Part-Time Review: Twister (1996)


1996's summer blockbuster Twister feels in many ways like the 1990’s version of a Jaws film – a kind of silly disaster/horror premise taken seriously and rendered on screen with high production values. Is it fitting then that Steven Spielberg executive produced this? Twister represents the intersection of several emerging trends from the 1990’s: longtime action cinematographer Jan de Bont’s (Die Hard, Hunt for Red October, Lethal Weapon 3) second time directing after his first film Speed was a major success, Michael Crichton’s original screenplay in the wake of the iconic Jurassic Park three years earlier, the increasing “What can they do next with CGI” gamesmanship, the run of Helen Hunt’s popularity (it would peak the next year with As Good As It Gets), and the run of semi-science focused disaster films in the mid to late 90’s (Jurassic Park, Dante’s Peak, Outbreak, Volcano, The Perfect Storm, Titanic, etc.). Additionally, I love that these semi-science-based films like Twister tried at least to reflect the current science with chatter like, “The N.S.S.L says the cap is breaking, tower’s going up 30 miles up the dry line.” 

The film follows the events of a legendary day of storm chasers, a group of scientists and thrill seekers who seek out tornados, that sees a series of increasingly dangerous and large tornadoes break out. Helen Hunt plays Dr. Jo Harding who heads up a ragtag bunch of quirky but committed tornado storm chasers. In a dramatic opening sequence we learn that Jo witnessed the lost of her father to a tornado as a child. The rest of her eclectic cast of storm chasers is a plethora of great character actors who are all instantly recognizable in their own way (“Trust Rabbit, Rabbit is wise”). The standout of the eclectic crew here is Phillip Seymour Hoffman, having far too much fun as the all-in Dusty who provides instant energy to any scene he’s in. In the little screen time he gets, it’s amazing how the simple lines “Foooood” and “the suck zone” became so memorable. 

Bill Paxton plays…Bill…Jo’s husband and former fellow storm chaser. Bill is only visiting to get his divorce papers signed and he winds up getting caught up in all the action (so does his cartoonishly proper fiancĂ© Melissa). The on and off again relationship of Bill and Jo (as well as her backstory and purpose as a scientist) provides the emotional backbone of the film, but the star of the show are the tornado events. There are a total of eight tornadoes depicted in the film and when the tornadoes are viewed from afar they still look pretty darn good along with the practical effects employed that have always looked, sounded, and felt great. It’s the up close CGI and debris that hasn’t held up well to time. 

Jan de Bont’s direction and the strong production values turn each of the tornado events into thrilling and dramatic visual effect spectacles. I think the best looking and feeling event (other than the big finale) is the tornado that strikes the drive-in theatre and that one is largely done through practical effects. Maybe my memories of the “Twister: Ride It Out” attraction at Universal Studios Florida has made me fond for it, but I think the drive-in tornado strike has the best overall atmosphere and sense of genuine threat. Ironically, it has some of the least tornado visuals of the entire film. 

The finale of the film has our storm chasers going after an F-5 event to release the Dorothy pod and gain vital scientific evidence that could help lower tornado warning times. This event features some fun stunts with Jo and Bill dodging exploding gas tankers and large tractors thrown up by a giant F-5 tornado in broad daylight. It's a pretty cool moment (as ridiculous as it is) when a house rolls onto the road and they punch through it with their red Dodge truck. After driving through a corn field and releasing Dorothy successfully into the tornado, Jo and Bill make their way to a barn filled with sharp debris. Thinking twice they exit the barn as it's struck and find a covered water well they tie themselves to. They then live through an F-5 strike with debris flying all around them - in one hilarious beat an industrial motor flies over them and cuts the tall crops around them. 

It's a pretty ridiculous sequence on paper, but I have to say they pull it off with a lot of strong practical effects leading the way. If you can stomach the disbelief, then its a pretty thrilling ending. The idea of them seeing the core of an F-5 tornado as an awe-inspiring moment is also a bit cheesy, but your ability to enjoy the moment may differ from me. Twister went on to make quite a bit of money as summer kick-off film in 1996 and make a large impact culturally - bringing storm chasers into the consciousness of mainstream culture. I think how you respond to that finale sequence is essentially how you will respond to the film in general. It's a bit like Chief Brody blowing up the shark at the end of Jaws (though this one is a bigger stretch); if you've bought into the film by then, you'll likely go with the ending, if not, well at least its not that long. Twister is a fun disaster film with plenty of memorable moments and characters making it a genre standout.