Everybody remembers the cow: first flying right across the screen, then flying left across the screen, caught up in a whirling cyclone indifferent to the poor bovine’s panicked moos. What everybody should also remember is that Twister is a love story: a relationship drama about two grownups trying to figure out how to balance their workaholic tendencies, neuroses, and thrill seeking within the confines of a marriage. The flying cow was the reason we see blockbusters. Every other element of Twister—that relatable romance, its stacked ensemble cast, Mark Mancina’s guitar-riff-heavy score, wonderfully heavy-handed Pepsi product placement—are why Twister remains a perfect Saturday afternoon movie.
Plenty of natural-disaster movies have come out since Jan de Bont, two years after the unexpected success of his directorial debut Speed and fresh off abandoning Godzilla, delivered the second-biggest hit of 1996. (Just behind Independence Day and just above the first Mission: Impossible.) In the years since Twister, Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck saved the world in 1998’s Armageddon, Tom Cruise fled aliens in 2005’s War of the Worlds, and Dwayne Johnson punched an earthquake in 2015’s San Andreas. (Figuratively, not literally, but you believed it, didn’t you? You could imagine Johnson doing this!) Given the last year of our lives, the swift government response to the pandemic in Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion seems desirable indeed, while Gerard Butler playing a space satellite designer in 2017’s Geostorm remains unbelievable. (His role as a structural engineer in 2020’s Greenland: slightly more palatable.)
All of this is to say that the natural-disaster subgenre, which emerged in the 1970s, has remained a mainstay since Twister—and yet. Ignore existential-dread films like Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia; those are a whole other thing. Rather, have any of the blockbusters that followed after de Bont’s quite managed to build characters as defined by weary tenderness and obsessive curiosity as Helen Hunt’s Jo and the late Bill Paxton’s Bill, nearly divorced storm chasers who team up for one last attempt at launching their tornado-tracking invention? Have any of the blockbusters that followed after de Bont’s quite managed to put together an ensemble as stacked as one that includes a deliriously gleeful Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Food. FOOD!”), a baby-faced Jeremy Davies, Jami Gertz doing her best Holly Hunter impression, the soul-warming icon Lois Smith, a wonderfully likeable Alan Ruck, and an utterly loathable Cary Elwes? Have any of the blockbusters that followed de Bont’s quite managed to deliver as many jarring threats (a boat flying out of a tornado, heavy tree limbs and sharp hub caps, a petroleum-carrying 18-wheeler) along with as many laughs? (See: Hoffman sneering “Loser!” at every member of Elwes’s team; Jo’s exasperated “Who are these people?” when she and Bill try to take shelter in a farmers’ barn, which ends up being full of sharp tools and blades.) Feels doubtful to me!
The two hours of Twister zip by, and it’s strange now—in our time of relentless IP recycling and bloated franchise offerings—to read contemporaneous reviews critical of de Bont’s sophomore picture. The headline to Richard Schickel’s Time magazine review blared “BOX-OFFICE BLOWHARD”; in the only sentence Schickel devoted in his five-paragraph review to the film’s performances, he described Hunt and Paxton as creating “an emotional low-pressure zone.” A strange observation, given that the tension between Paxton and Hunt practically crackles—shifty grins and stolen glances, from her; the curve of his body, always bending toward hers in moments of danger, from him. Similarly head-scratching is Todd McCarthy for Variety, describing Twister as “without an ounce of emotional credibility to it.” Did he miss the clear devotion, affection, and love the storm chasers have for Lois Smith’s Aunt Meg, and the way they desperately rush into a collapsing house to save her? In a career of exceptional work, the way the blood drains from the late Hoffman’s face when he learns that the town where the woman he treats as a second mother is about to be hit by a tornado is a horrible, unforgettable thing. And then there’s the strangeness of Eric Henderson’s 2008 retrospective review for Slant, which criticized the film’s “quaint Clinton-era notion that a major action blockbuster could be produced with, as the major antagonist, an atmospheric condition and not swarthy terrorists from the Middle East.” Is this sarcasm? It’s not good that I cannot tell!
Maybe I’m going wild here, but: More blockbusters with sentient weather events and fewer that prop up American imperialism and warmongering! Twister is a reminder of when blockbusters were silly and sincere, romantic and high-concept, intentional and original—and its unparalleled re-watch value is found in how grounded de Bont and married co-writers Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin kept the film’s stakes. Two people who love each other might end up divorced. A rag-tag crew might lose out on their passion project. And some innocent people might end up dead—but not if those two people in love and that rag-tag crew can help it.
“Aren’t there already tornado warnings?”
Twister begins with a disaster. In America’s heartland, an F5 tornado—the highest damage category on the Fujita scale developed by Japanese-American meteorologist Tetsuya “Ted” Fujita—touches down on a farm. Since the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center began using the scale in 1953, there have been 59 F5 tornadoes in the United States, with seven on April 3, 1974, alone. (That date, referred to now as the 1974 Super Outbreak, saw more than 100 tornadoes confirmed in fewer than 24 hours.) When Twister opens in June 1969, as an F5 rages, little Jo Thornton (Alexa Vega) watches the tumult and chaos through the small window in her family’s bunker—which means her eyes are already trained on the bunker door when the wind wrenches it off its hinges, taking her father along with it. Years later, still traumatized by her father’s death, Jo (Hunt) leads a group of storm chasers around Oklahoma. The National Severe Storm Laboratory is anticipating record storm activity, and Jo and her team—including various experts and assistants Dusty (Hoffman), Rabbit (Ruck), and Brian (Davies)—are along for the ride.
