Saturday, 11 July 2009

Twister (1996)

Ah, the mysteries of Mother Nature have inspired great artists throughout the decades, none more so than that literary giant, Michael Crichton, who once pondered whether fossilised mosquitoes could retain dinosaur DNA that eccentric millionaires could exploit to create a theme-park island where everything would go terribly wrong in another example of that old chest-nut, “What Has Scientific Man Wrought By Messing With The Environment?” Of course, I speak of the tome known as Jurassic Park, which was adapted by Steven Spielberg into an international blockbuster that threw down a template for Hollywood producers to draw on from the mid-to-late 1990s; if a natural disaster is transformed into a CGI special effects shit-storm, then Mother Nature will provide with high international gross. For an insight into what was wrong with blockbuster movies in the post-Jurassic Park climate, I turn to Crichton’s original screenplay, written with then-wife Anne-Marie Martin, concerning tornado chasers, that painterly engagement with the sublime entitled Twister, which was directed by former cinematographer Jan De Bont who has experienced a hit with Speed and would yet experience the lows of Speed 2: Cruise Control.

For those who can’t remember, Twister follows a couple on the brink of divorce Jo Harding (Helen Hunt) and Bill Harding (Bill Paxton) because I all know you really care about the human characters in a movie like Twister. Jo and Bill were once scientific daredevils who chased tornados across the mid-west in order to study their movements, leading a ragtag bunch of geeks and nerds in sublime encounters with blurry grey tempests. Of course, there needs to be some tension in this movie so they have been separated with Jo still an active tornado chaser and Bill retired from the wild life for the chance to be a weatherman and be married to Jami Gertz. Of course, Bill’s attempts to have Jo sign the divorce papers are always interrupted by special effect sequences of whirlwinds sucking up and spitting out trucks onto roads while someone quips "Where's my truck?" before the truck explodes because Hollywood knows funny; all of which reminds Bill about the ole thrill of the hunt. What is magical about Twister is its wispy characterisation. So, we’ve got Helen Hunt offered as Bill’s true love in comparison to the nagging psychotherapist Jami Gertiz plays and we know she’s no good because she makes a face when someone sticks a plate in her face with a huge steak swimming in gravy (Subliminal movie message: I don’t want a wife who won’t eat a good ole fashioned American steak!). The sour-faced, sleepy-eyed Helen Hunt is comparatively a tomboy who loves chasing tornados and wearing white t-shirts and being called “Jo”, which sounds like “Joe”; basically she’s a man with long hair and breasts. Surely there must be a sensitive, more feminine side to her? Oh yeah, that’s right, Helen Hunt’s character was that little girl in the opening sequence where a tornado strikes through a farmhouse and sucks up the little’s girl Tom Joad farmer father into the spinning vortex. So, everytime Helen Hunt is chasing a tornado, the audience knows she’s really chasing a lost father figure. There a lot of scenes where she stops and gazes in wonder at the tornado, probably thinking, “Are you still up there, daddy?” Nice pop psychology there, movie.

Then again, when Bill, by which I mean Bill Paxton, is described as having an intuitive relationship with the tornadoes, which we can understand in scenes where they are chasing after a tornado and hail starts pummelling their car and he shouts out “We’ve got hail!” Or when they’re all hanging around at a drive in playing The Shining (side-note: one is always thrown off by the appearance of a better movie in the one you’re actually watching) and Dusty, the EXTREME dude with the red cap, shouts to everyone about an incoming tornado, “It’s heading right for us.” But Bill Paxton stands stoically and grimly remarks, “It’s already here.” The masculine cowboy knows the terrain though Bill Paxton really only shines when he is yelling some shit while standing in the rain like “Things go wrong. You can’t explain it. You can’t predict it! GAME OVER, MAN!” Of course, when the “villain” of the movie is a natural disaster that isn’t invested with much character despite the overlays of animalistic moans and groans whenever it appears close, you have to fire up some more tension with proto-villains like the rival tornado chasing team headed up by Carl Elwes. Why are they evil? Let Bill Paxton explain it: “He’s got a corporate sponsorship. He’s only in it for the money.” How do we know this? Cary Elwes has a broad southern accent and his team drives sleek black SUVs, the type that all Hollywood producers drive in L.A, the type of people who have corporately produced this movie in order to receive some financial gain for visualising the poetry of what happens when a tornado sucks up a cow and makes it fly around the van for some deadpan observational shtick, “We’ve got cows!” (We’ve also got punchlines!) Yeah, but how else would we know our team of tornado chasers were the heroes if they didn’t all dress like individuals and were played by recognisable character actors like Alan Ruck, Joey Slotnick, Jeremy Davies, Todd Field and of course, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Dusty (who would have thought that the guy with lines like “He’s gonna rue the day he came against The Extreme” would eventually destroy everyone else starring in this movie acting-wise). Wear a red hat and listen to some Zeppelin and you’re an individual and non-corporate even though you’re basically comic relief. Down with corporate power, man. Love the tornado for what it can teach us about the environment, which is that the power of the twister will not be enough to suck up a reunited couple like Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton particularly when they are tied down safely to pipes using belts. Oh yeah, there was a point to everything with a machine that was is supposed to be swallowed up by twisters and tell scientists the great mysteries of what is going on inside and the machine is called Dorothy which is a reference to that movie The Wizard Of Oz, the one with a golden brick road and flying monkeys and more believability and less bullshit than this movie.

The lifespan of a big-screen blockbuster is seasonal. One summer, you’re sitting in a cinema seat as an adolescent, overwhelmed by the sound and fury, convinced that what you watched was something monolithic, then fourteen years later, you’re re-watching it on basic cable where the effects have dated and you wake up quite quickly to the thin characterisation and unimaginative dialogue. Eye to eye with The Suck Zone.


dan said...

the helen hunt shower scene is one of cinema's all-time low points for me. even as a teenager i felt sick watching it.

also the rag-tag team! so bad, especially when they are driving all victorious in a bunch of rag-tag vehicles and all singing a song together.

Mitch said...

CGI Shitstorm. Good Stuff. For a while in the 90's the CGI in movies was almost second rate to video game cutscenes.