Twister opens with a dark and stormy night, the darkest and stormiest ever filmed, thanks to contemporary effects technology. Against a symphony of thunderclouds, whirling debris and exploding transformers, a grim little farm family races for their storm cellar. Minutes into the movie, the suspense is excruciating: will the farm girl's terrier catch up with the family and make it to safety? An instant after the family bolts themselves into the shelter, the feisty pup reaches the door, the dad whips it open and snatches the dog inside. The audience cheers.
Evoking spontaneous applause during a movie's introduction is no mean feat, and director Jan De Bont tops that by next showing the aftermath of a storm, as heart stopping as genuine disaster footage on CNN.
The movie (forgive me) sucks you in.
The setup is simple. The little girl, the one with the Toto-style terrier, has grown up to be storm chaser Jo Harding (Helen Hunt). Jo and a gang of scientifically trained thrill seekers go where tornadoes are, and they hope to send a sensor-laden gizmo (named, cleverly, a Dorothy) up in a cyclone. All the storm chasers have to do is get ahead of a storm, drop the Dorothy in the suck zone, and get out before the swirling winds hit. They're competing with bad guys, Dr. Jonas Miller (Cary Elwes) and his corporately funded fleet of storm chasers. As if all that weren't enough, there's yet another complication: while her geeky retinue test equipment and wait for storm warnings, Jo's former research partner and almost ex-husband, Bill (Bill Paxton) shows up with his bride-to-be, Melissa (Jami Gertz). They need Jo's signature on divorce papers, but when the weather gets wild, they tag along on the chase.
The Harding crew -- navigators, data analyzers and meteorologists in station wagons, vintage campers and a derelict truck -- set off like swashbuckling crusaders, accompanied by the soundtrack's high-seas music. In contrast, Jonas' team -- uniformed wonks in an armada of glossy black vans -- all but fly a skull and crossbones from their antenna. Both convoys head into heavy weather, seeking the glory of scientific discovery, and the adventure begins.
The filmmakers' credentials, "from the producers of Jurassic Park and the director of Speed," may not have prepared you for the adventure. Not since Jaws has a summer movie been crammed so full of thrills. For instance, in one of the storm chases, after Jo and Bill have already seen a double waterspout ("We've got sisters," Bill crows) and an airborne heifer ("We've got cow"), their truck gets stuck on a fallen tree and a black, angry wall of wind screams toward them. Bill spots something large looming in the malevolent cloud. "What is that? What is that?" he asks.
It's an 18-wheeler! The truck is flung from the tornado -- it's a petroleum tanker!! It hits the road, knocks their truck off the tree, then skids, is lifted again and after bouncing over their truck, explodes in a massive fireball, which they drive through. Golly, that was exciting. And that's just one event in one tornado.
To ensure that no one in the audience dies of adrenaline overload, the filmmakers give us rest breaks. Ostensibly, these calm-sky scenes focus on a love triangle, but any fool can see that Bill will end up with Jo, and that his fiancee exists chiefly to have things explained to her. So we don't get lost in the maelstrom of jargon, the tornadophiles tell her about microbursts, perturbation flow and F ratings -- "An F4 could relocate your house pretty effectively," Bill says. Melissa nods politely, her patience a reasonable response to these heavy-handed talking scenes.
We don't care about our scientists' motivation any more than we care about their love lives. Yeah, yeah, we know they dream of increasing tornado warning time from only a few minutes to at least 15. But while the actors yap about thus improving the lot of humanity, we're eager for the chase. Bring on the F5!
Of course, Twister doesn't pretend to be a character study. It's about high-energy excess, savage storms that can fling tractors like hail and how terrific that action can look on-screen. Sure, the scenarios are formulaic -- but the formula works. It's a movie no popcorn-munching summer moviegoer will be able to resist.
Twister. Directed by Jan De Bont. With Bill Paxton, Cary Elwes and Helen Hunt. PG-13. 116 minutes.
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