Twister (1996)

Twister (1996)

Cardboard characters try not to get blown away in this extremely silly disaster movie

Director: Jan de Bont

Cast: Helen Hunt (Dr Jo Harding), Bill Paxton (Dr Bill Harding), Jami Gertz (Dr Melissa Reeves), Cary Elwes (Dr Jonas Miller), Lois Smith (Aung Meg Greene), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Dusty Davis), Alan Ruck (“Rabbit” Nurick), Sean Whalen (Allan Sanders), Todd Field (“Beltzer” Lewis), Wendle Josepher (Haynes), Jeremy Davies (Brian Laurence), Joey Slotnick (Joey), Zach Grenier (Eddie)

In 1996 Twister blew through cinema screens with a vengeance, becoming the second most biggest hit of the year. Yes, you read that right. Stop me if I am wrong, but has anyone thought about, even for a second, this bog-standard disaster film since? Staffed almost exclusively by characters so lightweight a puff of wind would blow them away, never mind a tornado, the whole thing is full of sound and fury and signifies absolutely nothing at all.

Drs Jo (Helen Hunt) and Bill Harding (Bill Paxton) are trying to get divorced. He’s finally had enough of risking his neck on their joint passion for storm-chasing, deciding to jack it in for a lucrative life on the media circuit and marriage to relationship therapist Dr Melissa Reeves (Jami Gertz). He arrives in Oklahoma to get Jo to sign the divorce papers – but doncha know it, he gets sucked in to “one more job”, to road-test the storm measurement doo-hickey device he and Jo dreamed of making but she’s actually built. And, handily, one of those pesky twisters is on the way.

The doo-hickey – I’m really not sure what it’s meant to do – is the sort of ludicrous scientific device that only exists in the movies. It’s basically a huge metal cauldron full of marbles that needs to be placed in the path of a twister. It’s also – in a terrible design flaw – hugely fragile and unstable, constantly falling over at the worst possible time. There are apparently three prototypes, of decreasing quality, each a back-up of the one before – you have one guess as to how many of these they burn through in the film.

In fact, you can pretty much one guess almost everything that might happen. Will Jo finally come-to-terms with the death of her father in a storm? (That’s right – she has a “I’m passionate and obsessed because a twister killed my dad” backstory!) Will Bill realise Jo is the one for him, not fish-out-of-water big-city-girl Mel? Will Cary Elwes’ lip-smacking, moustachio-curling copyright-stealing storm expert get his (fatal) comeuppance? Will sweet Aunt Meg (and her dog) survive her tussle with the storm? That “it’s almost never happened” super-storm they talk about at the start of the film – do you think it’s possible our heroes will find themselves in the middle of it before the end?

All of this is shuffled in a film with a hideously over-loaded deck. Jo’s team consists of around eight assistants, none of whom have so much as a character between them. They are a feeble collection of archetypes: the geek, the shy one, the techie, the religious one and the loud-mouthed one (a role of flamboyant indignity for Philip Seymour Hoffman, yet to be recognised as a great actor and instead relegated to feeble comic relief roles). But then it’s not like the leads are that interesting either: she’s committed, passionate but gosh-darn-it puts the storm before her personal life. He’s trying to move on but doncha-know-it he’s just lying to himself that he doesn’t love the storm.

In fact, as this rather smug ex-couple riffed on in-jokes, storm facts and their shared love for their doo-hickey made of marbles I felt rather sorry for Mel. Obviously, we are meant to scorn Mel, with her hand-wringing profession of counsellor (as opposed to the macho jobs of Bill and Jo) and her reluctance to run into a massive twister. Actually, I think she’s rather sensible. Bill and Jo are both clearly insane and take suicidal risks. She puts up with her fiancé flirting with his ex far longer than most of us would and she is hugely patient with the polite scorn she’s treated with by Jo’s rag-tag band of tedious risk-taking geeks playing at being alphas. She hangs around far longer than anyone else would do, before departing after maturely and sensibly telling Bill he should stick with his first two loves (Jo and storms – maybe not in that order).

People aren’t watching these films for the character or plot though – just as well as the film doesn’t really have either – but the special effects. These are impressive, I suppose, as the storm rips through sets, throws CGI buildings around and generally makes for loud and impressive noise. The film has a sort of goofy wit at times – at one point a CGI cow is blown through the sky in front of the Hardings, mooing rather sadly.

There are some decent set-pieces, even though they are basically all the same set-piece repeated over and over again at a different scale (first the storm blows over a car, then a building, then a village, then most of a town while our heroes duck and cover their heads). Lots of it was done with practical effects, shot with an alarming lack of regard for safety – Hunt got an infection from being flung into a drain and she and Paxton were temporarily blinded by a burst of artificial lightning.

De Bont directs all this with a personality-free competence. The film is at absolute best less than half as good as his first film, Speed – and de Bont’s subsequent film, The Haunting, would be half as good again in a career of ever-diminishing returns. Twister offers nothing new or even particularly interesting, other than some wind special effects that are of passing curiosity value but nothing else. It’s almost quaint that, in 1996, this was seen as something earth-shatteringly impressive. Now it’s as fearsome a burst of raw natural power as a fart.

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