There’s just one complicating factor: Jo has had divorce papers served by her estranged husband, fellow storm chaser-turned-TV weather reporter Bill (Paxton), for months, and she still hasn’t signed. Frustrated by Jo’s unresponsiveness, Bill brings along his therapist fiancée Melissa (Gertz) to intercept Jo on the road and talk her into finalizing the divorce. Was this probably the worst time to invite Melissa, who isn’t fully aware of Bill’s history as “the Extreme,” to meet his old friends? Probably! But there is also some serendipity: With their grant money running out, and with corporate-backed competition in former research colleague Jonas Miller (Elwes), Jo hopes to launch the Dorothy—one of Bill’s inventions. Inspired by The Wizard of Oz, the Dorothy is a lightweight cannister holding hundreds of sensors that, if sucked into the tornado, would activate and sync with Jo’s research team on the ground, transmitting data about wind speeds, funnel measurements, and the tornado’s internal structure. “Nobody knows how a tornado works,” Jo tells Melissa, and for years, changing that was her and Bill’s shared goal. If Dorothy works, the information collected by it could help design more advanced tornado warning systems—giving people who need to flee from danger perhaps 15 minutes, Jo says, rather than the 1996 time of 3 minutes. (Now, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the warning system average is 13 minutes.)
How could Bill turn down the opportunity to test his life’s work—especially when he learns that Jonas stole his idea, and is trying to launch his D.O.T. before Jo can launch Dorothy? So he joins the storm chasers for what is, ostensibly, one last ride. “She forgets everything except her work,” Bill frustratedly says of Jo, but is he really any different? As Twister progresses, we see Bill run parallel with Jo, wherever she ends up going. Into a ditch and under a bridge, folding himself over Jo to protect her from a tornado during their first failed Dorothy launch. At Aunt Meg’s house, bumping into her and unable to escape their shared history—stories that Dusty and Rabbit delightedly tell, through mouthfuls of steak and eggs, about the good old days. In the pit of a garage next to a drive-in movie theater, protecting Melissa from shattered glass, a flying car, and mechanics’ tools, while his eyes seek out Jo’s. Paxton’s Bill is a conflicted man, and the way he treats Melissa, whom he calls “honey” more often than he ever says her name, isn’t great. (To the script’s credit, Melissa eventually calmly, and decisively, leaves him, and doesn’t feel bad about it.) But there is undeniable sexiness to how unrelentingly Bill is pulled toward Jo, both when she’s in peril and not, and to how she returns his passion with familiarity and snarkiness of her own. The rawness of Bill’s big speech to Jo about moving on from her father’s death—delivered way too close to a tornado, of course—speaks to the kind of history that doesn’t just come from sharing time with someone, but sharing yourself with them. Your dreams and fears, your passions and disappointments, your joy and your despair. “This is what they do. They live for this,” Bill had said to Melissa, but what he really meant was “we do,” and what he really meant was “for her.” Melissa never stood a chance.
“Have you lost your nerve?”
It would be a mistake to put aside the love story at the heart of Twister, but as a thought experiment, go ahead and do it. What remains is a popcorn movie in every sense of the word: big budget, big effects, big ensemble, big-name screenwriters, and big-name producers in the form of Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, and Amblin Entertainment. You would still have beautiful cinematography from Jack N. Green (a regular Clint Eastwood collaborator who shot Unforgiven, The Bridges of Madison County, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), like a wide-angle shot that silhouettes Paxton against a blue-going-green sky, his hand caressing the dirt and seeing how it falls in the wind. You would still have the film’s aged-OK effects and increasingly stressful action sequences, including the perfectly conceived one at a drive-in movie theater, with the tornado touching down during the axe-wielding-Jack scene of The Shining, and The Fast and the Furious-predating sequence where Bill drives a truck through a house blown off its foundation. You would still have Hoffman’s Dusty giggling “Windy, that’s intense!”, and the efficient iciness of Elwes’s villain, and how magnificent Hunt’s arms look in that white tank top. All of that stuff is solid; all of that stuff is great. Who would ever complain about Paxton’s Bill sliding into a Near Dark-evoking grin as a practically feral response to Jo’s endless teasing? Not me!
But what Twister does so well (aside from making acute the aching pain still caused by the loss of Hoffman and Paxton both) is remind us that a natural-disaster event like a tornado, for all its accompanying destruction and devastation, follows a kind of expected inexplicability. We can run algorithms, we can find patterns, we can devise equations, we can focus all of our scientific efforts on trying to understand something that is immensely difficult to quantify—and maybe it never fully works. Maybe there is some portion of this that can never be worked out, and that the human mind can never comprehend. Isn’t love the same way? Whatever bonds and connections and loyalties tie us to other people; whatever quickens our blood; whatever makes us decide to spend our lives with each other—no one can really explain it. Twister ends with Jo having signed the divorce papers, but also with her embracing Bill. A separation, and then a coming together; a whirling around each other, and then a coalescence. Twenty-five years later, the love story at the core of Twister is still what sets it apart.
“Twister” is currently streaming on HBO Max.