Film and TV

Funnel Vision

If you're in the market for your very own Doppler radar set or a pickup truck with real cojones, Twister is a pretty good place to go shopping. Ostensibly, Jan De Bont's big, loud, expensive action movie is about the destructive power of tornadoes and the folks who chase stormy weather in the Midwest, but it's really about adventure gear--shockproof video cameras and CB radios, tough-as-nails portable computers and 4x4s built so rugged that you can blast them through half-sloshed irrigation ditches at eighty miles an hour without twisting a wishbone or breaking an axle. Gotta outrun that killer funnel.

In fact, about the only piece of equipment that isn't exalted here is the cellular telephone. The cellular telephone is a citified object that belongs nowhere near danger and excitement, so it finishes dead last on Twister's gizmo wish list. In fact, it's the instrument that connects the movie's frightened, neurotic, hopelessly lame yuppie--a woman psychiatrist, to boot--to the tenderfoot world the others so disdain. The shrink (Jami Gertz) also happens to be dashing hero Bill Paxton's mistake of a fiancee, so when he dumps her--mid-mayhem--for the soon-to-be-ex (but still adventurous!) wife he hasn't seen in years (Helen Hunt), no one cares. Screw the Doc if she doesn't like watching herds of cattle blow past the truck like some high-speed Magritte hallucination, or driving through the living rooms of wrecked houses tornadoes have dumped in the middle of country roads.

That's about as far as character gets in this early season "blockbuster." To this crowd, equipment is a lot cooler than character.

Dutch export De Bont, who wrecked most of Los Angeles in Speed, does a job on Oklahoma this time around. Tornadoes have just a little more personality than earthquakes or hurricanes--disaster-wise, give us an inverted ocean liner or a plague of killer frogs every time--but that hasn't stopped 38 (count 'em) special-effects people from funneling their talents into a festival of barn-wrecking, drive-in-movie-leveling, truck-tossing catastrophe that makes Keanu's L.A. bus ride seem tame. In fact, this view of violence in Oklahoma makes that little business at the Murrah Federal Building seem tame. Even if De Bont's and writer Michael Crichton's attempt to romanticize the stormchasers falls a little flat--they don't serve any real purpose other than to confirm the destruction--the spectacle of seeing everything smaller than Tyrannosaurus rex sucked up into the sky can be pretty exciting.

On the other hand, we can always count on trash techno-novelist Crichton to provide a full supply of cliches. Apart from the seen-one, seen-'em-all series of tornadoes, the movie needed a villain, so Crichton and co-writer Anne-Marie Martin came up with a vain, scheming, well-heeled rival "scientist" (Cary Elwes) who careens around the countryside in a tight convoy of (what else?) black trucks. The movie needed a crazy-ass Joe Sixpack type, so they created Dusty (Philip Hoffman), who yells a lot and drinks his beer through a tube attached to a tank on top of his truck. The movie needed an earth mother, so it came up with the heroine's plucky Aunt Meg (Lois Smith), who whips up steak and eggs for twenty and barely blinks when her tornado-ravaged house collapses around her. Each of them is entirely synthetic.

Steven Spielberg is one of Twister's executive producers, but the movie lacks the Spielbergian sense of wonder, his gift for the visual surprise and, most glaring, his feel for the human being under magnificent stress--whether from an extraterrestrial hidden out in the garage or a toothsome shark prowling offshore. De Bont is a technician, nothing more, and he can't bring Crichton's nonsense to life the way Spielberg can.

That leaves Twister with several counties full of wreckage and a pair of heroes--Bill and Jo Harding (Paxton and Hunt)--who don't exactly stir the soul. Bill's supposed to be the wild man softened by his pathetic new bride-to-be (Gertz's role is thankless to a fault); Jo's supposed to be the kind of self-reliant, tough-and-tender heroine movies in the Nineties savor. But they talk too much for an action movie (windbags competing with the wind?), and there's something slick, prefabricated and, well, actorish, about both of them. Bill could be a game show host. Come to think of it, the trucks and computers just might be more interesting

In the end, of course, we get the long-awaited "F5"--the monster tornado--which finally gives our questionable heroes a chance to set aloft one of the barrels full of little electronic sensors they've been hauling around in the back of the truck all movie long. The contraption, dubbed "Dorothy" in honor of an earlier, more appealing tornado-tossed heroine, is their justification, the explanation why they four-wheel around the countryside trying to get themselves killed. Good ol' Bill and Jo: They don't just want to tear up their divorce papers, they want to save humanity. Great. Too bad big-budget Hollywood is fresh out of dinosaurs this summer.

Twister. Screenplay by Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin. Directed by Jan De Bont. With Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt, Jami Gertz and Philip Hoffman.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo