Throwback Thursday: With a perfect level of absurdity, ‘Twister’ (1996) stands as a classic of the natural disaster genre (Movie review)

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f all the movies not yet released on 4K with Atmos, “Twister” (1996) is perhaps the most shameful oversight. It’s wall-to-wall action and tension and delightfully drawn storm chasers, and the special effects totally hold up two decades later. Co-produced by Steven Spielberg and co-written by Michael Crichton, “Twister” is from the era when the word “blockbuster” had some cachet, when people would keep such movies on their radar throughout the summer, enjoying them on a packed opening weekend or in the dollar theater months later.

Written by Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin and expertly directed by Jan de Bont, “Twister” is a smart and gripping ride within an absurd premise. The tense score by Mark Mancina catches us right off the bat with ominous sounds reminiscent of John Williams’ tones that promise dinosaurs. Jack N. Green’s cinematography captures the brooding Midwestern skyscape. That scared-excited feeling you got as a kid when a tornado was coming and your parents moved you into the basement comes flooding back in the opening segment, when young Jo sees her dad swept away by a twister as he grips the storm-cellar handle.

The tense score catches us right off the bat with ominous sounds reminiscent of John Williams’ tones that promise dinosaurs. The cinematography captures the brooding Midwestern skyscape. That scared-excited feeling you got as a kid when a tornado was coming and your parents moved you into the basement comes flooding back.

In “Man of Steel,” Superman is haunted by choosing to not save his dad from a tornado, lest his identity be revealed, but Jo is not a superhero; she’s a scared girl. As an adult (now played by Helen Hunt), she puts on a braver face, of course, but retains a healthy fear and hatred of tornadoes. But she has a plan: to release tennis-ball-sized sensors from a sensor pack called Dorothy, which she developed with her ex-husband Billy (Bill Paxton). If the tornado sweeps up the sensors, data will be fed back to her team. Knowledge of tornadoes will increase, and warnings will come faster in the future.

And how about that team of storm chasers on this most intense road trip ever? Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Dusty, whose enthusiasm for food is second only to his love of tracking down tornadoes, and it’s infectious. Alan Ruck’s Rabbit is the man with the maps, who knows backroads all over the Midwest that allow the team to place Dorothy in the path of the twister and then haul ass out of there. Enough others round out the gang that when they stop by the Oklahoma farmhouse of Jo’s aunt Meg (Lois Smith) for steak and potatoes, it’s a party atmosphere.

Billy’s fiancée Melissa (Jami Gertz) is on hand, too, to provide an audience-surrogate point of view on the insanity around her, but she has no chance of convincing this group of their nuttiness. Nor of convincing a viewer. Sure, we’d cut and run in real life like Melissa does, but from the safety of our couches, we want to see Billy and Jo catch a tornado.

If there wasn’t enough to love already, “Twister” includes a rival team of evil tornado chasers led by Cary Elwes’ Jonas. Jo and Billy are in it for the science, and to save people from future tornadoes, but Jonas is in it for … well, the same reasons, except he’s willing to make money from his work. And, OK, he’s a bit of a fame-seeker, but the film’s anti-capitalism position lands with the same thud of a semi being slammed into the ground by an F5 and exploding. No matter, though. The notion of rival teams of storm chasers is a ridiculous feature, not a bug.

In a movie like this, everyone has to believe what they’re selling in order to get the audience on board, and everyone sells the hell out of “Twister.” I won’t pretend the logistics of how the team directs Billy and Jo around make any sense; I’m pretty sure it’s all mumbo-jumbo. But the chasers believe it all, so I’m on board.

The staging of the action is top-notch. The cow – and then another cow (or maybe the same one) – flying through the air is a classic moment, as is the semi truck. A particularly delicious Spielbergian moment comes at the drive-in theater, when a scary scene from “The Shining” is playing as the screen is ripped to shreds by what we later learn is merely the edge of a tornado.

The leads are strong, with Hunt being almost iconic in her white tank top, shooting “I missed you” smiles at Billy and no doubt inspiring a few teenage boys’ crushes in 1996. Paxton is in vintage form, yelling “Oh my God”s with a similar sense of the terror he held for xenomorphs in “Aliens” a decade prior.

But the star of “Twister” is right there in the title. The tornadoes – one after another – are relentless here, and as crazy as the idea of chasing after them may be, this team doesn’t take the destructive power for granted. The film strikes a difficult balance of taking something inherently chaotic and arguing that it can be understood if only those sensors get properly released. It’s probably BS, but it’s tantalizing BS, spectacular BS. It’s a safe bet there will never be a better movie made about wind.