“When you used to tell me that you chase tornadoes, deep down I thought it was just a metaphor.”
Twister may have been the first film ever released on DVD, but I watched it on an ancient, second-hand VHS (or possibly it’s third-hand – it came from a charity shop, so who knows how many people have enjoyed what is now my copy), and I can’t help but think that the grainy, less-than-perfect quality has helped to mask some of the once-Oscar nominated special effects’ less successful moments. In 1996, its tornadoes were a thing to behold, rendered in then-state-of-the-art CGI; today the flaws are clearly visible, even on scratchy video. It remains, however, very fun – fast paced, daft, filled with spectacle, with a screenplay consisting almost entirely of disaster movie clichés. Its effects may be dated today, but it’s still an exhilarating ride.
With writer Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) delivering a perfectly perfunctory script, and director Jan de Bont (Speed) infusing set piece after set piece with tension and excitement, Twister is a blatant blockbuster. Its estimated $92 million budget is used to great effect, with cows, buildings, cars, and petrol tankers all gleefully thrown into the air and unceremoniously dumped right in front of our intrepid troupe of storm chasers. The group – a ramshackle assortment of eccentric friends living on the breadline, fuelled by passion and adrenaline (and, some might rightly argue, irresponsibility) – are led by Jo (Helen Hunt), who has been obsessed with tornadoes ever since her father was killed by one when she was a child. Of all the members of her team (including Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his slightly less awkward, more mainstream roles), she is the one with the apparent death wish, but her motivations are noble, of course. In contrast, the opposition (with Cary Elwes at the helm) lacks heart but has funding in abundance; during twister season both teams battle to get their suspiciously similar devices, which could assist in extending warning times, in operation. Jo’s mission is further complicated by the return of her former colleague and estranged husband (Bill Paxton, one of the film’s weaker performances) and his therapist fiancée, the latter of whom adds some ditsy humour to the perilous situations.
In a film like Twister, however, does anyone really care about the plot? There is nothing unexpected or innovative about it, although undoubtedly it achieves the desired effect. The good guys are good, the bad guys get their comeuppance, the dog survives, and the unpredictable tornadoes are guaranteed to land precisely wherever the heroes are. In fact, Jo’s recklessness is downright hazardous to anyone nearby, and thinking about it rationally, she’s probably not the best example of either a scientific investigator or a storm chaser. Similarly, the situations she and her ex-husband get themselves into are ludicrous – consider one scene, in which they drive into a ravine and are forced to take shelter under a bridge, during which time their truck is catapulted into the air, but they are unmoved by the twister’s power due to the fact that they are hugging a wooden post. The final sequence, featuring an indomitable, mile-wide F5 twister, strains plausibility to the extreme, but it is as entertaining and inevitable as it is ridiculous.
Clearly, I am a disaster movie fan, but even I must concede that some of the best moments are not those filled with rapidly-revolving CGI wind. Two scenes in particular stand out: the sweetly tinkling sounds of Jo’s aunt’s garden sculptures, idly warning the old woman that a potentially deadly tornado is mere moments away; and the eerie calm before the storm that wipes out a drive-in movie theatre. Like Jurassic Park‘s iconic ripples in the glass of water, these scenes clearly indicate an ominous inevitability – as viewers, we know exactly what is coming, and there is a rather perverse sense of satisfaction at witnessing the devastation that occurs mere seconds later.
As with the majority of geological disaster films, both the frequency of the element in question and their speed (particularly the twisters’ amazing ability to appear, disappear, and reappear in the blink of an eye) are exaggerated. However, there is something slightly unsettling about watching movies like this in light of the increasingly erratic weather systems witnessed across the globe today. It has only been a few weeks since Oklahoma was devastated by a series of tornadoes, for instance, and the events in the film may be silly and stereotyped, but one can not help but be reminded that tornadoes themselves are both real and deadly. In a sense, disaster movies like Twister provide a chance to be excited by, rather than scared of, the sheer power of mother nature – we can gaze in awe (depending on the technical success of the movie), but know we are safe. Watching disaster films allows viewers to vicariously experience events that most will (hopefully) never witness first hand, safe in the knowledge that, by the time the credits roll, the good guys will have prevailed, scientific research will have benefited, and the deadly tornado will have dissipated into thin air.