Directed by Jan de Bont
Starring Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt, and Jami Gertz
USA, 1996

The summer movie season started early this year, with Twister touching down at a couple thousand moviehouses on May 10, pushed up a week at the very last minute to get a head start on Mission: Impossible. Eager to be pleased, I read the newspapers without checking out the reviews and got in line early for an opening night seat in one of New York's biggest auditoriums. It wouldn't have taken much to please me. Really, I was excited by the promise of a reborn disaster genre, with the harnessed power of dozens of Cray supercomputers creating an onscreen windstorm designed to scare the hell out of me. But at the heart of its storm, Twister is inconsequential even at the level of special effects -- it's got one hell of a bluster, but the movie is utterly weightless.

Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt play lead stormchasers Bill and Jo Harding like understudies for Sam Neill and Laura Dern. I'm convinced that Paxton is a fine actor in search of a breakthrough role, but this one leaves him stranded. Hunt has a distinct, appealing presence, but her lady scientist is so formula that she may as well have made a TV movie. Making the worst of a flimsy script, Jamie Gertz plays Paxton's utterly annoying fiance, who learns that you can take the boy out of the storm, but you can't take the storm out of the boy. Or something like that. The "story" concerns a pack of tornado scientists traveling across the Oklahoma countryside with Jo, who became the troupe's undisputed leader after her separation from Bill. Bill arrives on the scene with his nails-on-the-chalkboard sweetie, Melissa. He's carrying divorce papers that need Jo's signature, on the morning of a day that is, coincidentally, just packed with tornadoes. It's packed with symbolism, too: when Bill first produces those divorce papers, Jo tosses them down on the hood of a truck as a storm starts a-ragin', and they threaten to just blow away in the wind.

Heh, get it?

That contrived conflict between Hunt and Gertz is one thing, and better actors might have been able to make it work with better dialogue and a less frantic rush from special effect to special effect. (As it is, you wonder how those two can stand to share the same bed, let alone their lives.) Another thing entirely is a stupid sub-plot involving a bunch of bad-guy scientists (led by a guy named Jonas (Cary Elwes), they drive fancy black trucks and live like swine off of fat research grants) who take up a fair amount of screen time and ultimately amount to nothing at all. It's as though the filmmakers thought that the story of man's struggle with nature (that's the subject of Moby Dick after all, and, er, Jaws) wasn't nearly conflict enough, and made the disastrous decision to further water down what could have been a compelling story with a dumb white-hat/black-hat routine.

All this could be irrelevant to the film's real pleasures, of course -- who went to see Jurassic Park because of Sam Neill and Laura Dern, or even Jeff Goldblum? The stars of Twister are the tornadoes -- or rather, the multi-million dollar cgi representations of tornadoes. All I can say about them is that they are indeed impressive -- but certainly not seamless, in the style of JP's dinosaurs, Apollo 13's rocket launch, or even True Lies' harriers over Miami. When they're ripping something to shreds, they look great, but they're plagued by artifacts of the digital creation process. For my money, the real problem with the new breed of computerized special effects is the tendency of a Twister-sized blockbuster to rely too heavily on digital alchemy. When a tanker truck is tossed at our heroes, it's surely a spectacle -- but the damn truck looks like something out of Toy Story, and the whole image lacks a sense of photographic depth, which snaps me right out of the picture.

So we have a movie with wooden performances, a color-by-numbers screenplay, and some mighty cool but hardly revolutionary special effects. Still, there's some dumb fun to be had in these situations, and all the shots of bodies mobilizing, doors slamming, and a convoy of beat-up trucks tearing up country roads a few hundred feet away from a tornado are kind of exciting, if repetitive. But by the last half hour, as the FX team tried to figure out what else it could throw across that screen, I was checking my watch and praying for a quick credit scroll. Basically, imagine a movie with all the flaws of director Jan de Bont's previous effort, Speed -- outlandish situations, contrived dialogue, and a tendency to just go on too damn long -- and few to none of its virtues -- a tight, delicious crisis situation, amazing stunts, and the Generation X hormone rush of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in a clinch.

DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer