RogerBW's Blog

Twister 29 March 2014

1996, dir. Jan de Bont, Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton: IMDb / allmovie

A team of atmospheric scientists chases tornadoes. Action ensues.

This was the number 2 grossing film of 1996, after Independence Day and before the execrable Mission: Impossible. It's big, loud, and often stupid. But it also has a sense of fun which is vital to my enjoyment of any film.

It's unfortunate, then, that it opens with one of my less favourite tropes: the female scientist who chose her field of study because That's What Killed Daddy. Funny how this never applies to male scientists.

The early scenes feel at first remarkably like a 1980s high school or teen delinquent comedy: there's the underdog Good Frat House and the rich and successful Bad Frat House, with insults and minor attacks being thrown back and forth. (And of course Crichton was involved in the writing, even if the script was thoroughly doctored after he'd finished with it, which always means that the rebel scientists are Right.) Cary Elwes as the Bad Scientist does his usual sneer, but the script doesn't really know what to do with him beyond that and never bothers to establish an actual basis for his villainy beyond "he's got corporate sponsorship, boo hiss", and he vanishes for much of the latter part of the film. No great loss; he's not needed for the story except as something with a human face for the audience to boo, since our heroine is already driven to get her project working.

At the same time as all the frat house hijinks, though, we have the ongoing-divorce tension, which changes what could have been a fairly by-the-numbers story into something slightly more interesting. Jami Gertz, as Melissa, does an excellent job early on of portraying the woman introduced to people who are clearly old friends of her husband's, sharing memories with him that she's never going to be a part of. Unfortunately immediately after that she comes over as so terribly dim that one can't help wondering how Bill ever got involved with her. The recurring joke about her answering phone calls wouldn't be plausible in the rural USA even now, never mind in the 1990s.

One can't help feeling that it would have been better to design Dorothy to be deployed really easily and quickly by pulling one cord to turn on the power and release any lock-downs. And I'm not even a user interface sort of guy. Still, it appears that the later probes are thus designed, so maybe it's just a dramatic necessity thing. There's certainly some Because It's In The Script towards the end; there's a point where arms would simply be torn out of sockets. But hey, it's Hollywood; nobody ever does accuracy.

The practical effects are excellent. When the production moves to early CGI, as with the long-shot tornado sequences as opposed to the close-up stuff in buildings, things feel a bit more lightweight, but as long as you're not watching in ultra-high resolution this isn't a major problem.

As for the principals, I've been a fan of Bill Paxton ever since Aliens, and he and Hunt have a real on-screen chemistry which makes them plausible both as people who got married back in the day and as people who are falling back in love now. And, unusually for Crichton or any big-name script-writer, her character isn't punished for her obsession with her work or made to realise she'd be so much happier pushing out babies.

There's a bit too much reliance on obvious cuts for humour ("We aren't doing X!" Cut to X happening). Nobody beyond the two principals gets more than a single-trait character, and they don't get much more. And yes, tornadoes do not work like that. But in spite of all these things the pace and action, and the simple and visceral story, carry the viewer over the rough spots. All of Jan de Bont's overblown style as a director, that came over as silly in Speed, works much better here. This is a big dumb summer film I can enjoy.

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