Twister (1996)

Note: Contains Two Reviews

Auntie Em!  Auntie Em!  The summer-movie season officially blows 
into town with TWISTER, the first must-see movie of the year.   
Though both underwritten and lacking the momentum of his last film, 
SPEED, director Jan De Bont's take on Oklahoma storm chasing still 
impresses with some of the most spectacular special effects ever 
seen on screen.  Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) has blended the 
authentic with the computer-generated to create a series a storms 
the likes of which Dorothy and Toto never saw.  You'll marvel at 
the dark, swirling clouds of debris and other matter-- flying cows 
and tractors and houses, oh my!  A tanker-truck that drops out of 
the sky is a sight, though my favorite is the splintering screen of 
a doomed drive-in that's showing THE SHINING.  The FX also get 
better as they go.  De Bont wisely rations the thrills, saving the 
best for last.  (I could've done without the continuity gaffes, 
though.  Just how *does* a red truck stay shiny after riding 
through a storm?)
The effects are great, but the script is a mess.  Blame Michael 
Crichton, Anne-Marie Martin, and a host of script doctors for the 
predictable plotting, dumb drama, and characters as corny as Kansas 
in August.  The non-star cast does what they can with the material.  
Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton, playing soon-to-be-divorced scientists, 
are very sincere shouting lines like "Come on!", "There's no 
time!", and "Take cover!"  (Did the MST3K gang also do a rewrite?)  
Other cast members include Cary Elwes as a rival storm chaser, 
Philip Seymour Hoffman as a tie-dyed metalhead who is particularly 
fond of the meteorological-by-way-of-MTV term "Suck Zone", and 
Jamie Gertz as Paxton's character's fiancee.  (Ms. Gertz plays a 
"reproductive therapist," if you can believe it.  She's there to 
scream, ask questions, and provide comic relief.  That is, until 
she predictably can't take it anymore.)

There's a lot that goes on in this movie and, unfortunately, very 
little of it makes (focused) sense.  The central character 
motivation is a geeky combination of science and thrill-seeking; 
these guys love to take risks because they love to study storms.  
De Bont attempts to inject other elements into the film, but they 
don't work as written.  For example, we could do without the tragic 
fate of Hunt's character's aunt.  She exists to reinforce the Very 
Noble goal of better weather predicting, by showing that tornadoes 
often cause huge amounts of damage and injury and often without 
warning.  No duh.  The sequence is a melodramatic cheap shot and 
doesn't belong here.  Not in a movie that's just out for thrills.   
In fact, the "back stories" are all pretty bad, but like most storm 
chasers-- or, if you prefer, most summer-movie audiences-- we're in 
for the ride.  We certainly expect more than a few lulls before we 
get to see a TWISTER. 

Finally, something should be said about the shameless inclusion of 
pop songs on the soundtrack.  They're played too prominently in the 
background, intruding for no other seeming reason than to sell 
something else for Time-Warner.  The mix of musical genres and 
styles is often distracting and certainly doesn't blend with the 
other accompaniment, a windy orchestral score from composer Mark 
Mancina.  (The score is also a bit much, I must say.  Must movie 
music be so overblown?  Is James Horner teaching classes in this 
stuff?)  The exception is a short sequence that combines Rainbow, 
Rossini, and Rogers and Hammerstein; it happens early the film and 
is one of the few places on the soundtrack that doesn't feel 
prepackaged.  (Rated "PG-13" for "intense depiction of very bad 
weather"/117 min.)

Grade: B-

Let's Twist Again

I went back for a second look at TWISTER and I wish I could report 
better things.  The FX are still a gas.  Flying tractors, rolling 
homes, and disintegrating barns; it's all there.  Director Jan De 
Bont, along with Industrial Light and Magic, has effectively 
realized one of nature's most primal forces and I'm not talking 
about Jesse Helms.  The effects-related thrills are so complete-- 
so edge-of-your-seat jaw-dropping-- that many may find themselves 
physically exhausted by the end.  In that regard, TWISTER *works*.  
It excites, therefore it is.  On a second viewing, though, the 
movie becomes more of a bore.  The obvious problem-- beyond the 
missing momentum, overscored music, and shameless product plugs-- 
is the script.  As written, TWISTER rests somewhere between the 
very bad and the very corny; somewhere between, say, SHOWGIRLS and 
MR. HOLLAND'S ANUS.  (I'd call Richard Dreyfuss's Oscar nomination 
a special effect, wouldn't you?)  

