In the summer of 1993, director Steven Spielberg and author Michael Crichton collaborated on the highest-grossing movie of all time (a distinction formerly held by Spielberg's own E.T.), excavating dinosaur-size box-office returns with Jurassic Park. The movie suffered from a contrived plot and paper-thin characters, but all was forgiven once the first majestic dinosaur appeared on-screen. The following summer former cinematographer Jan De Bont hauled in busloads of cash with his directorial debut Speed. The movie suffered from a contrived plot and paper-thin characters, but all was forgiven as long as De Bont kept the adrenaline pumping. Now the three of them have teamed up to make Twister (Crichton as coauthor, Spielberg as executive producer, De Bont as director), the first of this summer's crop of potential blockbusters to touch down at area theaters. Expectations run high for the film to unleash a maelstrom of dollars. Unfortunately for Twister's backers, this tame little puff of celluloid wind does no serious damage.
Surprise, surprise: The movie suffers from a contrived plot and paper-thin characters, and its makers no doubt hope that all will be forgiven once Industrial Light and Magic's first computer-generated whirlwind spirals into view. But this time the formula fizzles out. Simply put, nothing in this movie approaches the awe-inspiring visual impact of Jurassic Park's lifelike dino stars, nor does De Bont generate the kind of vertiginous thrills that came at you in bursts during Speed.
The plot could have been cloned from Jurassic Park's DNA: A team of scientists led by one macho expert (Sam Neill in JP, Bill Paxton playing a storm-chaser-turned-TV-weatherman named Bill here) risk their lives to study a larger-than-life natural phenomenon. A romantic entanglement linking said buck researcher with a feisty blond lady scientist (Helen Hunt taking the reins from Laura Dern) complicates matters. Technical jargon, lots of shots of computer models at a central command center, and dashes of forced comic relief complete the mix.
Just as Sandra Bullock gave Speed a welcome boost, so too Helen Hunt's smirking presence as Bill's estranged-but-still-smoldering wife Jo adds a grace note to the by-the-numbers script written by Crichton and his wife, erstwhile actress Anne-Marie Martin. Martin spent three years as a cast member on the TV serial Days of Our Lives; her soap opera background informs this film's perfunctory yet melodramatic romantic triangle pitting Jo against Bill's new love Melissa (Jami Gertz), a wide-eyed, overdressed, cell-phone-toting "relationship therapist." Gertz's role is the film's most thankless; Melissa accompanies Bill to his old stomping ground while he tries to persuade Jo to sign their divorce papers. The displaced Melissa has nothing to do but hang around the periphery until Paxton's tornado chaser realizes that he still loves kindred spirit Jo. Luckily the twisters prove more difficult to predict than the outcome of this trite threesome's romantic bobbing and weaving.
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Additionally, Crichton's tone-deafness for dialogue and his time-tested willingness to embrace cliches merely exacerbate Martin's sudsy tendencies. Bill's nickname, from the good old days before he met Melissa and mellowed out, was Extreme. Why? "Because Bill's the most extreme SOB in the game!" chortles one of Bill's colleagues. Duh. The movie is full of scintillating wordplay like that. Crichton reserves his characters' most insipid remarks for their descriptions of Bill's legendary twister-tracking prowess, presumably because we see so little of it actually demonstrated. Through such exchanges we learn that Bill "actually knows what a storm is thinkin'!"
Jonas, a corporate-sponsored rival storm chaser played by Cary Elwes, appears on the scene to challenge Bill's authority. We know he's the bad guy because his team tools about in sleek, modern, black vehicles, while Bill's ragtag crew drives a brightly colored assortment of run-down jerry-rigged cars, vans, and pickups. In case you still don't get the point, one of Bill's mates steps up to spell the situation out: "He [Jonas] has got a lot of high-tech gadgets, but he doesn't have the instincts." Funny, he could be describing the filmmakers.
But you expect bad dialogue, imbecilic narrative, obvious good guy/bad guy conflict, and cursory characterization from Crichton. What is unforgivable is Twister's absence of inspired, heart-stopping moments. Until its final man-versus-nature confrontation, the movie boasts neither Jurassic Park's breathtaking effects nor Speed's escalating watch-me-top-that-one rush. Prior to the impressive finale, director De Bont focuses less on the twisters than on their fallout; cows, trees, a tanker truck, and even a house rain down from the sky. (Guided by the same deity who watches over all action pictures and ensures that bad guys' bullets always miss while good guys with a one-in-a-million shot are guaranteed to hit their target, none of the deadly debris actually strikes any of this film's heroes, no matter how close or vulnerably exposed to a twister they find themselves.)
Gale-force winds of hype swirl about this blustery Spielberg-Crichton-De Bont offering. Don't get sucked into their vortex. Twister huffs and puffs, but it never blows the house down.