Twister is probably that movie your parents have on VHS, tucked away in a random box somewhere in your basement. The cover is a landscape shot of a yellow sky, a black ominous tornado slashing through the center. Our copy's sleeve deteriorated years ago, now it's in a hardshell case with the ripped title Scotch taped on the side for easy viewing. It was a relic in our family. When I say that Twister changed my life please do not think I'm being melodramatic: because it did indeed change my life.
Twister (1996) directed by Jan de Bont embodies the Americana way of life at its ultimate peak. Long time storm chasers (and lovers) Jo and Bill try to perfect a storm device called Dorothy (modeled after real-life device TOTO in the 1980s) to collect data from the inside of a tornado's vortex. The game plan is to set up Dorothy, a mechanic basin filled with hundreds of tiny ball sensors, and then drive as close as humanly possible towards a tornado to release said sensors. With the data collected from inside the tornado's vortex, the storm chasers can better understand the elusive twisters and provide earlier warning systems to help save lives. And of course, it wouldn't be a Hollywood film without the impending rivalry of another (bougier) storm chaser crew, a gang of kooky storm chasers (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alan Ruck), a sizzling romance, and an eventual heartbreak.
I first saw this film when I was around six years old. I'd crawl into our dark family living room and hide underneath a blanket during the opening scene. As scary as it was, I couldn't help but be mesmerised. It was probably the ever flowing adrenaline that De Bont pumps into the film, I mean, the guy made Speed (1994). Van Halen rips through the VHS tape and bleeds red white and blue onto the T.V. screen. Storm trucks race down country roads like stallions going to war. You can almost feel the electricity in the air. The characters are full of try-hard-or-die-trying enthusiasm, some searching for more than just tornado data. This is America. This is the Midwest. This is what I think of when I remember my childhood in the 90's.
For years after this film I was convinced that I wanted to become a meteorologist. No, not to be a T.V. anchor (lame- ZERO credibility), but to chase tornados across the good ole U.S.A. BABY! It wasn't until early high school that I realized meteorology is more about calculus and psychics, which both happen to be the bane of my existence. It took me a while to realize that it wasn't meteorology that I wanted to learn about- it was filmmaking. That's right folks, Twister was the first movie that pushed me into my film obsession.
Jo (Helen Hunt) is sort of the ultimate babe, let's get real. Every time I watch this movie I have a sudden urge to fish through my wardrobe for cargo pants. And denim. Denim on denim. I think her character shows the ultimate resilience. A stubborn cookie in a testosterone tainted wolf pack is always empowering to watch. Yet the viewer connects with Jo almost right away. She tries to act aloof when Bill needs her to sign the last divorce papers so he can marry his new fiance. He seems like a square at first until the viewer realizes how perfect they are for each other. For being such a brutal force of nature, Jo is clearly a human being. It is revealed later in the film that she is the only one of the storm chasers to ever see (and survive) an F5 tornado. That F5 tornado took her father's life and consequently sparked her dire urgency to understand how and why tornados exist.
Given that this film was created in 1996, I have to say the special effects were (and still are) on point. The monster of the film is shown in the Oklahoma skies ("greenage"), ominous wind, and the silent rustles of the too quiet country side. The tornado themselves aren't even corny to watch, whipping in and out of the frame. The music score also acts as a dual indicator of the villain in the sky - low rumbles, the sound of metal eerily sliding against one another. Even with new advances in special effects, Twister is the only film to this day that repeatedly gives me chills.
I've been thinking about Philip Seymour Hoffman in this film a lot lately because of his passing. Not so much in a sad way. I feel happy for him. I mean, how fun would it be to film a movie about chasing tornados with some of the coolest guys and girls out there (Alan Ruck, Sean Whalen, Helen Hunt)? He got to wear awesome flannels, goof around, and listen to Eric Clapton on his van T.V. Maybe that's just my false nostalgia creeping up, but he seemed like the happiest dude in the film. He seemed so genuine.
Of course there are issues with this film. First of all - they treat Jami Gertz's character Dr. Melissa Reeves like crap. It's the classic Science vs. Liberal Arts banter and she happens to be the perfect scapegoat. She is Bill's brand new fiance, a reproductive therapist ("She didn't marry you for your penis! Okay, she didn't only marry your penis") who clearly doesn't know anything about Bill and his psychotic tornado chasing past. She is the sweetest southern belle dressed in an all white pantsuit (slay mama) that willingly drives her nice ass red Dodge Ram into deadly tornados, all while tending to her borderline breakdown therapy patients on her snazzy cellular phone. She pretty much gets tossed around the whole movie, but acts as a rational character for the audience to touch base with. She is sort of my favorite, to be honest.
And then you have the whole "tornado thriller" aspect. I mean, I was going to write this post a couple weeks ago until I remembered the tornado in Kentucky that killed 25 people during this time last year in 2013. Is it right to write a blog post about how much I "love" tornado movies - even though I've never even seen a tornado? Let alone been in one? This talk of glamorization could be applied to so many things in the media, but it becomes extremely relevant in Twister. You have these fanatics that devote their lives to the thrill of the chase, only coming to their senses with the trauma when it hits a little too close to home. I see that the film touches on this in a detached sort of way, but it still seems a bit Hollywood of them. But at the same time, is it worth making these type of movies if they bring people together? If they spark feelings of gratitude for living a safe life? If they remind humans of their insignificance compared to nature, or if they bring pride to the homelands?
I mean - Gummo (Harmony Korine) is a fucked up movie - not because of the characters themselves so much, because there are so many people like that in the U.S.A., but because they all function so apathetically after a devastating tornado tore their town apart. Killed their people. Isn't that the scariest part of Gummo anyways? That they just go on with life? I mean, people like to watch Gummo and Harmony Korine's work in general because it is some of the rawest/crudest well known alt. films, but his work is more than just shock value. Right? Aren't we all on the same boat? You get something from Korine's work - don't you? Or do you think Korine is just a scumbag who profits off of town weirdos and recently had a little too much money on his hands (Spring Breakers)?
Ethics. I think it's something worth pondering on.
Twister is everything to me. It embodies the sense of Americana that I remember and the Americana that yearn for today. This was the golden age of dreams, I like to believe anyways. The pursuit of happiness, the reverie of nature, and the feeling of freedom. I see my Uncles in this movie - niche jokesters in their sweaty prime. I see women that I looked up to as a kid, Jo for her resilience and "tom boy" way of life - and Jami for her humility and grace. I see the American Midwest (the butt of all terrible U.S.A. jokes) in its best and glorious light. I see a good time, a simpler time.
It's the wonder of nature, baby.