Summer of ’96: TWISTER Ushers in a New Era of CGI Storytelling

It never really mattered whether or not tornadoes could effectively, realistically, be cinematic villains because they’re sporadic and they never last long. That made no difference when you saw that first teaser and first trailer for Twister, Jan de Bont’s parade of CGI cyclones, flying cows, and Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt leading a ragtag team of storm chasers across the midwest in pursuit of the white whale, an F5-class tornado. Logic and reason were to be left outside the theater for a couple of hours while you had your eyes and ears blown off by the newest technical innovation out of Hollywood and the latest Dolby Digital sound.

Twister is nothing more than a funhouse ride, but it may very well be the best most effective, most lasting funhouse ride of the decade, at least for someone – like yours truly – who has spent their entire life in different regions of Tornado Alley. Like so many traditional tales of man versus beast, or many versus nature, the tornadoes here represent a menacing stalker; they’re collectively the shark in Jaws, the T-Rex in Jurassic Park.

This was also Bill Paxton’s first attempt at leading a major blockbuster, after years spent lighting up the screen in some of the best supporting roles of his generation, from Aliens to True Lies. He had been the lead in a number of smaller films, and part of a large ensemble in movies like Tombstone and Apollo 13, but here Paxton was the hero, and his earnestness is ideal for the wonky screenplay. Paxton is the lead alongside Helen Hunt, who had been a star on NBC with Mad About You but was ready to take the step into leading lady territory. She gives more to Twister than Michael Crichton’s silly screenplay calls for, and it’s a delight to see her commit to this role, especially knowing she was about to start a run as one of the most successful actresses in Hollywood for the remainder of the 90s.

The summer of 1996 was the next step in the CGI evolution… revolution? Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park – a couple of years after Terminator 2 – began to show audiences and studios what was possible with new computer technology in 1993. By the time ’96 rolled around, the sandbox was bigger and more advanced; Twister was essentially Jurassic Park with tornadoes, and the big diversion is style and substance boils down to two different filmmakers interpreting Crichton’s absurd dialogue and scientific mumbo jumbo like “it’s backbuilding” and “we’ve got sisters!” Spielberg’s natural ability to create empathy and build insurmountable moments of suspense in Jurassic Park define the moments in that film in between the big dinosaur shots; Jan de Bont, fresh off the success of Speed – a masterpiece of action cinema – was much more interested in the wild chaos of killer cyclones.

Twister gets almost all of its exposition out of the way in the first act, save for a dinner scene midway through. De Bont wasn’t hired for, nor was he interested in, the thin romantic triangle between Paxton, Hunt, and a pant-suited punching bag fiancé played by Jami Gertz. He shows us these scenes and lets his two stars charm the audience, but the end result is obvious from the beginning and these scenes are either short dramatic moments, or handled in the midst of one of the CGI set pieces.

The only reason Twister really exists is right there in the title, and in 1996 the sight of these swirling sky demons in Dolby Digital was a rousing experience. The first “chase” with Paxton and Hunt in the yellow truck remains, in my humble opinion, the best pure tornado action scene in the film. The rest of the twister scenes involve any number of variables, from cows to twin twisters to The Shining at a drive-in theater, but this first one is a beautiful moment of pop cinema:

Nowadays, Twister is a bit hokey, a bit dated, but that doesn’t matter; it’s no less fun. It’s just that the fun of de Bont’s picture has evolved into that sweet spot of honest reverence and amusing irony. At the time the anticipation was palpable, particularly down here in Tornado Alley. Audiences responded with It a dominant $41 million opening weekend; the film would run through the end of August and rake in $237.4 million, good for second place all year behind Independence Day, and ahead of a slew of hit movies. It was the last big triumph for de Bont, who would never recover from the following summer’s calamitous Speed 2. But at this moment in time, he knew what the people wanted from their big, dumb, summer disaster movie, and was able to channel his inner Roland Emmerich while not losing his superior stylistic decisions in the process. This was the next step in CGI, and the images hold up, save for a few seams here and there.

And that cow… it still doesn’t work. Never did.

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