Twister (1996)

twister-1996-05-gIn Twister, the capricious tornadoes growl ominously as they approach, and they pluck up huge trucks and tear houses apart with such casual, horrifying force that the audience gasps and laughs at the same time. Twister promises — and delivers — pure apocalyptic power unlike anything put on film before. These seething black mushrooms in the blue-gray Oklahoma sky have a scary, Wagnerian grandeur. I was reminded of the King Lear line: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.”

Is Twister a great movie? Hell, no. The script, credited to Michael Crichton and his wife Anne-Marie Martin, is basically either “Look, a tornado! Let’s chase it!” or “Look, a tornado! Let’s take cover!” But Twister is a great summer movie — a warm-weather no-brainer addressing the two classic action-film themes, force and momentum. Those themes are the bread and butter of director Jan de Bont, a former cinematographer (Die Hard) who made his debut with the pedal-to-the-metal Speed. De Bont has a genius for the aesthetics of motion, the comedy of relentlessness. Twister may be the most beautiful action movie you’ll see this summer: The kinetic shots, composed by Jack N. Green (Clint Eastwood’s regular cameraman) and edited by Michael Kahn (Steven Spielberg’s usual cutter), flow into each other like the panels of a great comic book — say, Jack Kirby circa 1966.

The plot? There isn’t one, actually. The Crichtons have obviously seen The Abyss, with its estranged couple under stress. Here, the couple is Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton, dedicated stormchasers who want to send special sensors up into a tornado to get data that may improve tornado warnings. Meanwhile, a rival team of stormchasers (led by arrogant Cary Elwes) hope to beat Helen and Bill at their own game. That’s it. But that’s about all de Bont needs.

Twister isn’t the brilliant machine that Speed was, but it often packs a comparable wallop. When the heroes are driving towards a tornado and a terrified cow spins through the air, I laughed at first, but the surrealism of that image has haunted me. The cow is only a warm-up for such unguided missiles as tractors, windmills, fuel trucks, and finally an entire house. What happens with the house is so perfect, so summer-movie absurd, that I wouldn’t dream of giving it away.

Hunt and Paxton make an appealing pair, and they try to do more than “Look, a tornado!” Hunt has a fine, lyrical moment when she stands her ground and gazes into a massive twister, her blonde hair billowing; she’s like a storybook goddess. But really you don’t go to see the people in Twister any more than you went to see the people in Jurassic Park or Speed. You go for three things: pursuit, retreat, annihilation. In that order. Twister may be no more than what Pauline Kael called “jolts for jocks,” but it’s among the most ravishing dumb movies ever made.

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