Flying cows are an excellent thing in a movie. More airborne bovines and fewer dramas starring Ricki Lake is my motto, especially now that it’s May and we’ve been conditioned, come warmer weather, to want loud, whammy, thrill-packed, big-budget productions that are long on special effects and short on dialogue written by Jane Austen. Remembering the rush of pure, dumb pleasure provided by Speed two years ago and primed by the high-intensity trailers that have so effectively teased its release for months, I couldn’t wait to experience the Awesome Power of Nature, as harnessed by Speed director Jan De Bont, in Twister. Yet the images that linger longest in my memory are those of windswept livestock. And that, in a teacup, sums up everything that’s right, and wrong, about this appealingly noisy but ultimately flyaway first blockbuster of summer.
The fact is, even if Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton are the human leads, it’s the stuff that stars. The whirling animals, houses, and vehicles, the eye-popping storm-chasing sequences, and amoral Nature herself — those are the headliners in this big-ticket disaster flick; and making us care about things, rather than people, is a challenge for a director even as action savvy as De Bont.
In Twister — which was written with all the delicacy of a Hollywood T. rex by Jurassic Park’s Michael Crichton and his wife, Anne-Marie Martin — Hunt and Paxton play Jo and Bill Harding, Oklahoma scientists and, for romantic interest’s sake, estranged husband and wife. The couple are united, however, in their obsession with a meteorological gizmo they’ve invented called Dorothy. Dorothy is designed to release data-gathering sensors into the core of twister funnels in the pursuit of better tornado preparedness. But launching ain’t easy: To succeed, the Hardings and their equally gung-ho team of hootin’, hollerin’ young scientists (including Scent of a Woman’s spineless preppy Philip Hoffman and Speed’s nervous passenger Alan Ruck) need to position themselves directly in the storm’s path. Which they do, over and over again, in a procession of scenes assembled, evidently, from the Big Book of Disaster-Movie Construction. (More tellingly, this project, executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, looks back devotedly to Jaws as its structural bible.)
The problem is, even the most devastating twister in the whole wide world is, in the end, a random event. Thrillers demand some man-made conflict between good and evil. Yet against something so gigantic as these mothers of all cyclones, the struggles of Twister’s human protagonists feel puny. In a threadbare attempt to create some psychological drama, the movie introduces Cary Elwes as a slick, commercially funded storm chaser and former Dorothy team member who competes for publicity in a menacing-looking black van suggesting a Darth Vader helmet on wheels. (The natural sneer that livens up Elwes’ bland Princess Bride looks, usually his best ally, is overplayed here.) In a stab at manufacturing passion, we’re supposed to understand that Jo (who, in the form of game, plucky Helen Hunt from NBC’s Mad About You, owns a limited but effective wardrobe of tight white undershirts) is mad about the heavens because of a lethal cyclone that swept her daddy into the sky when she was a girl. And we’re supposed to believe that her husband is obsessed because — well, with Paxton’s wood-carved acting style (it worked fine in Apollo 13, now it’s just plain wood), we never do understand why. He just likes wind, I guess.
Except for Jami Gertz (The Lost Boys), shrieking nervously as a girlfriend obviously unsuited for life with a danger freak like Bill, no one is afraid; everyone is up for the party. (I’ve seen some shaky amateur tornado footage, and the fear you hear on the audio is chilling.) Instead, we’ve got us a soundtrack of wind, whooshing music, and a lot of yelling while maneuvering pickup trucks down country roads raining…cows.
Gotta love the cows. They’re unexpected. They’re witty (at the very least as an homage to Monty Python and the Holy Grail). They’re a tribute to the talents of special-effects supervisor John Frazier and his staff, who also do a great job of flattening a town and making a hailstorm. But for summer-movie adrenaline junkies spoiled by Die Hards, Lethal Weapons, and Spielberg movies, cool F/X are not enough. And for a movie that stars acts of God, this work of mortals provides surprisingly little liftoff. The stuff that whips through the angry skies in Twister is the most exciting part of the spectacle. Essentially, we’re turned on by debris. B