“Intense Depiction of Very Bad Weather” – Twister and the 90s Return of the Disaster Movie

This is my contribution to The Second Disaster Blog-a-thon, hosted by Dubsism and Pale Writer – I was on holiday abroad during submission time for the blog, which is why this is being published a little later than I anticipated…

If, like me, you were born in the early 1980s, then the disaster movie was already something of a quaint relic, definitely from an earlier time – for sure, they weren’t to be seen among the new releases at your local four-screen, which was precisely the place where they would have been pulling in the masses ten years earlier. No, they were the stuff of Bank Holiday Monday television screenings, with the family all bunched up on the sofa, and maybe the youngest (like me) on the floor as close as they could be to the box, gripped at the spectacle before them. These films would often feature the stars of yesteryear, and maybe an blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance from a future star in waiting. They were at once cosy but also somewhat disturbing viewing to young viewers like me, as they often featured death, and plenty of it, with a cast of dozens at the mercy of the elements, or the animal kingdom in full force. You’d witness human nature at its most heroic, and its most selfish. You’d see terror in the face of the natural elements, as well as resourcefulness, teamwork and noble sacrifice. It was where I’d witness Gene Hackman’s priest fall to a fiery death in The Poseidon Adventure so that he could guarantee the safety of the remaining survivors, who were desperately trying to get to the top (or should I say the bottom) of the capsized luxury liner. It was where I’d see Richard Chamberlain’s utterly loathsome cad callously push other people to their deaths atop The Towering Inferno in an attempt to save his own skin, only to fall to his own demise shortly afterwards, a demise that was one of the first I ever remember cheering on at the start of my life-long love of movies. Along with the James Bond films, disaster movies were some of the earliest instances of being exposed to death as spectacular entertainment, albeit neatly confined within the safe boundaries of the PG-certified movie. This kind of morbid entertainment was as scary as it was fun, and it was awe-inspiring, even in small-screen, pan-and-scan form, thanks to the sheer wallop of the concepts – be it the unstoppable force of the ocean, the destructive beauty of fire, the cataclysmic impact of an earthquake, the unavoidable presence of a meteor, the hubris of supposedly state-of-the-art technology failing to work, or even the animal kingdom demanding it be head of the food chain, the disaster movie was catnip to audiences who imagined what it would be like to be caught up in such horrifying scenarios. The equivalent of rollercoaster rides (indeed, you could even argue that 1977’s Rollercoaster, despite being essentially a thriller about a mad bomber, was nevertheless a disaster movie in that it made us wonder what it would be like if those rides went out of control) that left us with white knuckles and a refreshed appreciation for how small we are in the scheme of things, disaster movies were inevitably going to crash and burn after a while when the concepts started to get sillier, the scripts got lazier, the performances became OTT, and audiences felt jaded. For the 1980s, the disaster movie slipped away.

Yet with the advent of CGI, which by the mid-nineties was becoming more and more prevalent, putting behind the days of practical, in-camera effects and back projection, it felt like there was a new opportunity for another wave of disaster movies, ones that could offer up destruction on a hitherto undreamed scale. Although there had been true-life movies like Frank Marshall’s Alive (1993) and Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995), or fictional, big-budget spectaculars like the pyromaniac thriller Backdraft (1991, also Ron Howard), the mad bomber actioner Speed (1994, Jan de Bont) and the pandemic nightmare Outbreak (1995), that all faintly recalled those earlier days of disaster movies to varying degrees, it wasn’t until 1996 that the genre in its big, fictional (and let’s be honest, ridiculous) form came back. In fact, it was a banner year for such things, with two colossal movies that contributed to that summer being one of the biggest of all time. Alongside other, non-disaster blockbusters like The Rock and Mission: Impossible (which in turn consolidated a new era of enormous action movies following James Cameron’s T2 and True Lies), Independence Day and Twister promised to be event movies in the old style, albeit with very new special effects at their disposal. I guess viewers like me, who’d only ever seen disaster movies on TV and on VHS, were developing their own hunger for a new wave of large-scale destruction, and the success of these two movies kickstarted a whole wave of disaster movies, a new era that commercially peaked with James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), which ended up being the most successful film ever made and kept that record for over a decade. Twister was all set to be a proper event movie – it was even backed by two major film studios, which recalled the glory days of Warner Bros and 20th Century Fox being both behind the mighty force of The Towering Inferno, although this time it was Universal Pictures alongside Warners, not to mention Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. This was a movie where the concept and the effects were the star, not the, er…actual stars, although the 90s disaster movies were arguably even less concerned with bagging the A-listers, with Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton more recognisable to casual cinemagoers as character actors. Personally, I really dug that these two were the leads – I’d already seen Hunt in the excellent 1992 drama The Waterdance (and I rather fancied her in that too), and as for Paxton…well, he was pretty much my favourite character actor of all time at this stage. Ever since I’d first seen him as panicky marine Hudson in Aliens, and then in Predator 2, Tombstone, True Lies, Apollo 13, Weird Science and Near Dark (especially Near Dark) …even those little appearances in The Terminator and Commando. Even when he was playing a total jerk, coward or dickhead, he was just so watchable, so funny, so irresistible. And now he was the goddamn co-lead? Yes please! 

