“When you used to tell me that you chase tornadoes, deep down I thought it was just a metaphor.”
When Jan De Bont's eco-actioner Twister first blew into town a mate of mine used to love belittling it with the simple put-down “It's just the weather!” He said much the same thing about Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow, merely shrugging his shoulders at the depiction of people at the mercy of ...well ... the weather. And, when looked at through his eyes, both movies do seem to be all bluff 'n' bluster about intangible antagonists that the heroes can't actually fight despite the almost humanising of such elemental powers as wind and ice.
Of course he's missing the point. But his words were ringing in my ears as I spun Twister's Blu-ray debut disc no matter how much I enjoyed the new-wave disaster movie.
Sort of evoking the nature's revenge ethic of the seventies - with the likes of The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and Meteor - the mid-nineties heralded a fresh look at how inconsequential we mere human beings are when confronted with the forces that continue to shape the world around us. Dante's Peak, Volcano, Deep Impact and even Titanic forged grand new spectacles of colossal disaster and frail human drama amidst large-scale destruction and ushered in a great advancement in visual effects and the powerful depiction of mass carnage. But, as far as I'm concerned, the most downright enjoyable and offbeat of them all was Twister. The hype machine was having field day with this one - “See a cow fly!”, “Catch the petrol tanker!”, “Let's get blown-away!” etc, etc - and came swinging into town with the terrifically portentous image of genre-fave Bill Paxton and tousled-heroine Helen Hunt fleeing before the simple, yet devastating spectre of a demonic twister - like a black rip in the fabric of the universe - looming up behind them and devouring all in its path. It was imagery that couldn't help but excite.
“It's coming! It's headed right for us!”
“It's already here!”
There's a definite “grab-a-concept” vibe about the screenplay, though. You can almost imagine its writers, Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin, sitting down and brainstorming the notion of what kind of scenario hadn't been done in movies up until then. We've had giant apes, had sharks, had aliens, meteors and tidal waves ... hmmm ... it's getting windy out there - AHA! Thus, the story about a married but estranged couple of tornado-junkies - Paxton's Bill and Hunt's Jo Harding - being thrust together to face the might of a series of powerful twisters whipping up a frenzy across the plains of the Midwest, whilst also trying to sort out their own personal differences, get some serious scientific experimentation done and get the jump on the other storm-chasers prowling around the area, is purely stereotypical and runs unashamedly by the numbers. Throw into the mix Bill's new love, the delectable psychologist Melissa Reeves (Jamie Gertz), who tags along reluctantly as the simple task of getting some divorce papers signed winds up as an adrenaline-charged, cross-country quest to probe the interior of a raging twister and you have an assembly-line action-drama that is as entertaining as it is obvious. Crichton's script never raises itself above the contrived, but it is to his credit that it never flat-lines, either, providing just enough scientific mumbo-jumbo to counter-balance the domestic analysis and the obligatory dark history necessary to give cinematic relevance to such a “nature untamed” pursuit. De Bont, already a renowned cinematographer, had by this time also proved how adept he was helming hi-octane thrills and spills, and he brings this verve and action-packed dexterity to the movie with an abundance of wild, storm-tossed set-pieces that swiftly accelerate in intensity until one final twister becomes tantamount to the Devil, himself, literally tearing the world apart in its efforts to hurl the leads to its veritable four corners.
Taking a similar sort of stance towards its intimidating phenomena as Ron Howard did with his fires in Backdraft and investing the twisters with personalities-by-proxy, De Bont does, in fact, create a non-physical nemesis that possesses character, presence and undiluted menace. Since you can see these swirling dervishes cavorting across the defenceless landscape - mere etches on the distant skyline one minute, almost Marvel-inspired maelstroms the next - and seemingly outwitting Paxton and his geeky mob of freelance trouble-shooters at every turn, even somehow enjoying causing their swathes of destruction, there is a sure-fire and shuddersome feeling of apprehension and exhilaration during the whirligig action sequences. The various encounters go from excitingly daft to horribly intense and the oncoming rush of waiting for the next tornado becomes almost as addictive for us as it does for the storm-chasers. Visually, the things still look amazing even today, with De Bont's FX team revelling in sky-borne tempests that appear with almost biblical wrath and paths of devastation that totally put to rest any lingering memories of the matchstick models and charming miniatures of the likes of the originals of The War Of The Worlds and The Time Machine (both of which featured marvellously iconic scenes of city disintegrations) and the afore-mentioned Earthquake. With terrific tracking shots that have us gunning down endless roads pacing black funnels of spinning death, or sweeping widescreen images of pick-up-and-hurl carnage - houses cast aside, the sky raining trucks, and roofs and walls ripped away as we cower alongside out heroes - De Bont ensures that the savagery of the all-devouring twister is keenly witnessed. The sight of small people standing in awe of one of these kaleidoscopic beasts is pretty staggering and the scale of the spectacle well presented across a continually active frame. Kudos must also go to the “dancing sisters” that weave their way across the river and spin Bill's truck around like a top. Tornado aftermaths of wrecked towns and homes have that queasily unsettling look that we have all, unfortunately, become rather too familiar with since 9/11, but it is necessary to ground such an adrenaline-fantasy with some reference to the human cost of this violently unpredictable phenomena. Oh, and let's not forget the inclusion of the ubiquitous dog rescued from amidst all the chaos.
