Warner Bros. // 1996 // 113 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // June 13th, 2000
The Dark Side of Nature.
Some movies you watch for world-class acting, powerful drama, and a terrific screenplay. This is not one of those movies. Twister is a movie to watch if you want intense special effects and gripping action sequences, as the human characters play second-fiddle to the awesome power of the film's namesake.
Depending on where you live, your reaction to Twister might be quite different. If you live in "Tornado Alley" in the Plains and Midwest United States, you can't be blasé about tornadoes, for during several months of the year they are a very real and highly unpredictable threat. These creations of nature's fury are terrible to behold as they wreak a path of arbitrary, devastating destruction across wide swatches of territory. At the same time, they are simply amazing to behold. Their immense power and terrifying beauty are strangely attractive, so it is not so odd that there are legions of professional and amateur stormchasers whose business is studying these beasts of nature.
The opening sequence of Twister is the formative experience in one young girl's life. One day in June 1969, an immensely powerful tornado roared into her life, wreaking much havoc with her young life when it takes her father from her. Skipping forward to present day, the young girl has grown up to become Jo Harding (Helen Hunt), a struggling stormchaser, whose talent at tornado analysis is subject to the limitations of the grants which fund her research activities. Her soon to be ex-husband, Bill Harding (Bill Paxton), comes out into the field this day to get Jo to sign off on the last of their divorce paperwork. Bill used to be as dedicated stormchaser as Jo, until they split, so now he is preparing for a new career as a TV weatherman and to marry a new bride, Dr. Melissa Reeves (Jami Gertz), who is a reproductive therapist. (Don't ask!)
The rest of the team is in the field with Jo, waiting for the weather to create tornado favorable conditions. There is wild-man Dusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), cool navigation guru Rabbit (Alan Ruck), Preacher (Scott Thomson), Beltzer (Todd Field), and others. Before Bill can get the busy bee Jo to slow down and sign the papers, a weather alert comes in and the team's caravan is off tornado hunting, this time with a peeved Bill in tow. The goal is to find a candidate tornado and place an instrument package, nicknamed Dorothy, in the tornado's path so that a blizzard of small sensors will be sucked up into the funnel, thus providing a scientific look into the very internal workings of the twister. On the roadways, Jo's team runs across a slick, well-funded team headed by former colleague Dr. Jonas Miller (Cary Elwes), who has secured corporate backers and made his own instrument pack from a copy of Bill's designs.
Seeing Jonas flaunting his theft stokes Bill's passions, so he ends up signing aboard for a day of stormchasing so that he can realize his dream of seeing Dorothy "fly." An initial chase after a prospective twister is very dangerous, yielding only some thrills and the loss of one instrument pack and a pickup truck. Undeterred, Jo and Bill race off to find the next twister, risking life and limb, but this time they come up empty handed, but in one piece. Weary and famished, the team convinces Jo to go to the nearby town of Wakita and invade the home of her Aunt Meg (Lois Smith). The steaks are huge, the eggs plentiful, the cholesterol out of sight as the team devours a small mountain of food, trading stories mostly about tornadoes and Bill, whose nickname is "the Extreme."
Their meal has scant time to clog arteries when another weather alert sends them scurrying along the highways once again. Fighting every inch of the way, Jo and Bill dodge death and debris to put another instrument back in harm's way of a sneaky, very dangerously unpredictable tornado. Sadly, ill-timed debris thwarts their success, so the caravan retreats to a nearby town to settle in for the night. Rest for the weary chasers is short-lived, when an instant twister rips through their motel and a nearby drive-thru (showing The Shining, in a typical homage by Jan de Bont to Stanley Kubrick). The team has no sooner crawled out from safety than they learn that a powerful twister will hit Wakita (and Aunt Meg) head-on.
Arriving in what is left of Wakita, Jo and Bill help Aunt Meg out of the rubble of her home. Aunt Meg thanks them for their help, and with a stern lecture tells them to go out and continue their chasing work. The final sequence is an epic chase between our intrepid chasers and a gigantic tornado that tops the lethality charts (given the moniker "the finger of God"). Escapes are narrower and narrower, the danger mounts higher and higher, and even Jonas pops back up to give Jo and Bill a run for their money. In the end, they cheat death by the most infinitesimal of margins and feel secure that with each other, they can stand to face the dawning of a new day.
The anamorphic video transfer lacks the THX certification of the previous release, and that may not be a bad thing! What we have here is an excellent picture that rivals those from much more contemporary films. This is particularly commendable given the plethora of dark shots filled with rapidly moving objects, smoke, and debris, and other visual content that must make MPEG encoding a nightmare. Keeping in mind that the film was developed so as to give certain scenes the proper overcast look (which in turn affected the color balancing), the only significant drawbacks are a low level of graininess present throughout the film and sharpness that is just a hair too soft. Otherwise, colors are bright and saturated, digital artifacts virtually absent, and only a very occasional blip or fleck of dirt makes an appearance. Kudos to the video transfer team!
