Twister is a really rotten film. Not since my first viewing of Showgirls (1995) have I found myself reeling back from the screen so much, mouth agape, wondering how such a shocking, threadbare script became the basis for such a major production. Most Australian reviewers were, at the moment of its release, far too kind to Twister – much kinder than they were to Showgirls. The latter was a prime victim of critical abuse well before it reached our shores, so the knocking in that case was licensed and legitimated. But we had not heard very much about Twister, beyond the astounding figures of its initial box office success in America.
There is a lot of common ground, however, shared by these two true turkeys. In both cases, we have big, rich writers’ names – Michael Crichton for Twister, Joe Eszterhas for Showgirls – who, long ago, used to do some interesting stuff. Now they are churning out material that reads and plays like rough first drafts – or even just the bare outline for a script.
Above and beyond everything else, Twister has a bad, bad script. But just what constitutes a bad script? This is not an idle question, and I do not presume to have a good and full answer to it (yet). Most film reviewers throw around glib judgments about good and bad direction, good and bad scripts, good and bad editing or photography, without the faintest clue of what they are really talking about, most of the time. And so I want to reconsider this question of the bad script here, because I did not feel altogether pleased with myself after doing-in Showgirls this way in 1995. If all I could say about Eszterhas’s script is that it is a bit like TV soap opera, a bit corny and clichéd, a bit formulaic, that the dialogue and the characters aren’t very believable ... if that’s all I (or anyone) could figure out to say against Showgirls, then we really have not managed to say anything terribly intelligent or pertinent at all. To call a popular film soap or two-dimensional or generic should not amount to automatic, infallible criticisms that everyone then passes around like pearls of folk wisdom. Common sense: our eternal enemy!
It is time for me to bring you up to speed on the basic premise of Twister. At the outset, I should warn you: do not confuse this big new movie with a small, very odd movie in your video store also called Twister (1990), directed by the American independent, Michael Almereyda. The new Twister is co-written by Crichton and directed by Jan De Bont, who dazzled us with the terrific action thriller, Speed (1994).
Twister has very few plot elements. It starts with a decent narrative device, in what is probably the best scene of the whole film. A family is threatened by a fast-approaching tornado; as their house falls apart, the family members scurry out to an underground shelter. It is a classic, Norman Rockwell-style American nuclear family: Mum, Dad, little girl, little dog. The father battles to keep the door to the shelter, positioned above his head, secure. The winds rage and blow, and the nails and planks of the shelter door slowly come loose. Suddenly something terrifying happens: the father, still holding onto the door, is scooped up and taken away by the twister. This is an opener worthy of The X-Files and, indeed, it specifically reminded me of Mulder’s primal childhood nightmare on that program, watching as his little sister is abducted by aliens through some magical, almost heavenly form of transportation. This opening scene of Twister raises certain tantalising possibilities that I will return to – even though the film itself hardly returns to them at all.
little girl in that opening episode grows up to be Jo (Helen Hunt). Jo is the
leader of a team of ace scientists who chase after twisters, getting as close
as possible to them in order to put some incredible new equipment inside. Take
careful note that these techno cowboys and cowgirls of the open road do not
actually fight twisters; they just
want to get a good reading on them, some hitherto unrecorded data so that,
somewhere down the track, an early detection system can (maybe) be developed. Already,
right there, you have a problem for a
So, we already have one line of narrative intrigue on the table. Jo has a gizmo affectionately called Dorothy – that’s a Wizard of Oz reference, naturally, to be unpacked later. In Twister’s story, Dorothy is the machine that, when sucked into the centre of a tornado, will send information back to the computer. There are four rickety prototypes of Dorothy – count ‘em, four. Actually, you cannot help but count them as the film proceeds, because the progression of the action-plot relies on almost nothing else. Each Dorothy they put in the path of a twister gets smashed, left behind, or somehow does not work. By the time that the third Dorothy is down, you figure that maybe the fourth one will work. There are really no twists, surprises or revelations in this line of the narrative, except for a silly scene where the scientific team thinks of a good use for discarded cans of Pepsi Cola to help Dorothy do her thing.