“In a severe lightning storm, you wanna grab your ankles and stick your butt in the air.”
Featuring the ever-likeable Bill Paxton as the everyman-hero of the piece is, unerringly, a bonus throughout. The script may not be any great shakes, and indeed the soapy love-triangle manoeuvre is trite and clichéd, but Paxton has such charisma that he can make even the most cringe-worthy scene of sanctimonious exposition watchable and affecting. The rivalry between Harding and his company-funded nemesis Dr. Jonas Miller, played by Carey Elwes, is also unmistakably off-the-peg, with Elwes really coming up short in the believability stakes. Once again it is left to Paxton to carry the weight of their sparring relationship. Obviously the script favours him, but even if Elwes had been given more to work with, I doubt he would have made Jonas any more convincing a character, riding as he does at the head of a very FBI-esque convoy of sleek black vehicles and perfecting just the one wooden expression. Likewise the now very familiar team of techies and boffins that hero-worship Harding, who just seem to float by on a magic carpet of occasionally clever one-liners, individualised attire and choices of storm-chasing music to separate them from one another, but really only serve to merge together into one cosy little supportive family. Although, it has to be said that Philip Seymour Hoffman does manage to make a weirdly sleazy impact here as the sun-baked, grinning goofball Dustin Davis, before moving onto much bigger and better things in recent years. Although that can't be said for Alan Ruck, the perennial extra who became one of those “What have I seen him in?” types, as evidenced by his “Oh, darn,” role in De Bont's earlier Speed and a simply vast number of TV appearances since then. But, if you look, there is also an appearance by the very unappreciated Jeremy Davies, who did such great work in Saving Private Ryan, Ravenous and, more recently, Rescue Dawn.
“It's the Fujita scale. It measures a tornado's intensity by how much it eats.”
But the ladies score well in this conglomeration of stock clichés and formulaic ciphers. Helen Hunt looks adorable and clearly ignites the screen whenever she is on. She, much like Paxton, is also able to make even the most wincing lines sound palatable and even manages to convey a genuine sense of justification for her obsessive desire to unfathom tornadoes, despite her backstory - revealed in the film's prologue - being one of the most laughably contrived. There is a credibly sparky chemistry between her and Paxton that allows their stock characters some room to breathe in and out of the incessant driving, chasing, ducking and running and their relationship is an enjoyable, if hackneyed one. Jamie Gertz doe a fine job, too, in the surprisingly weighty role of Harding's new wife-to-be. Never the typical bitch that a script like this would normally inform us that we must despise, and much less of a comical stooge than many similarly-themed characters tend to be, her Melissa is cute and ditzy, but a believable foil to the more obvious bond that storms establish between the troubled Hardings.
“You've never seen the way they miss this house, and that house ... and come after you.”
The field of storm-chasing is very definitely glamorised and whilst the science behind it all is certainly touched-upon, it is not De Bont's, or our, primary concern. The Macguffin of the sensor-packed Dorothy - a device that the Hardings intend to send up into the eye of the storm to monitor the parts of a twister that no other device can reach - is a fancy, Wizard Of Oz-inspired one and makes for a couple of nail-biting sequences as we watch helplessly as Paxton and Hunt battle to position it in the destructive path of the beast. The scientists - the good, heroic ones, that is - have that uniquely cinematic sixth sense or gut instinct that the more straight-laced, by the book types don't possess. Thus, Bill and Jo have an almost spiritual connection with the tornadoes that most real-life scientists would naturally kill for. That the film is constantly moving, positively roaring along at a breakneck pace, De Bont actually streaming his narrative ahead faster than his previous Speed in many ways, is its main advantage. If you stop to think about the story, there really isn't much of one there - events merely acting as dots to propel us from one manic melee to another. But Twister is a popcorn movie and, with no motivation other than to thrill, is successful enough on its own riotous merits without the need of thematic or emotional weight to hamper its fairly obvious trajectory.
“Hey, seen the sky today?”
“Yeah ... she's really talking.”
The score from Mark Mancina is more than halfway decent, too. Even if the composer strikes a very familiar main theme that is heroic and overly dramatic, it definitely serves to heighten the tension. He can't resist the use of female voices to evoke the splendour and ethereal majesty of the view from inside the tornado, though. But this is certainly a score that fits the workmanlike nature of the movie and breezes along without too much sense of its own importance. With Spielberg and Amblin taking the executive producing reins, Twister also looks fabulous throughout. The extensive use of real locations is a definite plus - with large scale vistas employed from the very start and the cast driving, running or otherwise hurtling past or through real barns, houses, fields and diners - and the film feels expansive and wide-ranging as a result.
Without a doubt, Twister is great fun. It hits the ground with the force of the real thing and once it starts running, it just doesn't stop. Sheer cathartic entertainment and awonderful workout for your home-system, too. Try it, it's a blast ... even if it is just the weather!.