Twister (1996)

D: Jan De Bont
S: Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt, Cary Elwes

There are some dark and eerie moments in Twister which make excellent use of suspenseful portents before unleashing tempestuous disaster. Stormchaster Bill Paxton stands alone in a darkened street and says he can smell it coming. A low grumble can be heard somewhere in the background and it all seems too quiet for comfort. Then it comes prowling out of the night like a mythical beast, a raging whirlwind which wrenches buildings from their foundation and rattles the corregated roof of another in which our heroes have taken hasty shelter.

Following Speed was never going to be an easy task for cinematographer Jan De Bont, but with a script almost as silly as that of the former film (if not as tight), he has come as close to succeeding as the big screen will allow. Of course, on video, you can forget it. Twister is all about enveloping the viewer in a visual and aural world of howling winds and rattling roofs that only works in dolby surround and in blackout conditions.

The story (by Michael and Anne-Marie Crichton) has troubled stormchaser Paxton trying to leave the life in favour of a quiet world of bourgeois respectibility dragged back into the fray by reluctant to-be-ex Hunt (in an amusing variant on the old Front Page/His Girl Friday scenario) when a series of lethal tornados begin wreaking havoc, giving his former team the chance to test powerful new equipment which must be dropped directly in the path of the funnel and sucked up inside. But a rival group of less scruplous scientists led by Cary Elwes is also out and about, and with the triple challenges of spouse, nature, and competition, Paxton finds himself back in a world of self-inflicted trouble.

The plot is pretty basic, and nothing more than an excuse to set up a series of confrontations between the various protagonists and antagonists (human and natural), most of which are done with special effects laden style suitably becoming of the genre. If there is a hollow centre to the picture, it is only to be expected, but only the ending finally snaps the tolerance of the movie audience (with Paxton and Hunt holding on directly under a ginormous twister).But of course this is not a movie about convincing scientific detail or believable situations. It's just a trip on a tornado as wild (but hardly as enchanting) as Dorothy's trip to Oz.

This liberates De Bont and his effects designers from worrying much about anything other than the action, and the film is impressive and entertaining on a viscreal level. From the surreal moments of characters driving next to rushing torrents from which cows and trucks are hurled in their path to the scenes of tension which preceed each of the 'attacks' (making it something close to a horror film at times), the film pulls out all the stops to make sure that you don't become bored with it even when you've forgotten the character's names. To be fair to Paxton, Hunt and the others, they work just as well as they need to, but this is not a human drama despite the very real terrors which tornadoes hold for ordinary Americans (as opposed to alien invasions, as inIndependence Day). The bottom line is that Twister is pure Hollywood escapism where a dutchman literally takes us flying; and if a crack like that is not to your taste, then neither will the film be. Sit down and let it go about its business: summer madness is soon forgotten.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.