The summer of 1996 was when I fell in love with talking about movies, and Twister, the season’s lead-off hitter, was the start of it. I was 16-going-on-17 and enjoying the freedom granted by my first car. I was getting over a breakup and working under the sun as a wannabe hot-shot YMCA lifeguard. Movies became a place of solace and air-conditioned getaways. Six times that summer, the movie name printed on my eager ticket stub was Twister.
25 years later, I’m a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic and award-voting member of three recognized critics groups who points to Jan de Bont’s uproarious, ramblin’ roller coaster—not some great Kubrick, Hitchcock, Scorsese, or Spielberg film—as the impetus for a creative muscle that hasn’t quit flexing since. Why Twister of all things? Hell, why not? For a teen, the fascination of escapism comes before the appreciation of art, and that zeal is always loved and remembered. That’s Twister.
Beginning with its harrowing opening scene of Midwestern nightmare fuel (just ask this lifelong “Tornado Alley” resident) that blows the doors off right away, Twister tapped into something elemental that was not portrayed significantly before on-screen with its high level of intensity. With apologies to The Wizard of Oz and long before the Sharknado parody train, Twister captured enough of the respectable fear and terror associated with its windy deliverer of disaster. The movie speaks of instincts and rattles your own. For all the old seniors, like my own grandmother, who feel the air pressure changes in their joints that accompany the arrival of a storm, Twister could swell an entire nursing home into an arthritic explosion.
Twister is essentially a “one wild day” movie scripted by best-selling Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton and Anne-Martin Martin (her sole career writing credit) and polished by both Joss Whedon and Steven Zaillian working as handsomely paid script doctors. At its simplest premise, the movie is showing the lives of Oklahoma storm chasers who’ve known each other for years, yet taken different career paths, reconverging for the biggest weather brouhaha in decades.
The diehard is the gutsy Dr. Jo Harding (Helen Hunt, an Oscar winner the very next year for As Good As It Gets). She leads a rag-tag team of scrappy scientists (more on them later) with gear and jalopies held together by spit, glue, and pride, which stand as a far cry from the top-of-the-line corporate sponsorship perks enjoyed by her competitive former co-worker Jonas Miller (professional movie jerk Cary Elwes, playing a Kentucky-fried Russ Wheeler). Jo and her estranged husband Bill (the late Bill Paxton) created their experimental “Dorothy” apparatus to release hundreds of small sensors into active cyclones for previously unattainable measurements of how they work, a project Jonas has partially poached to copy as his own.
Bill was the instinctual best-in-the-business at field action before settling down to become a cushy TV weatherman. He comes to Jo on this day looking to get divorce papers signed with his new city-folk fiance (Jami Gertz) in tow. The mounting clouds and renewed attitude to beat Jonas has Bill rejoining Jo and his own buddies for this summer chase.
When Bill shows up and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s incorrigible underling Dusty announces his temporary return as “The Extreme,” a nickname riotously explained later at a redneck dinner table soiree, Bill, with a knowing smile, quickly replies, “Don’t start that sh*t.” No, no, no. Let’s start that sh*t because the future Capote Oscar winner robs celluloid every chance he gets in Twister.
Hoffman’s “Dusty-isms,” if you will—“suck zone,” “that’s intense,” “rue the day,” and more—are hearty contributions that bring endless smiles. He joins the likes of Alan Ruck, Jeremy Davies, future In the Bedroom director Todd Field, and character actors Scott Thomson and Joey Slotnick in having little moments of cheeky background character woven on the fly of this taut, 113-minute spark plug. Hitched with the heaviest balloons of personality are Hunt and Paxton.
Bill Paxton is unruffled to show the burly temperament bubbling out of the put-on, cleaned-up slickness of his supposed former man-of-action while strutting like a retired gunfighter. In the opposite direction, Helen Hunt offers little hints of a fearful fragility beneath her rightfully strong female character’s relentlessness. Neither were made to look superhuman whatsoever. Together, the two leads poke and prod at their characters’ conflict triggers as means to evoke rooting sympathies. While their reunion may feel like a forgone conclusion as they survive their outdoor gales, Bill and Helen play out a melodramatic peril that balances Mother Nature’s own hot-and-cold turbulence.
The more real Twister looked, the better it turned out. The ILM visual effects team—supervised by Stefen Fangmeier (Jurassic Park) and included a young Guy Hendrix Dyas (Inception, Passengers) before he became a top-flight Oscar-nominated production designer—developed a spine-like wire frame for tornado movement. From there, pixels of particles and texture were rotoscoped to best mesh with the on-location filming, avoiding the use of bluescreen. Twister only has 300 visual effects shots to create eight different tornadoes, which is paltry by today’s trends, yet extremely effective when paired with old school craft. Combine those pixels with modulated camel moans from the sound team and you have the proper meteorological monsters to gobsmack viewers as the “finger of God.”
Movie magic aside, the stormy shenanigans from Twister did draw from real science. The “Dorothy” MacGuffin has legitimacy matching the TOTO deployment devices attempted in the 1980s, and the film features the observational setting of the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) at the University of Oklahoma. This movie, for a time, did for storm chasers what Top Gun did for fighter pilots for thrill-seeking recruitment as well.
According to the physical media featurettes, director Jan de Bont, who was coming off of the huge success of Speed, had the desire for a big movie, maybe his last, with practical effects. The Dutchman’s production was plenty haphazard. He and the stunt team, headed by Mel Gibson specialist Mic Rodgers (Braveheart), kept the actors to scale in dodging Boeing 707 jet engine-blown water, ice, and the voluminous random “debris” culled together by property master John Zemansky (Dante’s Peak). The digital dust devils ominously fill the backgrounds, but Unforgiven Oscar nominee Jack N. Green’s cinematography (replacing Robert Zemeckis regular Don Burgess who walked off) focuses on capturing the action amid the very tangible foregrounds of destruction. T2 production designer Joseph C. Nemec III and his MVP set decorator Ronald R. Reiss (Oblivion, Jurassic World) even went as far as destroying the tiny downtown of Wakita, Oklahoma to pull off the genuine look of post-disaster mayhem. A little museum resides there today in honor of the movie.
Jan de Bont’s prophecy was true as he would follow Twister with the increasingly fake Speed 2: Cruise Control, The Haunting, and his last directorial credit back in 2003, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life. Twister stands as the director’s biggest financial hit. Notably, it was the first summer blockbuster to tap into the plum early week of May release slot that Marvel would go on to stake claim on for years. The Warner Bros. marketers were right.
Twister started early and raked for two virtually uncontested weeks, dropping a microscopically scant 9% in its second weekend and only 20% in its third weekend when Mission: Impossible showed up over the Memorial Day holiday. Studios would kill for that kind of hold today. Twister ended 1996 netting over $241,000,000 domestically as the second highest-grossing movie of the year, far ahead of Mission: Impossible and behind only the juggernaut that was Independence Day.
The entire heartland heroism on display has its yee-haw fun, for sure, but what has audiences coming back to Twister is the volume-cranked spectacle that comes with the amusement. From one telegraphed thrill after another, the preposterous reigns. You’ve got fishing boats, semi-trucks, tractors, and cows flying through the air. A tornado rips through a drive-in movie screen at night just as The Shining drops its “Here’s Johnny” line. Our two lead protagonists somehow triumphantly float inside of a tornado and emerge without a scratch from whirling debris and concussive forces moving in excess of 260mph as the music swells to a climax. All of it is movie malarkey but, damn, does it sure look cool! Take me back to that summer hit any time.