On top of
that very thin structure of action, there is need of a human story. This story
comes with two extensions. The first extension concerns the rival scientific
team always trying to beat Jo’s troupe to the punch. Her team is salt-of-the-earth
stuff; they hang out in T-shirts, eat meat and potatoes; they are the last
American cowboys roaming the free range. The camera tells you that, endlessly
swooping down on these boring trucks zooming along the open road. And the music
tells you that, with even less subtlety: from the speakers on top of their
trucks, these heroes broadcast a mixture of
Deep Purple classics, the “William Tell Overture”, and the theme from
Starkly opposed to Jo’s gang is the bad, yuppie gang, led by Dr Miller (Cary Elwes). They drive in sleek black trucks, preening before the cameras of the mass media and mouthing some reassuring techno-babble. They have the equipment and the dreaded corporate sponsorship, but they do not have the real nous it takes to find and confront a twister. This, like everything else in the film, is proven through a simplistic comparison. Dr Miller’s brigade has to wait to see what direction Jo is going in before making a move. Jo, on the other hand, has an infallible detection device in her possession: her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Bill (Bill Paxton). He simply has to run his hand through the dirt, look at the sky, sniff the air – and his intuition, his sixth sense, tells him all he needs to know. No computer required.
Yes, a soon-to-be-ex-husband. That makes us instantly remember a classic plot device of many romantic comedies – a couple about to finalise their divorce, about to sign those final, binding, annulment papers … but before that moment, there is one last doubt, one last flutter of the heartstrings, one last shared adventure. These days, that story, in its many variations, is called the comedy of remarriage, and plenty of them are still being made today: Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), for instance. There are modern dramas of remarriage, too – Peter Weir’s remarkable Fearless (1993), for example, or the underrated case of James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989). Twister tries to have this remarriage idea both ways – as both drama and comedy. Dramatically, it is a little reminiscent of The Abyss, in the way it places its estranged lovers in the path of dangerous, natural disasters.
But there is a very lame romantic comedy angle also, with the secondary character of Bill’s fiancée, Melissa (Jami Gertz). She is a pretentious city type, a nervous ninny with a mobile phone, too much make-up, and a costume entirely unsuitable for facing a twister. And get this: she is a psychotherapist – at first, a relatively standard therapist with a stream of crazies on the other end of her phone. Then she is referred to as a ‘reproductive therapist’. The film mercilessly mocks her because of her vocation. Can you believe this: we are in 1996 – not ‘46 or ’56 – and a blockbuster movie decides to make a therapist into patsy/comic butt? (Personally, I would like to know how many individuals among the cast and crew of this film were in therapy during production.)
So, we have the narrative inventory: a primal childhood trauma, four machines named Dorothy, an evil yuppie, a patsy therapist, and two main characters who may be about to reunite. I will try not to give away what is perfectly obvious to begin with; suffice to say, all these plot elements are resolved and exhausted in the most banal, mechanical, predictable ways imaginable. I will mention only what happens to Jo’s childhood trauma. Of course, this character has devoted her life to chasing twisters because of the terrible fate visited upon her Dad. She has developed an irrational superstition underneath her scientific veneer: she believes that twisters choose their victims. In one scene, she flips out grimly just thinking about this; it is as if she wants to hurl herself, body and soul, into a malevolent tornado. So Bill tells her wisely: “You’re obsessed”. And that is that: he names it, and suddenly she is free of it! Not even in the earliest and corniest pop-Freudian movies of 1940s cinema was the talking cure ever so effortlessly, instantly achieved.
I have to wonder whether Twister, like Showgirls, strikes me so profoundly as a bad film simply because the mechanics of the scripts are this plain, simple and transparent. When I first reviewed Showgirls, I described (with some contempt) how every plot twist/revelation was heavily signaled by some repeated, underlined phrase in the dialogue. It is actually an intriguing business when just one word, one look, one object in somebody’s hand or on their dresser can suddenly recode a character from hero to villain, from sleazeball to saviour. It is a TV soap opera convention. But if I can enjoy it in Melrose Place, why can’t I take it in a sixty million dollar blockbuster?
