With the ‘end of the world’ paranoia brought about by the new millennium, it’s hard to remember a time when disaster movies were about natural disasters. Movies like “2012” and “The Day After Tomorrow” were thrilling, but lacked a realistic backbone, coming off as more sci-fi than possible. However, it’s not hard to remember back to when blockbusters reflected mankind’s fascination with natural disasters, such as 1997’s “Dante’s Peak,” 2000’s “The Perfect Storm,” with 2012’s “The Impossible” possibly indicating a return to natural phenomena drawing people to the box office. With a high energy cast, engrossing special effects, and a focused lens, “Twister” is possibly one of the most well known early entries into this category, presenting an entertaining and heartfelt portrayal of deadly tornadoes and the men and women who chase them.
“Twister” is about more than just tornadoes, but the psychology of scientists who choose to do this for a living and the effect it has upon their lives. At the movie’s onset we meet such a team, led by dedicated Jo (Helen Hunt), working in the plains of Oklahoma. The sky is alight with lightning and strong winds, there’s a tornado warning, and when most sane people would run from such weather, Jo is just hoping a tornado will touch down so she can put “Dorothy” – an invention intended to study a tornado from the inside – in a twister’s path. Other members of the team are equally emphatic, such as Dusty (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who refers to the tornado’s prowess as “The Suck Zone” or another, Jason, who likens the path of an F5 (Fujita scale 5 tornado, the most intense the storm can get) to “The Finger of God.”
The film also introduces us to Bill Harding (Bill Paxton), an ex storm chaser driving out to meet Jo for a more domestic reason – he needs her to sign the long-overdue divorce papers so he can marry his fiancée Melissa (played by Jami Gertz). Bill’s presence can be seen to affect the stalwart Jo and the team, only the movie doesn’t pause for air as the team – with Bill in tow as he attempts to get Jo’s signature – are off chasing a tornado in an attempt to gather scientific data that will help them predict future storms and provide people with warning.
“Twister” is excellent in its ability to thrust audiences headfirst into action, as the opening chase sees such adrenaline-inducing feats as Bill and Jo hunkered under a bridge as a tornado hits, intense winds and debris, and Jo’s truck being picked up and smashed on a nearby road. However, the movie balances the action with a good amount of backstory, exploring Bill’s history with Jo, with the team, and even with a rival and arrogant storm chaser Jonas (“Saw’s” Cary Elwes). One of the most effective scenes in the movie occurs as the group takes a break from storm chasing to eat a home cooked meal at Jo’s Aunt Meg (Lois Smith), which fleshes out more important history, such as Bill’s rough and tumble past and Jo’s personal demon – as a child she saw her father killed during a tornado, the only one of the group to ever see an F5’s fury.
“Twister” takes pains to make the film realistic, grounding the film in the Oklahoma plains that is its home. The movie’s homes are ordinary, its restaurants filled with local people many of us might see at any town grocers, and its soundtrack a credit to the time and appropriate. High energy tracks like the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Long Way Down” line its more intense parts, but is balanced and scored beautifully with acoustic/country songs like Shania Twain’s “No One Needs To Know” or the somber “How” by ‘90s songstress Lisa Loeb. Additionally, the film avoids the temptation other blockbusters fall prey to, making Jo’s team actually look like struggling scientists and not supermodels.
That’s not to say “Twister” is perfect, as criticism is appropriate for certain scenes, such as unnecessary drama between Bill and Jonas, or a scene involving key characters surviving a tornado that no one could survive by hooking themselves to watering pipes. However, the movie’s action more than makes up for it (come on, twisters in the film pick up trucks, cows, and in one scene even an entire house), with the movie often proceeding at breakneck speeds without stopping for air. The special effects also come off as more realistic, showing the danger harmless objects can have when put behind the force of a 300 mph, 1-mile wide tornado. It’s a further credit to the movie’s realism that “Twister’s” most intense scene involves Bill and Jo tensely hoping that the twister will finally suck up “Dorothy,” and not someone exhibiting death defying stunts to save the day.
“Twister” is a good movie. It’s fun, action packed, and, on the underbelly has a almost surprisingly deep emotive side, showing the history of its characters while highlighting the urgency of developing an early warning system to help the people tornadoes actually effect. The performances are well balanced, and with actors like Paxton, Hunt, and Hoffman lining its cast, its no surprise that the movie succeeds as well as it does. “Dorothy” is a funny looking invention, and with the immense damage it takes during the movie’s run-time, you’d expect its operators to pack it up and call it a day. “Twister” preservers, however, showing the tragedy of tornadoes and the people they affect on a yearly basis. Bill, Jo, and co. might not save the world; but by the time they figure out how to get “Dorothy” to finally work, we know just how much is at stake.
– by Mark Ziobro