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Twister (1996)

Tornadoes are funny things. Borne from the most violent of inland weather conditions, they can strike without warning or pattern, touching down just long enough to erase one or two (not necessarily consecutive) houses before vanishing like ninjas into the sky, only to drop on your head a block later on. This is why it’s been so hard to come up with an effective early-warning system, but storm-chasers continue to brave hostile weather to try to figure out what makes a tornado tick, knowing that if they don’t, tornadoes will hunt us all down and murder us in our beds. At least, that’s what disaster movies would have us believe.

Twister is a disaster film based on a script by Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin, and directed by Jan de Bont. It stars Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Cary Elwes, Jami Gertz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Alan Ruck.

After witnessing her father’s death during a tornado that hit her farm when she was young, Jo (Hunt) has grown up to be a storm-chaser, swearing to hunt down as many tornadoes as possible and prevent her childhood tragedy from happening to anyone else. Her son-to-be-ex-husband Bill Harding (Paxton) and his fiancee Dr. Melissa Reeves meet Jo and her quirky team of storm chasers out in the field in order to get the final divorce papers back from Jo. As Bill was once a member of that same team before retiring to become a meteorologist who hates being called a weatherman, he and Melissa are greeted warmly, but he resists the idea that he is returning to the field. Jo, of course, is still madly in love with Bill, and stalls his attempts to get the divorce papers from her, instead inviting him along for the field testing of a tornado analysis device that Bill co-designed, named Dorothy. With a record number of tornadoes predicted that season, they should have plenty of chances to try out the four prototypes.

However, they are competing against a rival group of storm-chasers led by Jonas Miller (Elwes), whom Bill disdains because Jonas relies on instruments rather than his own instincts (as he apparently has none), and is only in it for the money. Jonas, of course, has his own version of the same tornado analysis device, which he has dubbed D.O.T.; Bill accuses Jonas of stealing his idea, but Jonas makes it clear that the credit for the device will only go to the first team to successfully test it. Bill’s pride wins out, and he agrees to join the team for one more day in order to beat Jonas, incidentally dragging Melissa along for the ride, much to her initial excitement and later terror. The first tornado of the movie is sighted, and the race is on – and along the way, special effects happen.

Really, the whole plot is the curtain rod on which the tornado effects are hung. While it does give a valid reason for these two groups of (probably insane) tornado chasers to be out in horrifying weather, Melissa is only there so the seasoned tornado experts have someone to whom they can explain all the stuff that they already know by heart as part of their job, and Jonas & Co. are only there to give us someone to hate, because it’s stupid to hate tornadoes. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with using instruments to track storms – that’s why they’re there, and Jo’s team uses instruments as well as their eyes and years of experience to try to predict when and where the tornadoes will show up.

That said, the tornadoes are really damn impressive-looking. While the previous standard for movie tornadoes was set by The Wizard of Oz, the twisters here are CGI, using complex particle-rendering software developed by ILM for the film in order to create and control soft-shaded particles within each storm, resulting in the most realistic movie tornadoes to date. In order to get the rotation of each funnel just so, the animators studied actual tornado footage, adjusting the settings on their simulated storms accordingly. Unfortunately, the debris looked fake at times, and while it was still impressively animated it broke the immersion a bit. One funny moment that I enjoyed was the airborne cow caught in the waterspouts, an image that has since gone on to inspire the Flying Cow Cafe in the National Weather Center at the University of Oklahoma. Incidentally, the “Dorothy” analysis device featured in the movie was inspired by a similar tool used by the National Weather Service, dubbed T.O.T.O., further proving that real-world storm chasers have a sense of humor.

If you want a flashy foul-weather movie with impressive special effects and don’t care about the plot, I recommend Twister. The plot is thin, but it’s still a neat little disaster flick.

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