Thursday, November 5, 2020

Film Appreciation - The Suck Zone

Cody Hamman chases some Film Appreciation for 1996's Twister.

A longtime cinematographer with credits like Cujo and Die Hard to his name, Jan de Bont made his feature directorial debut with the Die Hard-esque movie Speed, which turned out to be the fifth highest grossing film of 1994. Two years later, he had another blockbuster in theatres... and this one, the "nature run amok" action flick Twister, ended up being the #2 highest grossing film of 1996. I remember the summer of '96 pretty well, I remember what a huge deal this movie was - and one memory that has always stood out comes from when I attended a family get-together to celebrate the anniversary of an aunt and uncle (the ones that took me to see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) that summer and a group of people there were talking about having seen Twister. During their conversation, they referenced a moment that I had also seen as a special one when I saw the movie on opening weekend. A moment that contained a jump scare so unexpected, it was one of the most effective jump scares I've ever witnessed in a theatre.

Written by Michael Crichton (yep, the Jurassic Park guy) and his wife Anne Marie Martin (a former actress whose credits included Prom Night, The Boogens, and Halloween II) - with some uncredited revisions from the likes of Steve Zaillian, Jeff Nathanson, and Speed script doctor Joss Whedon - Twister centers on a group of storm chasers who spend a very busy couple days driving around the Oklahoma countryside, trying to set a device called Dorothy in the path of a tornado. They have many opportunities, there are several tornado-based action scenes throughout the movie, there aren't very many minutes that pass by without a tornado blowing in and nearly sucking up our lead characters, but of course they don't manage to get a Dorothy (they start out with four of them) successfully sent up into a tornado until the climax. The idea is, once this device is inside the tornado it will open up and release hundreds of sensors that will provide data on exactly how a tornado works, information that will then be used to substantially increase the average Tornado Warning time, thus saving lives.

At one point, the characters are speeding off to intercept a tornado and the group's navigator suggests taking a path through a cornfield as a shortcut. They're driving through this field for a while, they can't see the end of it, the vehicles in the lead aren't sure where they're going to be when they exit the field, drivers and passengers are freaking out and yelling to the navigator over their CB radios - then they burst out of the field onto a highway, nearly colliding with another caravan of storm chasers, who lay on their horns. That moment of our heroes emerging from the field and nearly hitting the other vehicles on the highway as the sound of horns filled the air made people jump out of their seats when they saw this in theatres in '96. No one expects to get startled like that when they go see a blockbuster action movie.

Beyond that jump scare, another thing that makes me appreciate Twister is the fact that it stars actors that usually didn't have the chance to take the leads in movies like this, Helen Hunt and the late, great Bill Paxton. Paxton tended to play the scene-stealing supporting character, but at the recommendation of James Cameron he was cast to star in Twister after Tom Hanks dropped out of the role of storm chaser Bill Harding. 

Bill has actually left the storm chasing life behind and become a weatherman by the time we first meet him in the film, he has only met up with his former group of storm chasers because it's being led by his estranged wife Jo (Hunt), who he needs to finish signing their divorce papers so he can marry therapist Melissa Reeves (Jamie Gertz) - who has accompanied him on his trip to see Jo. But when Bill finds out his former colleague Jonas Miller (Cary Elwes) has stolen the Dorothy concept and is leading a rival group of storm chasers on a quest to put a device called D.O.T. 3 in the path of a tornado, he decides to stick with Jo and her people long enough to beat Miller and get Dorothy into a twister. Miller comes off as a smarmy douche, even more so because Elwes hides his own British accent under an annoying attempt at a Southern drawl, so it's understandable that Bill is driven to defeat this guy.

Jo's fellow storm chasers are a quirky bunch played by some recognizable character actors. These folks are total dweebs, their behavior is often embarrassing to witness, but you have to love a group that's brought to life by actors like Alan Ruck, Sean Whalen, Scott Thomson, Todd Field, Joey Slotnick, Wendle Josepher, Jeremy Davies, and Philip Seymour Hoffman... with Hoffman's character Dustin being such a hyped-up goofball that some viewers have, rather accurately, described the performance as Hoffman playing Jack Black playing Dustin.

Melissa is basically the audience stand-in here, someone who is completely out of her element, and therefore the storm chasers have to provide her with a steady stream of exposition that's as much for the benefit of the viewer as it is for her. It's due to the presence of Melissa that we're told storm chasing terminology, the plans for Dorothy, and the Fujita scale for numbering tornados based on their destructiveness. The most destructive tornado possible would be a 5 on the Fujita scale, an F5, and only one of the characters has ever seen an F5. That's Jo, whose father was killed by an F5 tornado in the film's opening scene, set in June of 1969. Yes, characters other than Jo will be seeing an F5 by the end of the movie.

Twister is a very simple movie, there's not much to it other than scene after scene of the storm chasers going after tornados and nearly losing their lives in the process, but those tornado sequences are exciting to watch and Jan de Bont made sure they're different every time. Hail! Water tornados! Flying cow! A tornado strikes a drive-in where The Shining is being shown! Jo and Bill get caught in the "suck zone"! Farming equipment dropping from the sky! There's just enough character drama in between the action moments to make sure we care about these people, watching Jo, Bill, and Melissa fully figure out what's going on in their personal relationships and finding the right paths for themselves. And for some extra drama, we're introduced to Jo's Aunt Meg (Lois Smith), who is soon after put in danger when a tornado strikes her town.

Twister is just a good, action-packed movie. It was fun to watch in 1996, and it's still fun to watch now, even if some of the CGI doesn't hold up anymore.

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