TWISTER opens on an Oklahoma farm, in 1969, where a little girl is 
about to be scarred by a storm.  She'll endure the loss of Somebody 
Special and then grow up to look *just* like Helen Hunt.  Cut to 
present day, to a pick-up truck traveling on an Oklahoma highway.  
Former storm-chaser Bill Harding (Bill Paxton) and his fiancee 
(Jami Gertz) are on their way to meet Jo (Helen Hunt), that now-
adult little girl who is Bill's almost ex-wife.  (Jo hasn't signed 
the divorce papers yet, because she's been busy working on Dorothy, 
get it?, an invention to study tornadoes.)  Knowing how it all 
plays out, I think that we can interpret this scene as the first of 
many mistakes.  Bill Harding isn't the focus of what passes for the 
plot.  He's a strong presence, sure, but he shouldn't be the first 
person that we lay eyes upon.  TWISTER, as we learn, is about that 
little girl and the storm that she remembers.  Jo is the focus of 
this movie and *Jo* is the one who should be seen accommodating 
Harding and his fiancee and not vice versa.

The filmmaker's choice of a non-star cast-- a la JURASSIC PARK-- 
works well with regard to both Hunt and Paxton.  They are good 
actors who exhibit a warm chemistry with each other, even as their 
dialogue grows increasingly empty-headed.  Their light banter soon 
devolves into incidental exclamations along the lines of "watch 
out!", "take cover!", and "who wrote this crap?"  (They're also 
very good at out-shouting each other.)  No, we never get a sense of 
who their *characters* are, but they get an ample amount of screen 
time together and that's enough for most summer movies.  Running 
from vehicle to vehicle and from storm to storm, Hunt and Paxton 
are also very physical in their roles.  They finish the film 
fleeing the best cornfield dusting since NORTH BY NORTHWEST.

There's really enough story here, between these two characters, 
that we don't need the other elements.  We don't need a team of 
rival storm chasers, led by Cary Elwes.  (Cary Elwes?  What's he 
doing here?  If the script called for a "physically unthreatening 
opponent," then why didn't somebody hire Paul Reiser?  He was very 
good in ALIENS, all those years ago.)  We don't need to put a 
supporting character in peril, to either reinforce Jo's obsession 
or to put a "human face" on the devastation.  (The scene involves a 
collapsed house and it just stops the movie in its tracks.  What a 
waste of screen time.)  And, we *certainly* don't need Jami Gertz, 
who's character-- a "reproductive therapist," Lord help us-- 
disrupts the tone about every eight minutes or so.  She exists for 
comic relief (unnecessary) and to ask unscientific questions, so 
the movie can explain to us, in "plain English," what exactly 
"weather" is.  (Personally, I wish she had asked about the radios 
and how these guys can simultaneously transmit on so many 
frequencies at once.)

As dazzling as the effects are, De Bont doesn't back them up with 
the expert editing that he showed us in SPEED.  The storm sequences 
often last too long and give us too much time to adjust to what 
we're seeing.  (Familiarity breeds lack of fear.  A scene inside a 
car-garage pit plays like a theme-park ride at Universal Studios.   
Ditch it, but not before explaining why the fools keep looking in 
the direction of the flying debris.)  Another glaring problem is 
that the film doesn't communicate a sense of either distance or 
time.  We never know how far the characters have been traveling or 
how long they've been chasing a given storm.  When TWISTER *does* 
come together, the action is usually on a smaller-scale.  Paxton 
and Hunt swerving to avoid falling farm machinery; a tanker-truck 
that plops onto the highway in a burst of flames; and, the piece de 
resistance, a drive-in theater that's showing THE SHINING, with a 
screen that splinters while Jack is having his big ax attack.  
(Oddly, though, we're never shown any larger-scale devastation.  No 
aerial shots of leveled towns, etc. etc.)

If the scenes were confined to Hunt, Paxton, and the tornadoes, 
then TWISTER would work just fine.  Add their motley crew of 
assistants (Philip Seymour Hoffman, et al) for both comic relief 
and local color, and, viola, you've got a movie.  The director 
could do worse than to recut this mess.  Ditch the music, ditch the 
pop songs.  Cut as many scenes as possible with Elwes and Gertz.  
Cut at least half of the incidental dialogue.  Ditch the scene with 
the aunt and the collapsed house.  Tighten tighten tighten and we 
might have something here.  (And, since this is a Steven Spielberg 
production, maybe the idea of director's cut isn't *that* far-
fetched.  Are you listening Time-Warner marketing?)  For now, in 
its present form, TWISTER is just a lot of wind.  The FX are great, 
but, friends, outside of the funnel clouds, everything else sucks.

Copyright 1996 by Michael J. Legeros

Originally posted to triangle.movies

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