My anticipation for Twister was so high that it even surpassed my excitement for Independence Day, which was the summer blockbuster that everybody wanted to watch at the time (and everybody did, ending up being the #1 movie of 1996 ), thanks to that incredible trailer – even when the reviews for Twister came out and they weren’t as strong as that for Emmerich’s film, I didn’t care. Independence Day might have had a lot of things, but it didn’t have Bill Paxton. It had Bill Pullman, admittedly, but not Paxton. It also had Jan de Bont in the director’s chair, and I was more excited about a new film from the director of the awesome Speed than I was one from the director of the good-but-not-great Stargate. Had my appreciation of cinematographers been more pronounced back then, I would have had more fuel to fire my de Bont admiration as this was the guy who shot Black Rain, Die Hard and Basic Instinct to name but three.

Unfortunately, Twister marked the first ever instance of me missing the start of the movie on a big screen thanks to the lateness of my fellow cinemagoers (all is forgiven). Now if Twister had offered up the usual roster of opening credits, I would have missed less on-screen action, but this was one of those movies that got down to business as soon as the main title had literally been blown off the screen, and this meant that I missed the entirety of the prologue! Luckily, as I was already an avid reader of Empire magazine, I knew that the stuff I missed had involved the death of the father of our main protagonist. It’s weird settling into a movie once it’s already began – with almost every film I see, there are always latecomers, and I don’t know how they remain comfortable with it, if they are. I find it super disorienting – I need the build-up of the ads and the trailers, of the BBFC title card, of the movie starting proper. It’s a shame I did miss the start of Twister, as right from the beginning it kicks off in style, with the opening logo emerging from the ominous clouds. In the US, this was the Warners logo, but over here in the UK (as I’d find out when I saw it on video), it was the Universal ident instead. They both work fine, but the Warner one feels more appropriate given that it’s normally up in the skies in the first place. 

At only 107 minutes (excluding credits), Twister is refreshingly free of bloat, and it doesn’t fatigue the viewer either – the storms are, appropriately enough, increasingly spectacular. At the time there had been nothing like them, or at least nothing I’d ever seen before. This was before your Volcanos, Dante’s Peaks, Armageddons, Deep Impacts and even Independence Days (Twister came out shortly before it); it was bigger than anything I’d seen on the big screen. Add to that the immense sound effects, and Twister was, frankly, pure sensation cinema. The CGI has, for the most part, dated well. I’d say it’s about 90% convincing these days, which is pretty damned good for a movie that’s coming up to being thirty years old. In fact, only two effects stood out to me as being pretty clunky on my most recent viewing – the satellite orbiting Earth after the prologue, and a rogue tree trunk that shoots down the road towards Jo and Bill’s truck during the final storm. Apart from that, this stuff still looks great. The unforgettable absurdity of that flying cow (as seen during the third storm) still looks amazing, and it was as close to this film got to an iconic visual that matched Independence Day‘s still extraordinary ‘nuke the White House’ shot. Wisely, the storms get worse and worse (read ‘better and better’), with each one more awesome than the last. 