Even in the previous release, the sound of Twister has rightfully been considered as a worthy candidate to show off the abilities of a good home theater system. Warner has taken the next step up in quality and included not only the well-loved Dolby Digital 5.1 track but an equally top-notch DTS 5.1 track! Both 5.1 tracks are incredibly aggressive, using all six channels to create an intensely active soundfield, with many effects smoothly panning across front and rear channels, precisely located sounds, and paint-loosening thunder. Differences between the Dolby Digital and DTS tracks are subtle. I found the Dolby Digital track to have a heavier subwoofer thump and more firmly anchored in the lower frequencies, while the DTS track gave the sound (especially weather like rain and hail) a greater degree of precision and crispness. It's photo-finish between the two...I can't really say which is better!
Extra content is fair for a special edition, but light-years ahead of the lonely trailer on the first release of Twister. This time, we get a 14-minute behind the scenes featurette "The Making of Twister," an eight minute effects featurette "Anatomy of the Twister," the Van Halen music video for "Humans Being," two theatrical trailers, and the usual cast and crew section. The featurettes are a decent, yet sketchy mix of interesting detail, PR fluff, and film clips.
The feature length commentary by director Jan de Bont and Special Effects Coordinator Stefen Fangmeier (what a name!) is light on insight, with a lot of reminiscing about the filming of various shots but not a lot of entertaining detail. It is also distracting that de Bont comes from the left channel and Fangmeier from the right, with the center carrying the not quite sufficiently attenuated movie soundtrack. The menus are very strongly movie-themed, and very well done. The transitions have particular impact. (ha ha!)
The story is sufficient to create dramatic tension and a reason for these intrepid stormchasers to put themselves in such peril and with such frequency. However, certain elements of the story are less successful, or worse, merely wasted filler. The whole divorce subplot seems a limp effort to build background and inject artificial conflict between the lead characters. Just because characters are married doesn't mean that there is less potential for conflict!
To add to the arbitrary conflict, we have Dr. Jonas Miller (Cary Elwes), whose chief claim to evil seems to be that he is working with corporate sponsors. Why it should be so horrible if he were to get his instrument pack inside a tornado before our intrepid heroes, I am not sure. Now, I know that using a businessman as a bad guy has a long pedigree in Hollywood (e.g. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956)), but that's no excuse for lazy writing. Finally, the dialogue wanders too far into wince-inducing territory on a few occasions. Can you believe Michael Crichton (The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, Disclosure) lent his writing talents here? Hard to believe.
As you might imagine, the true star of Twister is not any of the actors. The tornado, creature of special effects artists but inspired by the destructive reality of nature, is the first and foremost star. We have come to see the tornado in all of its glory, not the ant-like humans that scurry about in its path. Twister does not disappoint, giving us several opportunities to experience a tornado up close and very personal that we would never dare to experience in our real lives. Even real stormchasers would not be as insane (and lucky) as our heroes are.
None of the characters is written with substantial depth or complexity, so none of the actors has a terribly daunting task. Our lead actors need only be likable and have a modest credibility as obsessed stormchasers. Both Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets, "Mad About You") and Bill Paxton (U-571, Apollo 13, Aliens) acquit themselves quite well. One of the charms of Twister are the familiar faces that show up as the friendly mob of fellow insane stormchasers, including Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Big Lebowski, Happiness, Magnolia) and Alan Ruck (Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Star Trek: Generations, Speed). Other known friendly faces are Jami Gertz (Sixteen Candles, The Lost Boys, Less Than Zero) and Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride, Kiss the Girls, Glory). Perhaps because we know so many of these actors, we don't dwell on the limited roles of their characters. They experience and react, add some delightful humor, and don't get in the way of the effects.
If you like to pick apart technical flaws and continuity goofs, then you should have a field day with Twister. I think that this film has one of the longest list of goofs that I have seen in my travels at the IMDb. These (mostly continuity) glitches are not quite as annoying as the innumerable times we go from dark, overcast shots to shots with bright, glaring sunshine, and then back to dark and overcast skies all in the space of a few seconds. Considering that Jan de Bont is more noted for his cinematography career, I am at a loss to explain this lack of attention to detail.
This is a popcorn movie, so ignore the cranky curmudgeons, and have a fun two hours! This should go over well as a crowd-pleaser for a wide range of people, as well as those fascinated by special effects or severe weather. Rental is strongly recommended, as is a purchase ($25 retail), for this will make a fine "show off" disc for your home theater system.
The Court finds that Twister is best viewed as if it were a disaster flick. It is fine as light entertainment and should not be held to too exacting a standard, and is released forthwith. Warner is thanked for its wisdom in revisiting Twister and releasing this fine disc.
Review content copyright © 2000 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Theatrical Trailers
* Commentary Track
* Making-of Featurette
* Effects Featurette
* Music Video
* Cast and Crew Bio/Filmography
* Official Site