"Twister" is so depressingly infantile that after a bit you need to take shelter not from the winds but from all the twaddle flying through the air.
Purportedly an account of teams of storm chasers competing to get an instrument pack up the kazoo of a butt-ugly whirling dervish on the Oklahoma plains, the movie is really about trucks and hubbub. Whenever the director, Jan De Bont (of "Speed"), doesn't know what to do, he'll throw in a six- or seven-minute like-a-rock reverie to the joys of cross-country 4-by-4ing -- you know, roaring down country roads and through chicken coops and across cornfields, really makin' them shocks and struts earn their pay. Meanwhile, layers of goofy technobabble crank over ,, the radio, and the whole thing just seems silly.
Originally written by Michael Crichton and his wife, Anne-Marie Martin, the movie might have had, at one time, a shred of an idea. A scene that had to be the Crichtons' remains: an F-5 (that's the big mother tornado, called the "finger of God" by groupies) whirls through an outdoor movie lot where Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" is playing. Like, this is a really big hit on the '90s Oklahoma drive-in circuit!
But the point seems to be to watch nature's horror overwhelm man's horror and to show that nature, far from being the benevolent system of nurture and reward that the more sentimental environmentalists portray it to be, is really a force of huge strength and even huger indifference. Melville was right, in other words! Either that, or Mother Nature doesn't like Stanley Kubrick!
But other than that hint, no trace of intellectual distinction can be found on screen. The Crichtons, and even the anonymous Hollywood hacks that labored after them, have no real gift for character, and the film quickly becomes a thrill ride about people in trucks getting close to but ducking twisters.
The problem here is that the twisters, no matter how spectacular they seem as movie illusions, don't and can't have much personality. After all, they're just hot air; they never pick up the resonant meaning that a T-Rex, with its grin and saber-like teeth, or even 20 tons of white shark torpedoing through the water, generate in spades. Tornadoes aren't evil, and there's nothing moral about them, one way or the other. They resist being made into symbols and lack dramatic value -- they're only tornadoes, in the end.
So the movie is filled up with high jinks and nastiness, the latter in disturbingly abundant supply. The heroic team of storm chasers -- untainted by the demon of "corporate sponsorship" -- are imagined as a crew of merry pranksters, almost sexless, hippie weather geeks who don't have real lives and don't really care about the science they're supposedly doing, but care far more for the high that being so close to the big whirlwinds gives them. They don't give a damn about the people whose lives are wrecked; they just like to feel the blast of 100-mile-per air!
The king and queen of this set of sexless drones are Jo (Helen Hunt) and Bill (Bill Paxton) Harding, weather scientists from Muskogee State University. Once married, now separated and on the verge of divorce (a signature away), they rebond accidentally for a last spin at getting instruments into the beasts that come at them one fine summer day on the flatlands of Oklahoma.
Hunt is just uninteresting; Paxton has been interesting before and will be interesting again, but given no edge to play with and nothing but nice-guy blandness and generic courage, he makes very little impression either. The most fully realized character in the film is Bill's fiancee, Melissa (Jami Gertz), who's not a part of psycho weather geek culture, gets no thrill out of F-5s, but is constantly treated as the butt of the jokes by the snippy hippies who chase the storms. That whole subplot is a little queasy.
The movie also has credibility problems. I can sense the high that the kids get in getting so close to the storms, but what baffled me was their calmness. The tornadoes, after all, are like artillery barrages, like salvos of 75 mm shells tearing up the landscape, and time after time the film places the storm chasers within spitting distance of them without even ruffling their hair or having them speak in loud voices. It has a spectacularly movie-phony look to it. There's also a suggestion that if they try really hard, people can outrun a tornado. Somehow, that one's pretty hard to buy.
In the end, the film is nothing but its own special effects. Have they progressed much beyond that frightening twister that plucked Dorothy from Kansas and deposited her in Oz 46 years ago? These beasts are much more sup- ple than Victor Fleming's big dust-ripper of all those years ago, and they are capable of truly majestic permutations -- one twins itself over water, another is a mile wide at the base, and the one that eats the movie screen is really scary, with the added dimension of coming out of the blackness the way it does.
But anybody who ever saw that grinder in "The Wizard of Oz" will never forget it -- an icon of movie magic. The genius-level techies of "Twister" try hard, but they can't surpass the wizards of 1939. Toto, I have a feeling we're still in Hollywood.
Starring Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton
Directed by Jan De Bont
Released by Warner Bros.
Sun score ***
Pub Date: 5/10/96