And your little dog, too

Putting the audience in harm's way gives Twister its punch

There is virtually no doubt in my mind that the opening scene of Twister is more terrifying than being trapped in an actual tornado. As a small farming family rushes to its storm cellar to escape the approaching maelstrom, the sense of wrenching danger comes off in two ways: first is that the tornado remains unseen, just suggested; second is the deafening noise blasting over the soundtrack--you can't even hear yourself breathe over the pulsating wind.

Maybe that's because you catch yourself not breathing at all. After those first few moments, you can pick up a vibe from everyone in the audience--they're salivating in anticipation of what's to come.

But the film raises the ante almost too high with its tremendous opening: How do you top it? Twister spends the next 90 minutes trying to do just that. Eventually it succeeds, although a fair share of dull moments rope it down most of the time.

You can't set the emotional stakes too high and expect to walk away satisfied, because Twister is foremost a special-effects extravaganza--not the kind of movie people see to gain insight into the human condition. It is what many people go to movies for: to see motion, and lots of it, in the safety of an air-conditioned theatre.

One of the questions that naturally crosses your mind is, how do you make a two-hour movie about the same characters continually chasing an unpredictable 30-second meteorological phenomenon? It is not a question that Twister answers satisfactorily. Although the main characters--Jo (Helen Hunt) and her estranged husband, Bill (Bill Paxton)--are scientists studying these weather patterns as they cut a path of destruction over the flat Oklahoma landscape, their uncanny ability to constantly put themselves in harm's way still comes across as a bit farfetched. It would have made more sense just to have them reside in a trailer park, and let the tornadoes come to them.

But somehow the tired contrivances elbow their way into the fabric of the film's whiz-bang ethic. Director Jan De Bont's solemn devotion to hokey artifice--the black vans of the "bad" scientists vs. the sprightly rag-tag jalopies of the heroes, having Bill risk his life to save a dog, that kind of thing--is almost charming in its doltish sincerity. But De Bont should have made the film even more apocalyptic--a truly supernatural phenomenon, a cat-and-mouse game between Jo and a series of ferocious funnel clouds with a personal vendetta against her. The script contains only the slightest suggestion that Jo's passion is Ahablike; it could have gone further in making the clouds not merely menacing in general, but with a sense of deliberate intelligence to them. It approaches that level only once, when a clearing sky suggests a mystical element to Jo's quest, a victory over a force she had the courage to confront.

Michael Crichton, producer and co-screenwriter with his wife, Anne-Marie Martin, barely even touches on his greatest strength as a storyteller--technology. If he won't play his strong suit, he should at least have the sense to make the characters interesting in themselves. Considering the consistently high quality of Crichton's TV series ER, the predictable one-dimensionality of Crichton's movie characters is disheartening.

It must present a genuine challenge for actors like Hunt and Paxton to perform physically exhausting work and find the slender threads of personality that make you want to care about them; they almost succeed. Hunt and Paxton make a good screen pair. They have an instantaneous chemistry, in part because you sense that Jo may well be more than a match for Bill. Hunt's sun-bleached hair and weathered good looks complement her facility with banter, and the puckish way her eyes dart around gives her a devilishly playful appeal. Bill's gosh-darn homeyness manifests itself as dutiful respect for how Jo out-classes him, yet shows an awareness of his own strengths. There's a subtle, amusing bit where he's falsely humble to his friends about a tornado-tracking device he's invented, but territorial and arrogant when someone later takes credit for his idea.

Despite any specific complaints, there's no denying the roller-coaster impact the movie delivers. The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park may have been spectacular, but you were constantly aware in the back of your mind that these were digital monsters only. That's not true of the tornadoes in Twister. The kick-ass special effects (by John Frazier) and sweeping photography (by Jack N. Green) put you in the eye of the storm, and Paxton and Hunt honestly appear to be running for their lives as they brave an obstacle course of fuel tankers, cows, and fence pickets hurtling at them like javelins. This is the kind of movie Irwin Allen used to churn out in the '70s--Earthquake, Meteor, The Poseidon Adventure--only instead of an "all-star cast," computer technology gets all the accolades.

So what if people and character development come in a shabby second place in the sweepstakes for audience appeal, or that the middle of the movie lags? Twister's considerable climax is a rousing payoff, brushing aside the dry spots where less-interesting, interim tornadoes attack. In the end, you get the best of both worlds: Your heart races with adrenaline, and you don't even have to worry about your homeowner's deductible.

--Arnold Wayne Jones

Twister. Warner Bros./Amblin. Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Jami Gertz, Cary Elwes. Written by Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin. Directed by Jan De Bont. Now playing.

 
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