Friday, 12 February 2016

2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the release of one of Amblin Entertainment's biggest 1990's blockbusters,  Twister. In some ways Twister can be seen as the younger sibling of Jurassic Park, though it hasn't inspired the same fondness or enthusiasm over the years. This is to a large degree justified: simply put, Jurassic Park is a much better movie, and Twister has some serious story problems. Yet for its admitted faults, the story of a group of intrepid stormchasers also has its virtues. I saw it in the theater five times in the summer of 1996, and recently decided to revisit the film and see how it held up. While its faults are even more obvious in retrospect, I  believe that as an example of blockbuster action thriller filmmaking, on some levels it deserves more respect than it usually gets.
of the 1990's,

Twister's biggest weakeness is its story, which lacks a strong structure and sense of high enough stakes.   We're given nothing more than a "record outbreak" of tornados and group of intrepid storm chasers lead by divorced couple Bill and Jo Harding (Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt) who are trying to prove their experimental device (named "Dorothy") and racing against a rival scientist named Jonas Miller (the choice to put the "evil" storm chasers in black trucks wasn't a good one). The storm chasers are fun characters (reckless, adventurous, driven and lovably eccentric), and there's the standard Crichton virtue of portraying science as cool and adventurous, and I'll certainly take it over the stock disaster movie story from every 1970s Irwin Allen film and most of the films which tried to capitalize on Twister. But it carries very little dramatic weight., especially as we're not given a strong enough reason to feel the test of Dorothy has to succeed. While Bill is only planning to stay for one day before departing with his annoying fiance, we know he'll decide to stay with Jo. While we'really vaguely promised that this will lead to a new warning system that will save lives, if that's what matter Jonas' rip-off D.O,T. 3 will do the job just as well, though his does lead to a solid "save the cat" moment as Jo and Bill decide to give Jonas valuable information which would would allow him to make D.O.T. 3 work first after it appears he can make it and they can't, but then of course Jonas dies stupidly and our heroes get the best of both worlds. Overall, it carries little dramatic weight.

 However, a movie has two overall elements: the story, and how it's told. Good telling can elevate aTwister is a mediocre story told with remarkable skill. No, I'm not just talking about the effects, many of which, frankly, have had the misfortune of aging a little faster than most classic ILM work. Twister came not long after the CGI Congo and and they should understand why we weren't so fiercely clinging to our practical effects in the mid '90s). I enjoyed seeing the telephone pole blowing toward Jo's truck and thinking and thinking "That's CGI!" much in the same way I enjoyed spotting the obvious miniatures in the mine cart chase in Temple of Doom. Now the pole looks so much like it came from a video game that it seriously undermines an entertaining sequence. Thankfully, the tornadoes themselves mostly still look good, and hey, the cow is fun, even it's dated. So the effects, while cutting edge at the time, are a mixed bag now. But the most impressive skill in this film comes from other artists and craftsmen.
Director Jan De Bont was a rising star at the time, having just made his directorial debut with the 1994 hit Speed. While De Bont would eventually fizzle out with a series of flops and duds, his first two films showed considerable flair for action and suspense, and this is one of Twister's chief strengths. The film is best enjoyed as a series of set pieces, and some of those set pieces are knock outs. In particular, the scene where Jo and Bill take the first Dorothy out in a tornado's path, then hide under a bridge,  is superb action/suspense filmmaking. Perhaps the greatest credit goes to  master editor Michael Kahn (who for my money does his best ever work for a non-Spielberg film here). His perfectly timed cutaways to boards ripping off of nails as the tornado rips the bridge apart are perfect examples of his flawless sense of editorial rhythm. However, this of course requires having those shots to begin with, and here the credit belongs to De Bont. While he never really showed that kind of skill again, and was notoriously difficult to work with, in this film he shows an ability to shoot and stage action that had the potential to be see something truly special, employing a viscerally thrilling balance of Spielbergian slickness and just a touch of cinema verite hand-held camera work, without falling into the sort of constant roving or excessive shakicam that soon star to mar Hllywood action films (De Bont himself would fall disappointingly into this style in Speed 2: Cruise Control, the film which effectively killed his career). What De Bont did best was take audiences for a ride, almost literally as the sense of motion he created here and in Speed was a stylistic signature. I regret that bad choices and bad films kept him from developing a longer and more interesting directorial career.

