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Twister: Special Edition

Warner Home Video

Starring Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt

Directed by Jan de Bont

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When Twister was released in May of 1996, it was reviled by the critics and embraced by the public, going on to earn in its initial run some $241 million (after a budget of $92 million). I'm sure that in my capacity as a bi-weekly reviewer at the time I was dismissive of it too. I probably was reacting to the screenplay's reliance on tired transitional devices such as the eldritch "We are not going. We are not going" type statement that precedes a shock-cut to everyone arriving at the place the protester resisted. I'm a little afraid to look up that review right now to find out what I said, because since then I've developed a sneaking affection for the film, a guiltily hidden joy in its complex simplicity. I've found myself watching it again and again on cable whenever it happened to be in the neighborhood. And no, my low-grade obsession is not (solely) based on Helen Hunt. Twister is the movie you go to if you want to learn how to shoot cars.

Certainly, at the time, Hunt was one of the film's big draws. She was at the height of her popularity as a sitcom star and was poised a year later to win an Oscar for As Good as It Gets. So she appeared in the film just at that moment before we were all on the verge of getting burned out on her mannerisms, the pursed lips, the leonine hair, the half-smile that emerges and retreats just before an ironical "OK." We were about to be burned out on her in the same way we eventually grow weary of all big, popular television stars. But this was her moment in the sun (or wind rather), looking radiant, the perfect American girl du jour. And I will acknowledge that she looks awfully cute with that tight white tanktop and khaki pants and big sports watch and competent manner masking a vulnerable brooding over her busted marriage. But that's not completely why I like the film.

I liked the film for the same reason that everyone else in America wanted to see it at the time — for that goddamn tractor-tire crashing through the front windshield of a pick-up truck that everyone saw in the last shot of the trailer. The filmmakers never used that shot in the finished film (and it's hard to tell where it might have appeared if they did), but the Twister DVD thankfully includes this trailer in the supplements package, and it even uses the shot on the animated menu. That shot was both the product of super realistic state-of-the-art computer graphics and a sign that Twister would be a great car film. And indeed it is.

This is not to ignore the fact that the movie has a rather simplistic story line and intelligence-insulting character development. Credited to Michael Crichton and his current wife, the Canadian actress-turned-author Anne-Marie Martin (who as Eddie Benton appeared in a bunch of familiar '80s horror films and as the character Dori Doreau in Sledge Hammer!) the screenplay blends Crichton's usual hi-tech, jargon-rich subject matter with a bare bones, subplot-free narrative. The film takes place in the course of one and a half days during "a record outbreak of tornados," as scientist-turned-TV weatherman Bill Harding (Bill Paxton) seeks out his estranged wife and fellow scientist Jo (Hunt) in Oklahoma twister country to have her finally sign their divorce papers. With the future Mrs. Harding (Jami Gertz, hereby definitively breaking the fabled Gertz Curse), in tow, at least for a while, the two Hardings suspend the divorce proceedings to chase, with a crew of ragtag slackers and bohemians, a succession of increasingly forceful tornados in order to release a tub of sensors, designed by Harding, that will finally reveal the truth of how twisters work. They are dogged by Cary Elwes as Dr. Jonas Miller, leading his caravan of ominous black vans, like the black helicopters of conspiracy culture; he is a "corporate kissbutt," a man who, as Harding famously says at one point, is not in it for the science but for the money.

Yes, indeed, the script is more or less an excuse for CGI storm effects. But as a practitioner of the contemporary action film, director Jan de Bont is second only to John McTiernan, and maybe Renny Harlin, in his mastery. They worked together on Die Hard, and that movie — with its breaking glass and blue sheen and lens flare (formally an anathama among DPs) — established de Bont as the premiere action cinematographer. That's quite a distance from the man who started out shooting Paul Verhoeven's vigorous art films in Holland in the '60s and early '70s. He also shot The Hunt for Red October, Basic Instinct, and Donner's Lethal Weapon 3 before transitioning to directing with the clever Speed in 1994.

I interviewed Doug Liman once about his work on Swingers. I asked him the predictable question about his influences, figuring he would list off Scorsese, Goddard, blah blah blah, the usual suspects. Instead he cited Richard Donner and Tony Scott as his exemplars. He said he drew upon Donner the way previous generations looked to Hitchcock to solve the problems that occur when plot bumps up against technical means and visual clarity. He gave as an example the driving to Vegas scenes at the start of Swingers. They realized that they couldn't figure out where to put the camera. In the car? On the hood? Liman consulted Lethal Weapon 2, which begins, as we all know, in mid chase. In imitation of the master, Liman put the camera on a separate vehicle leading the car.

de Bont is of the same school that believes that the camera leads the car, although he does occasionally break that aesthetic rule, as a "making-of" promo included as a supplement on this DVD reveals. However, when de Bont and his DP Jack N. Green do attach the camera, it is to achieve beautiful tight, precise pan shots from long road streching off into the distance to the close, intimate cab of a speeding truck. I love these shots. They are strangely calm moments in the midst of the whirlwind activity de Bont has set up.

So far De Bont has directed four films, all strictly commercial ventures, so it's premature to rank him against his peers. However, his success rate is 50/50, with two good films followed by two misguided films, Speed 2: Cruise Control and The Haunting. I suspect that ultimately he is a what the French call a metteur un scene, a mere traffic director, but a really good one. His thematic concerns are the same as most other directors of his genre, and which are really just a bunch of contemporary Hollywood conventions: a villain who wants something and a good guy in his way as a premise for a long chase, with an innocent female along for the ride. One signature motif is that he likes to have his heroines tied up at the end: Sandra Bullock is erotically handcuffed to a subway pole at the end of Speed, and Hunt and Paxton have to belt themselves to a pipe as a tornado lifts away the structure around them at the end of Twister — basically two variations on the same narrative trick.

But de Bont can put together a good show when he has a reasonably coherent screenplay and a lot of money. The important thing in Twister is that the chase scenes have an urgency and currency that similar scenes by lesser craftsmen lack. Usually chase scenes are, so to speak, exciting bores, interrputions in the plot and character development. Everything is moving, but there is a stoppage, like the fustian in a snowball. The best films use the chase scenes to advance character and plot, and are therefore truly suspenseful. In The French Connection, the chase scenes are tied to Doyle's relentless tenacity. It matters to us how the chase ends because we are invested in the pursuer and his drive for justice. And besides the sheer visceral excitement of the cars edging closer to irrational wind funnels in Twister, we also know what finding out the truth means to Jo. And we can see, on a broad if simplistic level, how the tempest of the storm reflects the turmoil of Jo and Bill's marriage and human affairs in general.

The DVD transfer on Twister is excellent, with superb sound in both DD and DTS 5.1. There also is an informative commentary track by de Bont and his special-effects coordinator Stefen Fangmeier, wherein de Bont reminds us that Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer did some script-doctoring for the film, in the expository sequence that comprises chapters three and four on this DVD (Steven Zaillian and Jeff Nathanson also contributed to the movie). English subtitles are rather loose and incomplete, with whole sentences dropped and phrases such as "come with them" changed to "go with them." The DVD also gives one a chance to focus on Jo's team, who zip by so fast in the theater they seem like collection of tics. Now we can see them as members of de Bont's travelling players. And we can pick out Todd Field, who has a really interesting career, from Woody Allen to Kubrick, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, cast in what you might call the Steve Zahn part, in one of Hoffman's early break out roles.

— D. K. Holm

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