Twister has an elementary script, certainly – but does that make it bad? Maybe I should be looking elsewhere for the explanation of my deep-seated exasperation with it. How about this angle: an action-oriented, spectacular, tornado movie. I do not really ask for realism of such a film, and I can even waive the three-dimensional character-drama stuff. But I do ask that there be some kind of mythic resonance – not grand, timeless, mythic archetypes exactly, but at least some good old pop culture pulp poetry, some dizzy, intoxicating tornado-metaphor that has been stoked by a hundred previous films, songs and tall tales. After all, this is a movie presented to the world by Steven Spielberg’s company – so I do expect at least some kitsch mythology to liven things up, no matter how empty, finally, that mythology may turn out to be.
Twister has a perfectly Spielbergian image-idea at its centre. Think of Jo; she has seen her Daddy snatched away by a tornado, and she’s …well, as the man said, she’s obsessed. What is a tornado to her? Exactly what it was to the makers of The Wizard of Oz, or to Spielberg when he dreamed up that crazy scene of inclement weather in E.T. (1982) – which is the same as what lightning was to the maker of that queer, Spielbergian treat, Powder (1995). A tornado is a figure of the sublime; it threatens death and devastation, but also – perhaps as a fatal lure – beckons with the promise of a magical means of transportation to another world.
In Twister, Jo wants to actually see, to be inside the centre of a twister – perhaps to find out, once and for all, whether what is there at the centre is just nothing, or maybe heaven itself. This is the classic yearning of all Spielbergian cinema since Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): a yearning for the ecstasy of the infinite, the other-worldly, for transcendence off this earth – a yearning which is mixed up, in complex ways, with an equally intense desire for death. The problem with Twister is that, despite its entire, elaborate, expensive set-up, it never manages to tap into this fascinating tornado-inspired yearning.
Is there anything good in Twister? Well, I have a pronounced taste for moments in cinema where pop culture traditions meet up with Surrealist art, and Twister does have a few such moments. The actual tornado scenes, completely abstracted from the dreary matrix of characters and plot, are not bad. They are pure spectacle, pure circus-time cinema of attractions, to use Tom Gunning’s term: like an old silent movie, or one of the first 3-D films of the ‘50s, with trucks and cows and whatnot flying straight at the camera lens and making you jump out of your seat.
More pointedly Surrealist, however, is what these twisters do to objects, particularly to houses. There are three striking house scenes: houses come apart, implode, recompose themselves in various fascinating combinations. At one point, our heroes even drive right through a house that has been dropped at an unusual angle in the middle of the road. All this play with houses reminded me of another Spielberg production, the horror movie Poltergeist (1982), in which Zelda Rubenstein as Tangina Barrons speaks the wise and scary words: “This house has many hearts”. Some viewers watching Twister will remember Susan Sontag’s famous essay from the 1960s “The Imagination of Disaster”, where she talks about the glee of such anti-social destruction of property and objects. But a tornado, in popular culture, is better than a tidal wave, much better than that Last Wave in Peter Weir’s 1977 film, just swallowing everything in an ecstatic orgy of ruin. The tornado in The Wizard of Oz could actually take you somewhere else – into the landscape of your dreams.
I have noticed a bizarre thing about audiences and Twister. This movie has the unintentional knack of turning many of its spectators into involuntary Surrealists. The plot being so thin, and its execution being so laboured/hammy, people’s minds just take off while they are watching it; it is as if their own imagination has to compensate for the lack of it in what is on screen – which is what the Surrealists called, back in the early 1950s, irrational enlargement. I have met people who expected Gertz’s therapist character to turn into a wild woman and make out with a techno-cowboy on the highway. I talked to someone who watched the protracted scene of Jo in the shower, fully imagining that a twister was about to suck her right out of that shower cubicle, stark naked – after all, Helen Hunt was in a true pop-Surrealist film of the previous decade, that little marvel Future Cop (aka Trancers, 1985).
As for me, I kept expecting that father of hers, snatched in the very first scene of the film, to suddenly come walking out of a tornado, like Harry Dean Stanton striding out of the desert in Paris, Texas (1984). I wanted him to simply walk up to his adult daughter, as though nothing at all had happened in all those years since she last saw him, and say: “You know, honey – you’re obsessed”.
That would cure anyone.
© Adrian Martin June 1996