In 1996, the winds of CGI filmmaking were picking up. After Jurassic Park demonstrated in spectacular fashion some of the range of potential computer-generated imagery had to offer, studios began experimenting with the technology more and more in the years to follow. As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are revisiting a work from the career of Steven Spielberg. This week’s film, Twister, isn’t a film directed by him, but it’s one he served as executive producer for, and it’s a notable one in that it bears a strong degree of his influence.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
After helming Schindler’s List, easily the most psychologically punishing work of his career, not to mention while simultaneously handling post-production on Jurassic Park, one of the strongest technical achievements in motion picture history, Steven Spielberg took a well-deserved break between projects. It wasn’t an excessively long hiatus in terms of normal directors, but for the notoriously hardworking Steven Spielberg, his much-needed four-year gap between Schindler’s List and The Lost World would be the director’s longest interval between movies even to this day.
But that did not mean, however, that the man wouldn’t still serve as executive producer on projects, nor that he wouldn’t give his advice on major blockbusters. Of all the films Spielberg financed or consulted on during this time, Twister is the most “Spielbergian.” Twister was presented as a script idea by Jeffrey Hilton to Amblin Entertainment, then Steven hired his friend Michael Crichton of Jurassic Park to write the screenplay along with his wife Anne-Marie Martin. Hot off success with his 1994 actioner Speed, Dutch director Jan de Bont came in to direct.
In Twister, former storm-chaser Bill Harding (Bill Paxton) visits his old team of cyclone-tracking fanatics to have his estranged wife Jo (Helen Hunt) sign divorce papers. However, it just so happens that the team is about to chase down one mother of a storm, not to mention while attempting to test out tornado-measuring technology that Bill conceived. Well, Bill just can’t help himself, and he ends up spending the next few days chasing some of the worst and most dangerous tornadoes imaginable, all while beginning to bond again with his wife Jo.
The severe weather phenomenon of tornadoes up to this point represented a well of untapped material for cinema, rarely appearing in films save for the notable example of the iconic early scene in The Wizard of Oz. This was mainly due to special effects limitations of the 20th century, but with the advent of CGI in the 1990s, Twister rushed in to take advantage of the market potential, and it paid off. Massive, noisy, and chaotic, tornadoes exemplify a daunting force of nature that is both terrifying and mesmerizing to humans – a concept that is rife for film.
Twister makes strong use of this, effectively depicting the destructive power of its various tornadoes, as well as conveying the awesome respect for nature that they demand. Tornado intensity is ranked on the Fujita scale, and Twister offers all one through five, keeping proper showmanship in mind by having them get stronger as the film progresses. Another essential aspect to a tornado’s danger factor is the debris it throws around, and Twister offers everything from dust and tree branches to flying cows, exploding diesel trucks, and even an entire house.
Hailing from the Midwest myself, it’s just nice to have at least one aspect to the geography that can intimidate those from the hurricane-savvy East Coast, as well as those from the earthquake-experienced West Coast. Taking a page from Spielberg, Jan de Bont insisted on filming the majority of Twister in the heart of Tornado Alley itself, Oklahoma. Thanks to this, the film offers an abundance of footage of cornfields and farmland to properly situate its storm-chasers in the scenes of them racing down rural highways, and let me tell you, there are plenty of those.
Considering de Bont’s directorial debut was the road actioner Speed, it was established by this point that he knew how to direct auto stunts, and as Twister involves a caravan of speeding meteorologists chasing down tornadoes, he’s right at home. The film is a terrifically effective thriller, taking the more familiar template of vehicular set pieces, and simply adding to that the entirely new angle of powerfully violent cyclones, making full use of modern visual effects, and compounding all this with the unique route that the characters are chasing their major threat.
But as exciting as all this is, Twister sits today at a rather unimpressive 57% on Rotten Tomatoes. A strong factor contributing to this is the unbelievability of the plot, as throughout the film the characters encounter a preponderance and severity of tornadoes that is almost on an apocalyptic scale. However, I would venture to guess that a host of storms like this is more unlikely rather than impossible. Personally, I would just have preferred to have heard a little bit more of astonishment from the characters at the unprecedented frequency of cyclones on display.
Another major criticism from critics tends to be the thin nature of the characters. However, compared to some of the other CGI-driven disaster movies of the era (including a rather popular one from the same year, Independence Day), I think it’s safe to say Twister is a level above on the Fujita scale in this regard. The cast of Twister doesn’t exactly offer a lot in the way of dramatic depth, but they certainly offer a lot of fun. For an action movie, that’s what really matters, and they also convey that little bit of craziness it takes to become a storm-chaser in the first place.
The leader of the pack is Bill Paxton (rest in peace). Anyone who’s seen his role in Aliens knows the man could belt out a good yell when he needs to, and his strong voice certainly comes into play here, as it needs to compete with the constantly roaring winds. Paxton verges on overacting at times, but he offers a very formidable charisma, and it makes you wonder why he didn’t star in more films. Helen Hunt excellently conveys Jo’s zealousness, and she has a great chemistry when sparring with Bill. The film also offers a fun role from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
But as critics of Twister love to point out, there isn’t really anything of consequence going on with these people other than chasing tornadoes. Apparently storm-chasing can prevent divorce, and the film also brings up the idea of Jo struggling with having lost her father to a tornado as a child, and fails to really explore it. But the selling point here isn’t drama or believability. It’s the film’s staggering depictions of tornadoes, which you can’t really get anywhere else. Twister is a windy, fast-paced thrill ride, and it’s also a strong example of Spielberg’s influence on the blockbuster.
Next week, we’ll be returning both to Spielberg-directed content, as well as to Jurassic Park with 1997’s The Lost World. The film is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, for streaming on Netflix, and for rental from your various digital retailers. Give the movie a watch, and I’ll see you next week.