Monday, 10 September 2012

Twister (1996)

Dir. Jan De Bont
Starring: Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Jami Gertz, Cary Elwes

For a science-y film Twister is pretty brainless entertainment. Basically it is several million dollars-worth of special effects splashed across the screen with some barely noticeable actors running about and squawking beneath it. I did get the impression that it lost something in its transition from the big screen to DVD. I would imagine that in something like an IMAX cinema, with the surround sound booming out and the seats vibrating it would be quite awe-inspiring. The best way I can put it is this: if Twister were released today it would be released in 3D. You can make your mind up what that says about the quality of the movie. 

The plot, such as it is, revolves around an estranged husband and wife. Bill (Bill Paxton) has left his science background behind and is now a TV weatherman. He has also left his wife, Jo (Helen Hunt) behind. He returns, fiancé Melissa (Jami Gertz) in tow, simply to seek Jo’s signature on the divorce papers. Jo, with her mismatched team of scientific oddbods is chasing tornadoes in Oklahoma. She has turned one of Bill’s ideas into reality: Dorothy. Dorothy releases ball-shaped sensors. Jo and her team aim to drop off Dorothy in the path of a twister and then monitor the data that returns. They hope to use this data to then predict the future behaviour of tornadoes and provide a better early warning system. 

Two ex-partners, with a shared passion, suddenly thrust back together in situations of extreme peril? What could possibly happen next? Jo is, of course, Haunted By Her Past ™ - she saw her father killed by a tornado when she was a little girl, and this drives her in her quest to better predict twisters. (Honestly though, I am sick of heroes who are motivated by a tragic accident in their past, whether that is their father being sucked up by a tornado, their parents murdered by robbers, or their entire species being wiped out by Daleks in the Time War; why can they not just do something because they like it?). She has a Motley Band of Followers, including the long-haired rock-loving Dusty (who, if the film had been made six years later, would have been played by Jack Black but is instead, bizarrely, played by the great Philip Seymour Hoffman of Capote and The Ides of March) and navigator Rabbit (who I spent ages analysing to work out where I knew him from: it was Alan Ruck who played Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off!). These guys conveniently drop into the background whenever there is any real action. Oh, and there is also the Bad Guy: Cary Elwes’s one-note rival storm-chaser Dr. Jonas Miller. He is the Bad Guy because he has ripped off Bill’s ideas for Dorothy, follows Team Jo around, is arrogant and – worst of all – is funded by industry, not a university. He’s a “corporate kiss-butt” and is only interested in the money, apparently. Or, to put it another way, he is trying to do exactly the same research as them, for the same ends, except he is funded by industry rather than tax-payers. He has less character depth than Dick Dastardly.

But he has to be there to be the Bad Guy. Because you need a malign opponent, whether it is Voldemort, Magneto, Godzilla or Jaws. Tornadoes aren’t evil, or predatory. They just are. You cannot outwit a weather front. Of course, the tornadoes do share some of the traits of movie villains. They are rated on a scale from T1 to T5. The gang are faced with tornadoes of increasing intensity (just like James Bond faces various henchmen of increasing skill and viciousness) until they finally come across the Big Bad – the first T5 tornado since Jo’s dad got Dysoned up into the sky in 1969. And, yeah, the special effects are impressive. There are big spouts of whirlwind dancing across the fields, forests and rivers of Oklahoma, causing carnage as they go and leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Our heroes have to dodge the debris it throws at them: trees, cows, motor boats, combine harvesters, petroleum tankers, houses. And then they are at risk of being sucked up themselves (apparently clinging to a bridge will save you, even when the nailed-down boards above your head are being torn up and the truck you left three metres away is by now half-way to Oz). 
It's raining cows - halle-MOO-jah!
The film needs these special effects though. The characterisation is poor. Really poor. I mentioned that Cary Elwes’s Jonas Miller is a sneering pantomime villain, but he is King Lear compared to Bill’s fiancé Melissa. Oof. Jami Gertz is flatter than the Oklahoma plains. I think she was meant to be there to inject some fish-out-of-water comedy. It didn’t work. And as for the stars… well, before I sat down I was thinking “I don’t care what anybody says, Bill Paxton does not have the star quality to carry a movie”. But in my head I was actually thinking of Bill Pullman (who played the president in Independence Day and whom we have seen in Lake Placid). Bill Paxton is someone completely different. And he is even less able to carry such a role than his near-namesake. To be fair, however, Helen Hunt was pretty good. This was her first big film role, after starring in an American sitcom for seven years, and she was by far the best actor in it. Her hidden pining for her ex was about as deep as the film ever got.  

Twister is a brainless big-budget blockbuster of the old school. If you disengage your brain to stop it scoffing at the movie clichés (they have four Dorothys… so of course the first three are not going to work!) and sheer unlikeliness of the scenarios it is actually fairly enjoyable. And I am sure that it would benefit from being seen in a cinema. Just steer clear of drive-in cinemas in Oklahoma though… 

What have I learnt about Oklahoma?
Tornadoes – or twisters – are a common phenomenon. Television stations give out storm warnings, and homes have storm cellars where families can wait out the devastation. Tornadoes have a capability to destroy farms and towns and suck cars straight up off the roads so they are not things to be trifled with. They are also very unpredictable, forming and reforming with little warning or suddenly changing direction. If they are that frequent I think I’d have vacated the area long ago. 

And yet there are ‘storm-chasers’: scientists and meteorologists who want to study the phenomena. These guys seem even more dangerous, speeding down country roads and across fields at 75 MPH. I wonder if they ever compensate the farmers for the damage they cause to their crops? 

Oklahoma itself seems to be a land of large square-sided fields. Agriculture or the rearing of cows takes place in those fields – although solitary oil derricks also seem to be commonplace. The roads are so straight as to make a Roman drool and are dotted with old school diners.  

Can we go there?
The film is firmly set in Oklahoma, although considering that most of the film is spent screeching along rural roads and through films it is hard to work out precisely where (though I’m sure a local could listen in to Rabbit’s narration of which roads to take and work out where the action is supposed to take place at any one time). The only places I can recall hearing being mentioned were Oklahoma County (around and just north of Oklahoma City – this is where Jo grew up), Canton (around 75 miles north-west of Oklahoma City along the Canadian River, where the big storm brews up), and then Wakita (another 75 miles north-east, near the border with Kansas, which is where Jo’s Aunt Meg [Lois Smith] lives). 

Filming took place all over Oklahoma. The opening scene when Bill searches out Jo to sign the divorce papers was shot not far from Fairfax, Oklahoma (north-west of Tulsa). The bridge where they spot the twin waterspouts is Kaw Lake, not far away. However the scene that takes place in between, where Bill gets his tire fixed at thee diner, was shot at a specially-created set in Maysville, south of Oklahoma City. The destruction of the drive-in cinema (the ‘Finger of God’ obviously doesn’t like The Shining) was filmed in Guthrie, north of Oklahoma City. The cinema was created especially for the movie unfortunately. The town of Wakita really exists however. It has a Twister Museum containing one of the Dorothy machines. 

Despite being set in Oklahoma, several key scenes were shot in Iowa, just north of Des Moines. The scene where Bill and Jo are getting reports of a big twister, but cannot see it because it is the other side of a forested hill was shot in Boone. The final scene, where Jo and Bill survive a T5 by belting themselves to pipes in a barn, was shot in Eldora, Iowa. Bill remarks that it didn’t take the house. It was originally meant to. The Hardin County Historical Society objected to its proposed destruction, and it was eventually spared. It used to be a minot attraction. Not any more.

Overall Rating: 3/5

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