Another important aspect of suspense filmmaking is the build-up, and here Twister gets it right again. Two strong examples are the drive-in theater sequence, and a sequence wherein Bill observes the sky "going green" as the tornadoes form. These sequences take the time to build slowly and atmospherically, perfectly creating the sense of excitement and foreboding necessary to get the full impact out of what's to come. Both sequences bring Jaws to mind, which causes me to wonder whether Spielberg's influence as executive producer helped create that feel, or whether De Bont was merely emulating that film the way any suspense director has done for the past 40 years. The sequences also require giving credit to the film's two cinematographers, Jack N. green and Don Burgess (the latter of who quit the film early on after serious clashes with De Bont), who give the film a gorgeously weather beaten, earth-toned color pallet.

One of the greatest strengths of the film is its cast. The rest of them will get their due, but first you'll have to allow me an extended tangent: I freely admit that I had an Olympic-sized celebrity crush on Helen Hunt in the '90s, and that definitely played a part in making me enjoy this film as much as I did.  She may never have achieved the "America's Sweetheart" level of Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock, or the sex symbol status of Sharon Stone, but but for me, she was in a class by herself. it wasn't just her looks, it was her. Maybe it was The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, let alone chasing tornadoes in a white tank top. As I've gotten older and found myself far less intimidated by women who aren't on a screens (and eventually married one), the intensity of those feelings have faded, but when I revisit her work from that period, I still enjoy it as much as ever.  She gave a deeper, more multi-layered performance in her Oscar-winning role in As Good As It Gets, but I still consider Twister to be the best realization of her potential as a movie star. She was never meant to play the thankless supporting role of the love interest
her exquisite sarcastic comic deliver, or the innate intelligence she projected, or the way her sitcom gave me hope that pleasantly goofy filmmakers named Paul could land hot wives, but I would have gladly shelled out $3.50 again and again (matinee tickets were very cheap in 1996) to watch her do a dramatic reading of the phone book, or even
Yes, she gets two pictures.
 or settle for being the lovably plucky heroine of romcoms. She was meant to take the lead role, and here she completely commands the screen. Jo Harding is a classic Michael Crichton science jock, and the combination of humor and intense determination was a perfect fit for Hunt. While the "A tornado killed my father" back story she's given as motivation is one of many aspects of the film I now admit sometimes feels laughably silly, the sincerity she gives even makes that play far better than it should. I'm convinced that Hollywood missed a huge opportunity by not giving her the chance to carry any other blockbusters.

Okay, now a more restrained assessment of Hunt's co-star: Bill Paxton is strong and charismatic in his first leading man turn, one which showed he didn't have to be the weaselly or whiny supporting characters we were used to seeing him play, and the excellent chemistry he and Hunt share is a huge
part of why the movie largely works. Less successful is his chemistry with Jami Gertz, the weakest link in the cast, who in fairness is saddled with a character you're not supposed to like and then has to do an affected accent on top of it (an affliction which also plagues Cary Elwes as Jonas).  The rest of the cast is generally likable, none more so than the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman in one of his breakthrough roles. We don't even get a glimmer of the great actor he would become, but we do see that he's a delightful presence, and he steals more than his fair share of scenes with his manic energy. Alan Ruck (best known as Ferris Bueller's Cameron Frye) also has some nice light comic moments, and Saving Private Ryan's Jeremy Davies is endearingly quirky and nervous in a very small role.

Finally, we have the unsung and uncredited hero, script doctor Joss Whedon. It doesn't have the multilayered story or complex characterizations of his best work, but it's full of witty and amusing Joss Whedon dialogue ("He really is in love with himself. I thought it was just a summer thing."), and not even Nathan Fillion or Robert Downy, Jr. deliver it better than Hunt does.

In the end, Twister is a flawed, silly blockbuster that's also a lot of fun because it's exceptionally well made. Go back and revisit the other summer blockbusters of 1996 though 1999 and I think you'll find that in terms of staging,shot selection, editorial skill and humor, it ranks far above most. And weak as the story often is, it sadly won't stand out from the crowd on that level. At very least it's head and shoulders above the rest of the glut of late '90s disaster films.



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