Warner Bros. // 1996 // 113 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // May 6th, 2008
The dark side of nature.
"You know, if these cells keep building like this there could be a record outbreak of tornadoes."
How convenient that big-money filmmakers discovered, in 1998, how to harness the forces of nature in order to deliver a mentally light, visually intense movie experience that could drop you into the path of a monstrous tornado. Thanks to advances in CGI technology, Twister delivered new sights that dazzled audiences' eyes even though it required sensibility be checked at the door. A long-delayed high-definition release on the Blu-ray format, does the disc have the gusto to truly blow you away? Let's see...
"It's the biggest series of storms in twelve years, one lined up right after another."
To some, this is the worst sort of news, the kind that leaves folks entirely helpless and afraid of what Mother Nature might do. To others, like Jo Harding (Helen Hunt, Mad About You), it's a godsend -- sort of. A lifelong tornado chaser, Jo and her low-budget team look more like a group of dimwitted slackers than a collective of meteorological analysts. Appearances notwithstanding, Jo and her team are determined to unlock the secrets of twisters, hopeful to find a way to better predict them and ensure more advanced warning to unaware citizens who might be in their path of destruction. Ever since her own father was taken by a tornado some thirty years ago, Jo has lived in a perpetual state of anxious motivation, this further complicated by her impending divorce from fellow researcher, Bill Harding (Bill Paxton, Thunderbirds). But as Bill and his new fiancee, Melissa Reeves (Jami Gertz, Still Standing), seek out Jo for the final signatures on the divorce papers, the National Severe Storm Laboratory has reported that Oklahoma state is about to be hammered by the most ferocious string of twisters ever recorded. Bill and Jo struggle to launch their "Dorothy" instrument pack within the oncoming tornadoes while also battle their own unresolved feelings about their rocky marriage and uncertain divorce.
Twister was a success as unpredictable as the intense weather occurrences it celebrates. Intended as a summertime blockbuster that combined the resumes of writer Michael Crichton, Kathleen Kennedy, and Steven Speilberg, the film delivered on its promise of nonstop action aimed squarely at the popcorn-munching movie crowd. Perhaps Bill Paxton offers the best summation, as an actor, of the film: "Your line, my line, run, run, almost get killed. Your line, my line, run, run, almost get killed." In a nutshell, that is Twister and, somehow, thanks to a well-apportioned ensemble cast of apparent misfits and retards, it all works to deliver nearly two hours of escapist entertainment in the tradition of the 1970's disaster epics. However, rather than offer the cardboard heroics of characters from the 70s features, here we get a mish-mash of characters who, singly, might not survive a tropical depression yet, in collaboration, are able to put their scientific passion and altruistic inclinations above concern for personal safety. With that, the film is able to offer a group of hip Gen-X'ers who would likely strike appeal and identity with young audience members of the 1990s. They're scruffy and unpolished yet they're likable.
Bill Paxton has become a cult favorite ever since his unhinged turn as Pvt. Hudson in Aliens (and some fans go further back to cite his portrayal as asshole Chet from Weird Science as his official "arrival"). Always reliable for squeezing every drop out of a role, no matter how potentially subservient (see True Lies), Paxton steps up to co-lead this effort with ample determination and aplomb. Playing opposite is easy-on-the-eyes Helen Hunt as Jo. She brings a believable tomboyish quality that plays well off of Paxton's passive-aggressive tendencies. Even though the two are given very little sub-plot material with which to work, they succeed in heightening the angst already present in their risk-intense vocation.
Emerging star Cary Elwes (Saw) provides a hiss-worthy portrayal as Dr. Jonas Miller, a former associate of Jo and Bill who struck off to acquire corporate sponsorship for the ideas and theories he gleaned from his former team. As the sort of "poser" many have had the displeasure to encounter, Elwes makes the most of a rather shallowly-written character who is truly a follower of Bill and Jo's instincts yet unscrupulously passes off the insight as his own.
Jami Gertz is probably given the least attractive job within this mix, serving as the neophyte in order to allow necessary exposition for viewers who, by all likelihood, don't understand tornadoes (and need to be quickly indoctrinated in the film's purported science of "digital orthographic telemetry"). In addition, her character of Melissa is ambushed into become the unwitting homewrecker, unaware that her fiancee is still in love with Jo. Gertz, like the others, makes the most of the role, however, and manages to eke out some genuine sympathy to her unexpected plight amid the singly focused storm chasers, not to mention the stormy yet reconciling relationship between Bill and Jo.
