Twister

Twister wisely jumps the gun on the summer blockbuster season.

About halfway through Twister, my thoughts shifted from awe at the tornado's force to something more like "Gee, those Boeing 707 engines sure stir up a breeze!" When hail fell, I couldn't help but remember that these were ice chunks crushed small enough so as not to hurt the actors, and made from a water/milk mixture for authentic color. Certainly a big advance buzz helps pack 'em in on opening weekend, but the overload of behind-the-scenes reportage can have its downside. Then there's the plausibility factor with blockbuster films: Despite all the hype about research and special effects, no one pretends that realism is a priority with these movies, and one adjusts perspective accordingly. So I ignored all the childhood tales about the impossibility of out-running a tornado in a car while watching two characters in Twister out-run one on foot. I didn't roll my eyes when neither one got so much as a splinter, even though the evil funnel, hot on their heels, was shooting wood shards from a fence at hundreds of miles per hour all around them.

Such give-and-take is part of getting caught up in the thrall of "the dark side of nature" this summer, just as Jurassic Park spawned dino-mania in '93. (Tornados would seem more difficult to market, however--anyone for a charcoal-colored Twister-shake at Burger King?) Older folks may cluck their tongues over the real suffering caused by these wanton and amoral meteorological perversities, and little kids will run to the library or the Net to gobble up tons of tornado facts. And as with the teens who died from highway hijinks after watching The Program, or those who ignited a subway token booth like the dudes in Money Train, we shouldn't be surprised if some foolhardy youth choose to mimic the heroes of this film, who are continually driving alongside or into the paths of tornados.

Basically, Twister's audience goes on a ride-along across Oklahoma with scientist Jo Harding (Helen Hunt), her merry band of grad students, her estranged husband Bill (Bill Paxton), and his new fiancée Melissa (Jami Gertz). They're chasing after an increasingly vicious string of tornados in an attempt to launch sensors into one of them, which will record the first-ever data from inside a funnel cloud. Yet for all their wild capriciousness, the twisters that dominate this movie also manage to sabotage it in some rather mundane ways (a friend noted that it's kind of lame when taunts about Bill's being a weatherman are fightin' words). As a topic, tornados pretty much rule out the sex-madness-power-violence conflation that's so integral to action movies--the kind that's derived from guns and weapons of mass destruction, and that gets played up so cheekily by directors like John Woo (see Broken Arrow, among others). Instead, Twister substitutes a rather ponderous and predictable love triangle, with an overly understated hint at the near-orgasmic experience of being caught up in tornado.

It's also rather pointless to have an evil-yet-charismatic antihero in this movie; a mad scientist who's trying to create his own twisters would only take us into comic book territory. So Twister has a thoroughly bland bad guy in Jonas Miller, Jo and Bill's former colleague-turned-rival. He bailed out of academia to hitch his wagon to corporate R&D; in other words, "He's in it for the money, not the science," says Bill with as much derision as he can muster. Thing is, that's probably not such a reprehensible stance for a lot of people--not to mention a rather hypocritical statement from a $70 million movie obviously bent on reaping megaprofits.

Moreover, while Jonas's fleet of shiny black vehicles signals his alliance with the dark forces of corporate America, it doesn't take a media critic to see that our heroes have got The Man on their side too. When Jo's old jeep gets totalled early in the movie, she appropriates her soon-to-be ex's brand-new Dodge Ram, and this plucky truck becomes almost as much a character as its drivers. Hung up on a huge fallen tree, the Ram suddenly scrambles free to save its passengers from imminent tornado pulverization; during another run-in, it swerves right-left-right-left out of the way of farm machinery crashing from the sky (perfect commercial footage). And despite winds that make a gasoline tanker truck sail through the air like a rag doll, the trusty Dodge never leaves the ground. It serves its owners well before finally being sacrificed, for the greater good of science, into the gaping maw of an F5 tornado. But Dodge isn't the only corporate star of Twister. Realizing the solution to a key scientific obstacle, Jo instructs her crew to rustle up a bunch of aluminum cans; funny how, in the wake of a twister that laid waste to an entire town, all they find are Pepsi cans.

From Jurassic Park to Rising Sun to Disclosure, screenwriter Michael Crichton, collaborating here for the first time with his wife Anne-Marie Martin, never hesitates to impose a Lesson on his movies. Twister's is that we need to learn more about tornados so as to develop better warning systems and save lives (and property!)--a rather limp premise no one can disagree with, much less get very imaginative about. And while one would think that tornados offer grandiosely sinister musical inspiration, Twister's score has nothing on any TV movie-of-the-week pablum; of course, it's complemented with requisite soundtrack-ready pop songs (many of them blared through a rooftop speaker on the ramshackle van driven by Dusty, a "funky" grad student whom one can't help but mark for a grisly death by tornado).

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