The first one, set during the 1969 prologue, we don’t even really see, except for what we can witness from the storm shelter, as poor Jo and her mum watch helplessly as daddy is sucked into a twister along with the rickety shelter door. It’s this tragedy that fuels the obsessive drive of the adult Jo (Helen Hunt) in the present day as she and her team of storm chasers try to get as close as they can to an active twister. This is so they can use a device nicknamed Dorothy (there are a fair few Wizard of Oz references in this movie) that will release a load of weather sensors into it which, if they work and their data obtained, will be used to better predict future storms so that locals will have more time to evacuate their homes. Of course, the act of actually getting up close to a twister is no easy feat – in fact, it’s exceptionally dangerous, and you get the sense that Jo would have been killed early on in the movie thanks to her recklessness, but her estranged husband Bill (Bill Paxton), who invented Dorothy and later left Jo and the storm chasing team for a life of stability, is back on the scene as he needs her to fill out their divorce papers, an act which Jo seems to have been putting off. Maybe she still loves him? Maybe she doesn’t. What do you think? No more time for procrastination though, as Bill has found someone new, and he needs the papers finalised so that he can marry her. The new lady in question is Melissa (Jami Gertz), a ‘reproductive therapist’ who, as is the way in films like this, is pretty much the opposite of Jo, all the better for dramatic contrast. I’m not sure if the film itself is as condescending towards therapy as Jo is, or as ashamed of it as Bill is, but maybe a little of it would have helped Jo, who has become dangerously obsessed with storms ever since her traumatic childhood experience. Melissa schtick, mostly played for laughs, means embarrassing sex talk and perceived psychobabble versus the real world of hard science and physical labour. Compared to the all-talk Melissa, Jo is all-action, a characteristic enforced by the costume choice of a white vest that can’t help but recall Die Hard‘s John McLane. She’s a flawed, but nevertheless strong heroine and the clear protagonist (Bill may carry the movie at the start after the prologue, but it’s Jo’s journey overall), and never once is she a damsel in distress. She may be forced to confront the fact that she’s become obsessed – borderline Moby Dick levels – but the fact is that her drive and courageousness, along with Bill’s, saves the day. They do say confront your fears, after all, and I imagine that after the events of this movie, Jo will be alright. 

Poor Melissa on the other hand is doomed to be the character who is introduced into the movie only to lose. As soon as Bill sees Jo again, and gets a taste of the old, storm chasing life, we know it’s just a matter of time. There’s a nice chemistry between Bill and Melissa, but he and Jo were clearly made for each other, with lots of awkward, accidental brushes up against each other and so on. To be honest, it’s nice that Melissa is not painted as a harridan or nasty character that we want to see lose, and she’s not killed off either (that would have felt ugly) – she’s genuinely nice and it’s a shame what happens to her. She and Bill’s inevitable break-up at the end of act two is relatively neat and tidy in the scheme of things (she says she’s not too broken up about everything), but the last time we see her she’s clearly unhappy, and the film doesn’t try to sugar coat that. Or maybe it’s just not interested. She wasn’t cut out for this film, bless her. This much is obvious when they visit Jo’s aunt Meg’s house and she’s clearly put off by all the intense camaraderie and a communal dinner made up of sloppy steaks, mashed potato, gravy and eggs. Interestingly, she may have found a kindred spirit in de Bont, who as a vegetarian, was not keen on filming this scene. But to be honest, I don’t blame Melissa for getting a bit overwhelmed – these guys are pretty overbearing company. She’s, for the most part, our grounded character, our way in, our link to these crazy characters who risk their lives constantly, and whose recklessness could prove alienating to some viewers.

