The Big Spin : ‘Twister’ Is Triumph for the Director, Stunt Players and Effects Wizards
Think of it as nature’s nuclear weapon, the Superman of weather phenomena. With winds upward of 300 mph, it can uproot anything in its path and destroy tall buildings with a single breath. But for all its frightening fierceness, the terror a tornado can inflict has never been successfully put on film.
Directed by Jan De Bont as his breathless follow-up to “Speed,” “Twister” benefits from awesome special-effects work, including computer-generated imagery from Industrial Light & Magic, actual tornado footage and eye-widening physical stunts supervised by John Frazier. Together they have created ominous and angry funnels of wind capable of making cows fly (not to mention tanker trucks and even houses) as well as sucking up any summer box-office dollars that are not tightly screwed down.
Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to the rush of raw excitement “Twister” creates is that it makes it possible to ignore the painful awkwardness of the film’s expository sequences and thudding dialogue of the “OK, boss lady, hold your horses” variety.
This blithe refusal to create credible human conversation has always been the mark of screenwriter Michael Crichton (here working with his wife, first-time screenwriter Anne-Marie Martin). Brilliant when it comes to pop culture concepts, novelist Crichton (“The Andromeda Strain,” “Disclosure,” “Jurassic Park”) seems to consider it a waste of time to worry too much about what his people actually say. And since his projects inevitably mint money, no one in Hollywood cares to argue with him.
But “Twister” is helped considerably, as many of Crichton’s previous films have not been, by shrewd and successful casting. Stars Helen Hunt (“The Waterdance” and TV’s “Mad About You”) and Bill Paxton (“Apollo 13,” “One False Move”) are winning performers of the type audiences inevitably warm to, and together they give the film a level of empathy it would never have earned without them.
Hunt’s character, Jo Harding, is introduced first, in a gangbusters prologue set in 1969 that shows her as a little girl exposed first-hand to the unimaginable chaos a tornado can create.
Now the scene shifts to morning in today’s Oklahoma and the National Severe Storms Laboratory (the source of much of the technical jargon no Crichton film is without), which somberly predicts that the new day will see a record outbreak of tornadoes.
Naturally this is the same day that Bill Harding (Paxton) picks to visit his estranged wife, Jo. Once they were a great scientific team, investigating tornadoes left and right, but the marriage foundered and Bill is making the trip to get Jo to sign final divorce papers. Inevitably, he brings his new girlfriend, Melissa (Jami Gertz), a therapist who seems to do most of her counseling on a portable phone, along for the ride.
Though Bill plans no more than a brief visit, Jo stirs his interest by revealing that she and her team have completed work on Dorothy (named after the tornado-swept heroine of “The Wizard of Oz”), an instrument pack for studying the beast from the inside that was originally Bill’s idea. To get the machinery airborne, however, it must be driven into the center of a tornado, also known as “the suck zone.”
It’s fortunate that “Twister” starts with that action flashback because the exposition scenes here are especially tedious, as Melissa, the audience surrogate, meets both Jo’s scrappy and scruffy tornado-chasing team and their dread rival, in-it-for-the-money Dr. Jonas Miller (Cary Elwes), so thoroughly evil he commands a fleet of jet-black minivans.
Naturally, Bill can’t resist the lure of the twister, and off everyone goes for an extremely eventful day of pursuit. Melissa soon learns that her beau, nicknamed “the Extreme,” is a kind of human barometer, capable of guessing where storms will go. She also becomes a kind of Eek woman, forced to continually screech and display signs of nervous agitation as she witnesses the tornadoes’ fury. It’s a thankless, cliched role, but Gertz makes it as real as it’s going to get.
No one is going to patronize “Twister” for its character development, however, and the good news is that the film’s half-dozen tornadoes keep getting larger and more impressive, generating new kinds of peril and even threatening to go to F5 on the Fujita scale, a whopper so big it’s considered the equivalent of “the finger of God.”
The effects work, which includes doing several things with houses you never imagined possible, is exceptional throughout, creating a series of overpowering black funnels of fury and grim vistas of destruction. No wonder one character is glimpsed reading a new translation of Dante’s “Inferno.” This is really hell on Earth.
Several other aspects of the film are critical to its success. Credit is due to Jack N. Green’s photography, which allows for the seamless blending of the effects work; veteran Michael Kahn’s sharp editing; and Mark Mancini’s relentless, pulsating score. And, given the importance of sound to counterfeiting reality, special mention should go to supervising sound editor Steven Flick, who among other things used camel moanings to help make the tornadoes sound like monsters lurking outside the door.
But the ringmaster of this circus, the man without whom nothing would be possible, is director De Bont, who now must be considered Hollywood’s top action specialist. An expert in making audiences squirm and twist, at making us feel the rush of experience right along with the actors, De Bont choreographs action and suspense so beautifully he makes it seem like a snap. As so many failed action movies demonstrate, it’s anything but.
* MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense depiction of very bad weather. Times guidelines: several intense, near-death experiences for the tornado crew.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Helen Hunt: Jo Harding
Bill Paxton: Bill Harding
Jami Gertz: Melissa
Cary Elwes: Dr. Jonas Miller
Lois Smith: Aunt Meg
A Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures presentation of an Amblin Entertainment production, released by Warner Bros. Director Jan De Bont. Producers Kathleen Kennedy, Ian Bryce, Michael Crichton. Executive producers Steven Spielberg, Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Gerald R. Molen. Screenplay by Michael Crichton & Anne-Marie Martin. Cinematographer Jack N. Green. Editor Michael Kahn. Costumes Ellen Mirojnick. Music Mark Mancini. Production design Joseph Nemec III. Art director Dan Olexiewicz. Set decorator Ron Reiss. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.
* TORNADO WATCH: The release of “Twister” spawns a flurry of videos. F14.