Twenty-five years ago, a legendary summer movie season began with a storm.
May 10th 1996 kicked off with the arrival of Jan De Bont’s “Twister” aggressively announcing four months of popcorn blockbusters that would be jaw dropping, iconic, classic and even intelligent. However, only one of them had flying bovine.
A riveting prolog establishes why tornados are the unhealthy obsession of Dr. Joanne Harding (Helen Hunt) and her equally fearless, soon-to-be-ex, Dr. Bill “The Extreme” Harding (Bill Paxton). These two are something of human tornados, leaving everything in their lives in a state of ruin that doesn’t involve chasing storms or each other.
Their angry-but-passionate relationship is lifted from the Ed Harris/Mary Elisabeth Mastrantonio broken union in “The Abyss.” Unlike that film, where James Cameron shaped his 1989 underwater masterpiece around an estranged, deeply troubled but unbreakable marriage, the love story here, like all things on screen that don’t involve twisters, doesn’t completely register.
It’s a wonder that Michael Crichton wrote this, as its dopey and juvenile in a way you wouldn’t expect from the creator of the original “Westworld” and “Jurassic Park.” Crichton’s authorship was undoubtedly the reason the screenplay was produced in the first place.
“Twister” came out during that period where Crichton wasn’t just one of the biggest bestselling authors of the late 20th century (giving Stephen King and John Grisham real competition for the current title of the week’ new “#1 Bestselling Novel”), but even non-dino Crichton yarns, like “Rising Sun” and “Congo,” were hits, despite the efforts of film critics worldwide.
When “Twister” is in motion and making a dash for the next passing storm, it’s the fierce summer ride you remember. The tornados are a true wonder, CGI marvels that somehow still look convincing and scary 25 years later.
Like the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park,” the work by Industrial Light and Magic is so vivid and accomplished, this is one of those spectacles that holds up.
When the cast hustles into a jeep and heads off towards the ominous shapes forming in the sky, it generates the kind of excitement that can turn summer movie audiences giddy. On the other hand, when characters are, you know, talking, the screenplay is stilted and silly.
This was the film that took Hunt from being a stand-out in supporting roles for too long to a name above the title, Oscar-winning actress and household name outside of television. Paxton was, likewise, a longtime MVP scene stealer but this, along with “Apollo 13” the year before, put him in the position to direct (the terrifying “Frailty”), experiment with small indies (“Traveler”) and make adventurous choices outside of blockbusters.
Then again, another behemoth IMDB credit, “Titanic,” came the following year.
The storm chasers alongside Hunt and Paxton are a selection of major talents – there’s Phillip Seymour Hoffman, giving exactly the kind of performance we’d expect from Jack Black (who had yet to break through). Filmmaker Tod Fields (“In the Bedroom” and “Little Children”), character actors Alan Ruck and Jeremy Davies are also in the crew.
I love these actors, but this is far from their best work.
Jami Gertz is quite good in the fairly thankless role as the fiancée who can neither tame nor distract The Extreme long enough. As pointless as Gertz’s character is here, no one has it worse than Cary Elwes, playing almost exactly the same nemesis role from “Days of Thunder” (1990). His character here is a colorful but entirely disposable rival.
Much better is a folksy Lois Smith (just a few years before her flashy turn in Spielberg’s “Minority Report”) and the flying cow.
I love the moment when Paxton stands outside a diner, allowing dirt to gently fall off his fingers as he determines the trajectory of the wind. It implies a kind of earthy, downright mystical relationship with nature he possesses, though the movie never fully develops this.
Likewise, despite the horror that Hunt endured in her childhood, her relationship, if you will, with tornadoes lacks the tortured emotion that Quint shares with sharks in “Jaws.” A sequence at a drive-in movie theater makes brilliant use of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” which is probably the film’s most iconic scene.
Director De Bont made this even dopier than his previous hit, “Speed,” which at least had the courtesy to never stop moving (a first act celebration in a bar is the only slow spot in that movie). “Twister” has too many of those types of exposition-heavy pit stops. The way we’re introduced to the dreaded and inevitable F-5 tornado is parody-worthy.
The attempts to make the tornados a character and give the tale a mythic feel are half-realized: it’s cool seeing Paxton do his aforementioned “human barometer” bit, and Hunt’s character carries plausible baggage from the frightening opening scene. Those efforts fail to make the wind as distinct as the fire in “Backdraft.”
FAST FACT: “Twister” made a whopping $241 million at the U.S. box office in 1996, second only to “Independence Day.” That disaster epic scored $306 million stateside.
“Twister” is often cited as the first film to ever be released on DVD (with startlingly crisp imagery showcased on a clunky menu that was malnourished of special features). Here’s another especially noteworthy piece of film history: it was rated PG-13 for “Intense Depiction of Very Bad Weather,” proof positive that the stuffy MPAA ratings board at least has a sense of humor.
There’s The Twister Museum in Oklahoma, which, like the film, turned 25 this year. The museum has been open since the film premiered (and is located in Wakita, where much of the film takes place) and is a special destination for the film’s fans.
It’s full of memorabilia, photos, actual movie props on display (like the Dorothy I), the “Twister” pinball game and has a section dedicated to the late Paxton. According to the museum’s web site, the museum is housed in the building that was formerly the film’s production office, which stored the props and set dressing, during filming from April-August 1995.
It might be the most charming tribute imaginable to “Twister” and is a Graceland for its fans.
As summer movies go, “Twister” has a small IQ but in terms of popcorn-flavored thrills, this is one of the big ones, a hall of famer with major thrills and some outrageous visuals. There’s something so single-minded and exhilarating about “Twister” that gives it an advantage over far more famous summer movies.
Who needs an exploding White House, a bike riding across the moon, tourist-hungry animals run amok or alcoholic pirates when you have a flying cow?