Imagine it: the whistling howl of the wind as it tears through flat Midwestern farmland. Saturated clouds hang dark in a darker sky, their slow swirl sweeping into inverted peaks that descend towards the earth, ready to ravage. This chilling, creeping ambience threads itself all the way through Twister, the 1996 blockbuster that taught Hollywood how to make a clever disaster movie. Starring Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton as a pair of almost-divorced meteorologists working on storm warning systems, it’s a proposal that sounds bizarre and a little bit boring until you gift them with their nickname and real purpose – storm chasers. Pursuing tornadoes, or “twisters”, across mid-western USA, Jo (Hunt), Bill (Paxton) and their team run along a knife-edge of danger as they fight to deploy their experimental warning system, narrowly escaping the devastation of twister after twister after twister.
Long before Into the Storm‘s found footage or Sharknado‘s aquatic extras, Twister showed the world how to make a movie about tornadoes. From its ominous opening and the full-scale destruction of a farm, farmer included, the film sets an almost impossible pace that careens from one stormy set-piece to the next. For a film released before the mo-cap and computer-animated wizardry of Lord of the Rings, Twister‘s 300 effects shots are a triumph; with the film shot almost entirely in bright sunshine, Industrial Light & Magic painted the clouds in afterwards. The result is a dark and moody mise-en-scene that, backed by a soundtrack of strings and spangly guitar solos, builds into the perfect disaster movie: occasionally funny, often intense, and always unbelievably fun. Who can forget the poor unfortunate cow flying past the window, or the stunning sight of a twister ripping a cinema screen to shreds? Though it follows the Hollywood formula almost entirely to the letter, the relatively unusual focus of tornadoes keeps it fresh and helps it stand out from the crowd.
Along with its super-intense set-pieces, Twister is elevated by a cast of funny, charming, idiosyncratic characters that pull it along. Sitting at its zenith, Hunt and Paxton are a perfect combination as the exes who are thrown together by their offspring Dorothy – not a child but their new warning system, something they spent years working on together. With Dorothy ready to fly and their divorce papers still unsigned, the combination of Hunt and Paxton bounce off one another with a chemistry as intense as their tornadoes; their will-they won’t-they has an air of reality that can be rare in a blockbuster. With the backup of a supporting cast including Cary Elwes and the dearly-departed Philip Seymour Hoffman, there’s an air of sincerity to Twister that sets it apart. Despite their sheer number the cast as a whole enjoy distinct personalities which, whilst not always particularly original – i.e. Hoffman’s bodacious dude or Elwes’ morally corrupt corporate rival – do more than enough to prove that Twister isn’t all action and no heart.
In fact, the film is full of it, from the moment Jo’s father is killed by a Twister to the slow rekindling of Jo and Bill’s love. There’s no doubt that Twister is primarily meant as a CGI behemoth made to anchor the 1996 summer season and generate box office revenue, but within that remit the film spends just as much energy on its characters’ emotional arcs as it does their physical ones. Even the classic Hollywood love triangle is navigated with that extra degree of intent; Bill’s new fiancée Melissa is more than the audience mouthpiece she’s meant to be, developing her own agency and dignity and making her own decisions as the film draws to its close. Though Twister could easily survive on its action sequences alone, the extra layers brought by the emotional arc turn it into something special. And it’s not just the humans who get to have a personality. The film takes the idea of the tornado as Monster and runs with it, from the nicknames for certain types of twister (like double tornadoes known as “sisters”) to the noises they make. Sound is paramount to Twister‘s overall feelings; the tornadoes literally growl and grumble, snapping at everything in their path like hungry dragons.
Twister has a sense of the runaway train about it, as all the best blockbusters do. With the tornadoes literally building as the film does, moving up the Fujita scale from one to five as the set pieces simultaneously develop their own size and scale, so the film crescendos into a gluttonously savage final twister, once again ripping through that flat Midwest farmland. In the end, what Twister is is the ultimate. Heaving with a bevy of references to the most classic tornado film of all, The Wizard of Oz, from Dorothy the warning system to throwaway lines and costume choices, it takes on the mantle and wears it proudly. Though the tornado has seen its fair share of action in films like The Day After Tomorrow and the aforementioned Into the Storm, they’ll never hold the monopoly in the same way as Twister does. And lo, The Lord said: all future tornado movies shall made in Twister‘s image.