entire row of folks around me groaned at that bit of ‘Twister Slang’.

Helen Hunt Twister 1996 tornado disaster movieIn the midst of the high velocity breezy scenes we get treated to truckloads of inside tornado slang. Phrases and expressions that I was never sure were actual scientific terminology that are used by storm chasers or meteorologists, or if they were just manufactured for the movie to add to the drama and tension. You know, secret words and shorthand that convey this storm chasing lifestyle that we’re just learning about.

“We got sisters!”,  ‘The cone of silence’ ‘horizontal rain’, ‘she’s gone vertical’ “It’s back-building!”,

I’ve never heard of this stuff in relation to tornadoes outside of Twister.

Twister was such a massive hit and has been watched by probably everyone that I would not be surprised if it had been responsible for igniting an interest in tornados and weather in some young viewers. I imagine it might have even been the influence for them to go into tornado and meteorological careers.

I believe they still air that show about storm chasers about Twister’s real life counterparts.

I’ve never really watched any of those shows, and was always curious if any of these strange pieces of Twister terms have any accuracy towards reality? Were they actually based on what real storm chasers say? Or maybe because of the movie they actually began getting used by now grown-up fans who have gone professional and now they’re common vocabulary for the world of tornadoes. I have no idea.

I certainly hope the movie didn’t truly convince anyone they could easily survive a tornado with some handy leather straps and some deep piping by the way.

That Pesky Script

Hunt and Paxton don’t have much to work with from the script. When the winds die down try as they might, they’re stuck in an extremely flat soap opera-ish type of story.

Had they had no tornado co-stars and this was a straight drama with all the focus going to the little dull love triangle story and the storm chasing wack pack humor they came up with, I think the movie would have been unbearable to sit through. I just can’t imagine.

Hunt and Paxton survive it though. Both of them remain two extremely likable leads. They’re a talented enough pair even with no help from the script they still manage to squeeze a little emotion out of their scenes. but they deserved to have had more interesting characters to play and a better story to tell. Hunt is at her cutest running through the gusting plains in her tank top too.

It might be fun to have a Twister drinking game next time you watch this. Take a shot each time Paxton screams his exclamatory phrases like, – “Hurry!”, “Run!”, “Hold on!”, ‘Move!”

Twister 1996 Bill Paxton Helen Hunt tornado movieI could almost classify Twister as a guilty pleasure-type of movie. There’s a touch of camp going on here. Cut away the tornados out of this and it’s a very cringy, laughable flick

However, to its credit Twister does deliver on its promise, which is being a fun, exciting, dumb movie about tornadoes – and they all look good! The sound of these things is incredible. I forget exactly what they did, slowed down a camel groaning or something to breathe added life into these things, – and it really works!

Much of this movie looks great, The open highways, cloudy skies, the whole landscape of this Oklahoma countryside with the camera zipping overhead of these racing storm chasers all look gorgeous. Hunt and Paxton look attractive and cool. They really took care to make it all look cinematic! Along with an exciting lush score by Mark Mancina, (I’ve always loved the main theme), toss in some rock and roll tunes and give it a big scenic canvas for the tornados to glide across and Twister ends up being a big dumb popcorn movie.

You’ll get your tornado fun out of it, but don’t go expecting anything from the story or more from the characters other than them yelling and running, because you’re not going to get it.

 

The main theme from Twister by Mark Mancina

Siskel & Ebert review Twister – they didn’t like it

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