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Twister Film Review: Fun, Dumb Guilty Pleasure

A man observes a tornado in the movie Twister (1996)

Twister (1996) has a share of issues, but its endearing spirit, performances, and impressive action make it a fun, dumb guilty pleasure.

Director: Jan de Bont
Genre: Action, Adventure, Thriller
Run Time: 117′
US Release: May 10, 1996
UK Release: July 26, 1996
Where to watch: on digital & VOD

Ooh boy, I’m gonna have fun carving into this one. Twister is a 1996 disaster film that I had never seen up until now. The disaster movie craze of the 1990s is a cinematic blind spot for me, but considering this movie will soon be returning to the public consciousness, I decided to finally give the film a proper shot in preparation. And it’s … pretty much everything I both expected and hoped it would be. Though that’s not quite the compliment you may think it is.

The late Bill Paxton (of Aliens fame) stars as soon-to-be weather man Bill Harding, who used to hunt tornadoes with his estranged wife Jo (Helen Hunt, of I See You). But when he returns in Oklahoma to get her to sign divorce papers so he can marry his new fiancé Melissa (Jami Gertz), he finds himself swept up – quite literally in this case – by the efforts of Jo’s team to get their new research device inside a tornado. Along the way, they butt heads with a scumbag rival tornado-chasing team led by Jonas Miller (Cary Elwes, The Princess Bride) … and if you’re not smiling at the phrase “scumbag rival tornado-chasing team,” this movie is not for you.

Twister is the kind of movie that both does and doesn’t want you to take it seriously. It does want you to be genuinely invested in its characters and plot like other disaster movie classics like Jurassic Park and Jaws … it just doesn’t have the smart, nuanced writing of those films to succeed in the way it wants. But gosh darnit, Twister tries, and its efforts are endearing enough to get you on board. The actors are carrying this film’s characters, particularly Paxton, Hunt, and Gertz. However hokey some of their lines are, they own every word they’re saying and have it come across as incredibly sincere and charismatic.

Everyone else works really well as a unit of comrades and partners, giving the main team a vibrant chemistry that keeps the slower, dialogue-driven scenes colorful and fun to watch … one misfired comic relief played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman notwithstanding. I also can’t neglect to mention Jonas, who’s not in the film much but is a hilariously unneeded antagonist who only exists to make a statement on … I don’t know, evil scientists? The slippery slope one can fall down if they take dreaded corporate sponsorships? (By the way, this Loud and Clear article is brought to you by whatever you see advertised on the page.)

A man and a woman hold onto a rail during a tornado in the movie Twister (1996)
Twister (1996) (Warner Bros. Pictures)

The romantic chemistry, on the other hand, does not work. After watching Bill and Jo interact for five minutes and get into a nasty spat, my thought was that they very much should be divorcing. But the movie doesn’t want that, so these two are forced into a love triangle with poor, sweet Melissa forced to watch her engagement fall apart. But even she doesn’t come across as loving Bill, and vice versa, so this whole subplot falls flat on its face to me. Thankfully, after the first act, it barely receives any attention … which makes me wonder why it’s there at all, but at least more important issues are at the forefront.

Twister is also helped by the slight thematic thrust of reckless obsession. Jo’s motivation for chasing these tornadoes is easy to pick up on and consistently shown to be a bit too personal. The point at which this is fully exposed and explodes is highlighted in the film’s most emotionally intense scene between her and Bill, again largely carried by the acting. There’s a great bit of visual storytelling in the film’s back half that shows Jo’s motivation shifting into a more selfless one that remembers the point of tornado chasers in the first place. Twister addresses the potentially dangerous, overly ambitious mindset that’s required to take a job like this when it loses sight of the bigger picture, even if it’s only light window dressing.

But let’s be honest: you’re probably watching Twister to see twisters … as in, twisters the natural disasters, not the movie Twisters … Even though I watched Twister so I could see the movie Twisters– Bottom line, this movie gives you the tornado action you want. The effects look a bit dated at times, but they mostly really hold up, especially when paired with the roaring, overpowering sound work that constantly announces to the viewer, “This thing is here.” (That same sound also drowned out the obnoxiously loud music my neighbors were playing at the same time, so thank you, Twister.)

Director Jan de Bont and cinematographer Jack N. Green also frame every action shot with enough intensity and chaos to simulate being caught up in such a disaster, from the constant hazardous wind to the pelting rain to the perilous debris, and even some of the stunts blew my mind almost as much as the tornadoes literally blew away the vehicles involved. When further factoring in how no two tornadoes feel the same thanks to their increasing intensity and varied action sequences, one thing you can’t call Twister is unambitious.

Twister (1996): Trailer (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Seriously, though, five tornadoes show up within the span of a day in this movie, with one of them being an F-5 (the Finger of God, for those who don’t know the technical definition as defined by Twister), and another literally forming in front of the team without them even going out to find it. Look, I know climate change was a problem even in the 90s, but this is really stretching it … Maybe not so much if the same thing happens in Twisters, given modern-day weather.

The novelty of the action unfortunately wears off a bit in the third act. There’s a whole sequence at Jo’s aunt’s house that screeches the pacing to a halt for how little it adds, and the final stretch with the F-5 tornado overstays its welcome by about five minutes. Up until then, the film goes at a refreshingly quick pace. One might even call it … a breeze. But as much as it tries to focus on character, it gets a little too carried away with blowing stuff up after a while.

Listen, I know some may find it dumb to critically analyze Twister, because it never claimed to be some grand piece of storytelling … I think. I honestly can’t tell. But that’s part of the fun with this movie. The sum of its great and hokey parts is very entertaining to watch, and even its flaws are enjoyable because nothing about the film feels cynical or pandering. Which, funnily enough, is exactly what I thought about Jan de Bont’s other 90s hit, Speed. In terms of “objective” quality, I don’t think Twisters has a very high bar to clear to surpass its predecessor. But I hope it can at least be as endearing and impressively made, because this relic from the 90s has enough spirit to still hold up as a dumb, fun watch today.

Get it on Apple TV

Twister (1996) is now available to watch on digital and on demand.

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