27 JULY 1996, Page 42


Twister (PG, selected cinemas)

Chasing tornadoes

Mark Steyn

Twister is the film with this guy who gets blown down the street. No, hang on, that's The Hugh Grant Story. 7Wister is the one with the suck zone, as well as a few downdrafts, a microcburst or two and an F5 — all of which, as you probably know, are technical terms to do with tornadoes, unless, of course, the film made them up, in which case who cares?

The director, Jan De Bont, last gave us Speed, the one about the runaway bus with the big bomb which musn't go below 55 mph or above 75 or it'll blow up. Presum- ably weary of being hemmed in by such contrivances, he's kept this one simple. In Twister, the only thing that's out of control is the weather, and even then its lack of control is very controlled. The special effects are spectacular, outstripping all the other summer blockbusters: at their best,

it's like being in an electric blender, as De Bont whips up the sky and tosses in flying cows, pick-ups, drive-in movie screens and gas tankers. And even better are the details: the rattling bulkhead of the cellar, vibrating more and more and more until its nails and hinges and locks are wrenched from their moorings, and the door flies out into the whirlwind, taking with it the hap- less chump trying to hold it down. But you can't honestly say there's any suspense: the film operates on a kind of placid frenzy. One twister checks in, tears the place up for awhile, moves on, then another does likewise, and another, and gradually they come to seem about as threatening as those snow scene knick-knacks: no matter how furiously everything gets shaken up, it all stays exactly the same.

Part of this has to do with the minimalist plot by Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin. There's a weatherman who's split up from his wife and taken up with a new gal and, when someone says there's a hur- ricane a comin', he just laughs. No, hang on, that's The Michael Fish Story. In Twister, there's a weatherman who's split up from his wife and taken up with a new gal and drives out to the Oklahoma plain to get his ex to sign the papers and, when she says the biggest tornado in 30 years is about to show up, he just laughs and drives towards it. The most joyous, human moment in a film which is almost wholly mechanical comes about ten minutes in when the tornado-chasers climb into their trucks and ride to the wind, some trading references to The Wizard of Oz (still Holly- wood's best ever twister), some cranking up the rock tracks on the radio, others bel- lowing out the title song from Oklahoma! Deploying the script's only memorable line, the weatherman's new fiancée, a ther- apist, gasps: 'When you said you used to chase tornadoes, I thought it was a metaphor.'

Silly her. The suck zone is no metaphor zone. In other times, they'd have come up with some internalisation of the landscape: as the heavens raged, even fiercer emo- tions would beat in the human breasts below. More recently, they'd have at least killed off a few minor characters. We take it for granted that Bill (Bill Paxton) and Jo (Helen Hunt) will use the F5 tornado as a kind of blustery agony aunt who persuades them to patch up their marriage. But, tra- ditionally, the fun with this kind of picture derives from spotting which of the sup- porting players will end up as goners with the wind: the cute dog is bound to survive, naturally; but what about Bill's new finance e or Jo's aunt or the various minor members of their tornado-chasing team? Surely some of them will be buried under falling masonry or cattle falling from the skies. But De Bont and his writers can't even be bothered doing that. Even the statutory villain (Cary Elwes) isn't really evil or terribly malicious, but just a bit reckless: in other dramas, he'd be the fel-

low who doesn't bother fastening his seat belt or irresponsibly tries getting a jammed bit of toast out of the toaster with his knife while it's still plugged in and a child is watching.

None of this matters. The characters are there merely to enable the special effects, and then stay out of the way. For that rea- son, there are no stars. Helen Hunt is kinda cranky from the word go; as for Bill Paxton, no sooner is the picture underway than he forgets about his new job as a tele- vision weatherman and returns to his old tornado-chasing habits. He's supposedly a wild and crazy guy, dubbed by his buddies as The Extreme. But Paxton is so solid and foursquare it's hard to think of him as any- thing other than The Average. There's a beautiful, serene moment, when he and Miss Hunt are strapped to the ground, star- ing upwards as the skies cease their fury almost as if, like us, they're watching a movie. It's a reminder of the new priorities: `More stars than there are in heaven!' MCM used to boast. In Twister, the heav- ens are the stars.