Twister: One Of The Best Disaster Thrillers

Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton in Twister. Courtesy of Warner Bros./Universal.

The Oscar-nominated Twister follows a group of storm chasers on a dangerous mission to deploy a tornado research device during a storm.

I still remember watching the film while on vacation in St. Louis back in 1996. It’s one of at least two Steven Spielberg films that I saw while my family was on vacation–the other being Saving Private Ryan while vacationing in Detroit in 1998. Maybe it’s because I saw this during a pivotal time in my life but the disaster thriller will always hold a soft spot in my heart. It’s certainly among my favorite films from 1996 because it’s just pure escapist entertainment. You know exactly what you’re getting when you’re pressing play. How this film hasn’t been made available in 4K Ultra HD is beyond me. If anything, it could use an upgrade in the visual effects but that’s what went for the mid-1990s.

Audiences come into the film for the epic destruction. But even with the 50-year-storm and the storm chasers, there’s something of a story taking place, too. It’s not that much of a story but it is of a couple falling back in love with each other. I’m watching this film as storm season kicks into full gear across the Midwest. Jan de Bont and company want us to experience the threat that comes with nature’s dark side. There are people that chase storms for a living and I do not envy their experiences. I’ve got to give de Bont credit for filming on location instead of a soundstage. I suppose The Volume would be pivotal if one were to make this film today but in the mid-90s, filming on a soundstage just wouldn’t have been the same.

Following the opening prologue in 1969, we cut to some 27 years later where Dr. Jo Harding (Helen Hunt) leads a group of storm chasers. Bill Harding (Bill Paxton) is her estranged husband. He’s now working as a TV meteorologist and engaged to reproductive therapist Melissa Reeves (Jami Gertz). Obviously, he wants Jo to sign the divorce papers. It’s just his unfortunate–or not–luck that Jo rushes off to chase a storm. Not surprisingly, the events of the film lead Melissa to leave Bill. There’s obviously some sort of spark that still exists between Jo and Bill. After all, they would not be doing what they do if they didn’t still feel something for each other. We can even see it during the small moments, whether it’s a visit to Jo’s Aunt Meg (Lois Smith) or in the car as they risk their lives.

The trip to Aunt Meg’s in Wakita isn’t for nothing. It enables Jo and Bill to upgrade the next Dorothy ahead of launch. Of course, this came after paying witness to a tornado obliterating Meg’s house and a drive-in movie theater. All of it leads to the film’s climax when they prepare to launch Dorothy in a mile-wide EF-5 tornado. Filming moved from Oklahoma to Iowa for that sequence. Even to this day, it’s one of the most iconic shots in cinema history.

I’m not saying Cary Elwes is playing a bad guy but Dr. Jonas Miller is definitely among film’s several antagonists, including the storms. Bill had originally come up with the idea for the Dorothy device. It’s also a factor in why he joins Jo and her team in launching Dorothy. They don’t want Jonas getting the credit. If you look closely, that’s Zach Grenier driving Miller’s vehicle.

Beyond the lead cast, your jaw might drop when you see who rounds out the cast. Alan Ruck is billed ahead of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. It might feel weird but all of Hoffman’s major accomplishments would follow his outing as a frat boy type of character. Meanwhile, TÁR filmmaker Todd Field has a supporting role. Star Trek: Discovery‘s Anthony Rapp even has a role in the film as Tony. You can spot him while Dr. Jonas Miller (Cary Elwes) is shooting a video. If you blink, you’ll probably miss it.

Even on the casting front, there’s an alternate universe where Steven Spielberg directs a version of Twister starring Tom Hanks and Laura Dern. It’s the type of what if that one finds so hard to believe because it’s hard to picture anyone else but Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt in the roles. Hell, it would be a completely different film altogether!

I don’t know whether the lines were scripted or improvised but I absolutely love the humor in the film. It’s an epic disaster thriller but they still find some moments of comic relief. When a film has audiences on the edge of their seats, it needs to have some humor every now and then. Only Jami Gertz’s Melissa would take calls from a client during a tornado. Anyway, the following is just a shortage of lines in the film that are still memorable all these years later.

Jo: “Cow…another cow.”
Bill: “Actually, I believe that’s the same one.”

Jo: “My G-d, who are these people?”
Bill: I don’t think so!

Twister earned nominations for both visual effects and sound mixing. Trust me when I say that they absolutely deserved it. The visual effects are just astonishing. I mean, they’re selling the idea of Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton risking their lives just to launch a device. There’s no way that any insurance would cover any actor if they were doing this in real life. And yet, the film looks so believable that you really believe they’re driving into the heart of the storm. However, it is a shame that the sound editing team do not get an Oscar nomination. If it were up to me, a lot of the technical craft categories would have received accolades.

The film’s visual effects might not have aged in the best way but as an epic disaster thriller, Twister still holds up over 25 years after its release. There’s nostalgia for this kind of blockbuster–the type that studios don’t really make anymore. It’s hard to believe that there used to be a time where studios could release a film like Twister and make millions upon millions. Here’s to checking out what’s in store for Twisters in 2024.

DIRECTOR: Jan de Bont
SCREENWRITERS: Michael Crichton & Anne-Marie Martin
CAST: Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Cary Elwes, Jami Gertz, Lois Smith, Alan Ruck, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeremy Davies, Todd Field, Zach Grenier, Nicholas Sadler, Abraham Benrubi, Jake Busey, Scott Thomson

Warner Bros. released Twister in theaters on May 10, 1996. Grade: 5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.