Of course, the tornadoes themselves are undeniable characters in the film, brought to life at the hands of cutting edge (for the time) CGI artistry in a way that renders them both graceful as well as ominous. Making the most of the Fujita scale (the "F-scale") that classifies tornadoes on a scale of one to five, dependent upon their size and amount of destruction unleashed, the filmmakers are able to present a fine variety of tornado types, from the practically dancing "F2" to the monstrous "F5." This also allows for the repeated attempts at intercepting the tornados without visually boring the audience.
As an accomplished cinematographer of action films (including Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October), Jan de Bont made a successful segue into the director's chair when he drove 1994's white-knuckled hit Speed. With Twister, the director sought to continue in the high-energy thrills only, this time, with significantly less critical acclaim. Although Twister visually blew audiences' hair back, it offered only a faint wafting of credible plotting. Egged on by his producers -- Crichton, Kennedy, Spielberg, and others -- de Bont delivered a visual and often visceral experience to theatergoers even if he didn't provide much in the way of intellectual stimulation. When accepted in this fashion, Twister is solidly entertaining and peppered with fun characters who work themselves into and out of sometimes predictable moments of distress and impending peril. Even so, a disaster/blockbuster film that fails to entertain in this arguably low-intellect fashion would surely be disappointing.
Finally arriving in the high-definition format, Twister is a bit of a swirling experience in next generation Blu-ray thrills. For starters, the image quality, a 1080p / VC-1 encoded presentation, looks great as film but not so great as HD reference material. Immediately you'll notice the image lacks "pop" due to a dulled contrast of the original production, that intentionally imposed in post-production due to the fact that much of the actual live footage was shot in the bright light of summer yet had to be subdued in order to match the cloudy gray overcast of the storms settings. Without a doubt, this is disappointing. With some undeniable chagrin, you'll have to accept that the image preserves its original film-like look at the cost of foregoing the sort of intense details and fine textures that we've come to expect of the new format. This transfer does benefit, however, by a noticeably better color palette that delivers striking hues, well controlled and never smearing or blooming. And, especially notable, this new transfer finally eradicates the annoying color band that bled into Bill Paxton's forehead beginning at the 8:20 mark.
For the misgivings noted over the HD potential here, the audio content eases those visual shortcomings, the Dolby TrueHD surround mix practically assaulting you from start to finish. Even though the previous DVD edition offered an impressive DTS 5.1 mix, this TrueHD track is sure to help you show off your home theater setup. The massive soundstage achieved here is perpetually alive with ambient effects, most notably the various flying debris and the amusing yet effective tornado growls and roars. Amid the cacophony of on-screen destruction, tiny sound effects are precisely represented and dialog is always kept clear and intelligible. This is a real achievement in next-generation audio and one you simply must experience first-hand.
As far as bonus features go, you'll find the same content as was included in the previously mentioned Special Edition DVD, originally released in 2000. This begins the feature commentary by Jan de Bont and visual effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier. The two provide plenty of anecdotes and insight into the production but, due to a poorly mixed commentary track, it's difficult to hear their accent-laden chatter amid the inadequately subdued film soundtrack. Next up is the 14-minute "HBO First Look: The Making of Twister" followed by the brief 8-minute featurette, "The Anatomy of a Twister." The Van Halen music video for "Shine On" is also included (a decent little tune). There's new content on this Blu-ray edition, beginning with the 28-minute retrospective, "Chasing the Storm: Twister Revisited," in which de Bont plus additional cast and crew members offer their recollections of the production. Also new is the somewhat interesting History Channel documentary, "Nature Tech: Tornadoes."
Since we've already confessed to the lack of narrative meat here, there's no need to raise that during a rebuttal discussion. Of course, there are several additional flaws of logic and physics, those that you're certain to easily detect and, subsequently, need to forgive for the sake of entertainment. Just remember, the film's original one-sheet poster proudly hailed, "From the Producers of Jurassic Park and the Director of Speed." How much brain food can you really expect, right?
Twister is unapologetic eye and ear candy and never portends to parade itself as anything more. Give in to its playful presentation of action and peril and you'll likely find an enjoyable two hours at your fingertips. Add to this the impressive audio track and the just-slightly improved visual presentation and you'll find this a welcome addition to your Blu-ray library.
Although the testimony presented is within the realm of reasonable doubt, Twister is exonerated of wrongdoing since all it really sets out to do is entertain. Enjoy.
Review content copyright © 2008 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* TrueHD 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
* Audio commentary
* "Chasing the Storm: Twister Revisited"
* "HBO First Look: The Making of Twister"
* "Anatomy of a Twister"
* "Nature Tech: Tornadoes"
* Music Video
* Original DVD Verdict Review