As the film progresses, and with Jo and Bill’s attempts to get one of their four Dorothy machines in a twister keep failing, the film is akin to a roadshow or a tour, with the ‘band’ that is the storm chasers moving from gig to gig, or storm to storm, pumped up with adrenaline, often scoring their own escapades with their choice of music (Deep Purple, Van Halen, Rossini, Oklahoma!) that blare out from their customised loudspeakers. There are some fabulously foreboding skies that are almost like the opening music to the main shows. However, although there are some dramatic moments, and scenes of visceral carnage during the vivid storms (remember, this was rated PG-13 in the States for ‘Intense Depiction of Very Bad Weather’), Twister never loses sight of what it is – a blockbuster ride. The storms are ultimately thrilling. The drive-in set-piece, where The Shining is playing on the big screen (had the twister not arrived, the second film would have been Psycho) is awesomely destructive and maybe quite frightening for some viewers, but it really emphasises that what we’re watching is a big show – nothing more, nothing less, and at the time, I found it totally irresistible. I’m not blind to the film’s limitations: but it gets the job done – the script is mostly a functional affair – funny moments, effectively dramatic moments, charming moments, but nothing special – but what’s important is that it’s nevertheless delivered with gusto by its cast, and that’s what matters.  but while they’re not much more than soap opera, they join the dots more than efficiently, and the cast are all fun to watch, and sell the excitement and terror of a storm very well indeed. The former is most memorably exemplified by a lively Phillip Seymour Hoffman in one of his earliest roles, and there’s other recognisable faces in the form of Alan Ruck (currently starring as one of Logan Roy’s loathsome offspring in the stunning Succession), Sean Whalen (memorable as one of The People Under the Stairs) and Jeremy Davies (the lead in David O. Russell’s Spanking the Monkey)

By the end of it all, we’re dodging falling tractors, driving through a house (fabulous moment, this) and then literally end up in the middle of a twister. And yet, you’d think there’d be more casualties in a film like this. However, the 90s wave of disaster movies seemed more reluctant to kill people off left, right and centre compared to the earlier generation. In fact, aside from Jo’s father, none of the good guys die in Twister. In fact, apart from that opening death, only two people are killed – the odious rival scientist Jonas (Cary Elwes) and his unfortunate driver. Death is only a presence in the movie in that it haunts Jo throughout. Speaking of Jonas, he is of course the boo-hiss villain we need in a film like this, and he’s a mildly objectionable git who gleefully accepts corporate sponsorship and is ‘in it for the money, not the science’, a selfish bastard who stole Bill’s idea for Dorothy, and who doesn’t help our heroes when they’re abandoned on the road. He’s not in the upper league of disaster bastards (he’s a jerk, but not quite horrible enough, and he’s not really in the film enough to present a legitimate rivalry), but we’re not sorry when he does buy the farm either.

Like all natural disaster movies, the antagonistic force can never be truly defeated – Jo and Bill don’t triumph over the storm, they merely survive it. They can’t stop nature, it’s impossible. It moves on, they survive, and all they have left is the hope that Dorothy’s findings will help them in the future against future storms. The end credits, backed by Eddie and Alex Van Halen’s moody ‘Respect the Wind’, is less triumphant than it is strangely foreboding and quietly calm, before the next storm, although we’re denied a ‘keep watching the skies’ or ‘next time we might not be so lucky’ ending – ultimately, Twister has little to say about nature except you can’t win against it. In effect, it’s the kind of movie that, appropriately, breezes past, and is likely to be left behind, but while it’s on screen, it’s tremendous fun, and this accounts for why it was the #2 movie of 1996. I infinitely prefer it to Independence Day, which definitely felt like the more blatantly zeitgeist movie at the time, and one whose sheer impact was strong enough that I even went to see it a second time when I realised it was still playing at my local many months after its summer debut, but is now I find way less appealing, with its scenes of destruction coming off now as so much empty razzle-dazzle. Admittedly, hollow spectacle is a charge that was also levelled at Twister at the time, but I’m way more persuaded by its quicker, faster and speedier charms. Plus, did I say that it stars Bill Paxton?

PS: Appropriately, Twister was the first ever film to be released on DVD – all the better to show off the kind of sound wallop that reportedly blew out speakers during its original theatrical run.

6 thoughts on ““Intense Depiction of Very Bad Weather” – Twister and the 90s Return of the Disaster Movie

  1. Pingback: The Second Disaster Blogathon has arrived! – Pale Writer

  2. Pingback: Welcome to the Second “Disaster” Blog-A-Thon! | Dubsism

  3. Excellent review! I saw it in theaters, and was blown away by the visual effects. Yeah, now the CGIs look primitive by today’s standards, but it’s a fun movie. BTW, I never liked Independence Day.

  4. I absolutely get your love for Bill Paxton! He was always such a bright spot in his films, especially when he played the good guy. I unashamedly love this film. Even if it isn’t exactly the peak of cinema. But who cares? It does what it says on the tin whirling in the eye of the storm. Thank you for such a well written contribution to our Blogathon.

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