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(NOTE: This article was written, edited and posted just before learning Bill Paxton had unexpectedly passed away, a great loss for film.) In the United States mid-west, in a place known as tornado ally, a meteorologist named Jo Harding (Helen Hunt) meets her estranged husband, Bill (Paxton), a former weather researcher turned reporter, who is hoping to get their divorced settled. He’s trying to marry his new girlfriend Melissa Reeves (Jami Gertz), but needs Jo’s signature first. What Bills discovers though is that Jo has gone and built four prototype tornado research devices she calls (cleverly) DOROTHY, based on Bill’s designs. They are meant to release hundreds of sensors into the very heart of a passing tornado and provide valuable data that could help in early warning detection.
She’s picked a good time to try them out, as the storm season has begun, but more troublesome is a competing team of scientists, led by the nefarious Dr. Jonas Miller (Cary Elwes), who also has his own device called DOT-3, conveniently made from plans he stole from Bill. This prompts Bill to stick around and help Jo, so he, his new finance, and he estranged wife, take to the fields in search of some twisters. Luckily, there’s a few very big ones heading right for them.
Directed by Jan de Bont, still riding high on his critically-favored previous film Speed, Twister is a disaster film that thrives entirely on its effects, which are admittedly pretty darned twisty. In fact, it’s so fast paced, it barely catches its breath, opening on a monster storm that naturally establishes the path of one character as a child, and then never lets up. On full throttle for most of the film, it doesn’t pay much attention to the people in the story, aside from some contrived conflicts that are about as transparent as a pane of glass concerning where it’s all headed. But no one coming to watch a film with this title is probably expecting much in terms of character development.
Interestingly enough, is was written by Michael Crichton, the guy behind Jurassic Park and many other successful books and media projects. His name lends a bit of credibility to the science of it all, though the movie pretty much caters to our baser level emotions. With its unwavering commitment to increasingly more dangerous tornados, they mostly suck the life out of the script, relationships, excitement, and by mid-way through, even interest. But, like every movie, it has one great moment.
Jo is connected to tornadoes. By that I mean, she is a little obsessed with them. A lot, actually. This stems from an incident when she was 5 years old. On that day, a powerful F5 twister came sweeping through the county, forcing her family into the storm cellar, though the wind became too strong and her dad was swept out into the vortex and eventually to his death. The tragedy scarred her, but of course, also motivated her to go to school and devote her life to learning more about these wild weather systems and find a way to make sure no other daddies are taken away. Plus, she gets to work outside.
The thing about these storms for Jo though is their majesty, their mystery, their savage power. For Jo, they are almost hypnotic. This is something Bill understands about his risk-taking former lover. And so, now, after some already troubling encounters with tornados and old feelings have Melissa on the out, Jo and Bill end up on their own and get caught in the path of a furious tornado they simply can’t outrun, even in their truck.
Desperate for cover, as the beast spins closer to them, they clamor under a small wooden bridge and take hold of the support beams and posts below as the chaos of wind and debris draws near. Seasoned pros, they know the drill, and Bill shields himself and her as the storm comes right over the top of them.
The hope it to ride it out, however Jo is enthralled by the twister, its ferocity knocking on her memory of the one that killed her father, and it seems to call to her, beckoning for another victim. Lured by its raw, cataclysmic presence, she scurries out of Bill’s hands and begins to crawl toward it, seemingly magnetized by the forces spinning the monster to life. “I want to see it!” she screams into the winds as Bill frantically tries to hold her back.
By this time, the winds are pulling the truck beside them off the ground and shredding the weather-worn planks of the tiny bridge, filling the air with a maelstrom of rocks, dirt, and tractor parts as it passes over them. And pass over them it does, leaving little left behind, though miraculously, them unscathed. She watches it head away, still entranced by the terrible beauty it represents.
Setting aside the fact that both should have been impaled by literally thousands of bits of deadly debris swirling about the tornado as it crossed them, the great thing about his sequence is its surprising impact, a moment about characters in a scene filled with effects. While there is nearly no dialogue, we learn much about the passion behind Jo’s exhaustive obsession with being near these storms, her great respect for them and yet her almost fanatic worship of them as, willing to sacrifice herself to simply see it, to know what stole her father away with such profound force. Blinded by it power, she is like a disciple, longing for the outstretched hand of the malevolent gods to grant her wisdom … or death.
The look in Jo’s eyes reminds us of the film’s opening moments, when a little girl watches her father fly into oblivion, and we get a sense of that eternal gap that now lives forever in Jo’s heart, a void that she has long searched to fill by trying to snag the monster in its path and declaw the beast, and yet, there is a hint of sorrow in her sallow eyes, a penetrating look of awe, as if she fully understands her place among them, even is she longs to bring them down.
While the film is far more intent on the devastation and themes of escape rather than the metaphysical or existential possibilities of exploring Jo’s clearly disconcerting relationship with twisters, this brief moment speaks much about what that moment in the storm cellar did to her, and how it has done more than shape her career. It has defined her entirely. This single encounter has put her in the clutches of the demon in the dark and let her go, and as we learn later, her fear that it is in fact a living thing that targets those it wants to consume grips her like a nightmare.
It is this moment, one in a film that is weighted down by its own storm of absurd destruction, that reveals where Twister might have earned higher praise, giving Jo’s condition a more meaningful part to play in the action. But as it is, as Jo faces the real challenge in her life, both physical and mental, a scene under a bridge in the eye of the storm makes for a great cinematic moment.