De Bont: Twister (1996)

Twister was Jan De Bont’s spiritual sequel to Speed – his effort to outspeed Speed – and amazingly it worked. Like Speed, it’s about a man caught up in a woman’s slipstream, although in this case Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin’s script veers more towards a comedy of remarriage – the 1930s screwball genre that saw couples retreat into the American wilderness to restore and renew their wedding vows. In this case, the couple are Bill Harding, a storm-chaser played by Bill Paxton, and Jo Harding, Bill’s ex-wife, a meteorologist, played by Helen Hunt. When Bill meets Jo in Oklahoma to deliver his divorce papers, he’s instantly sucked back into storm-chasing, tagging his fiancée along, and eventually discarding her, as he pairs up with Jo to chase what promises to be the biggest storm complex of the century.

Before we arrive at this premise, however, we start with a brief prologue that establishes Jo’s particular fixation with tornados. In a modern reworking of The Wizard of Oz, Jo experiences a tornado as a young girl, retreating to the shelter on her family farm with her mother, father, and Toto-like dog. The tornado is presented as sentient, or more than sentient – like an extraterrestrial visitation, a matter of bright light as much as high wind, that updates the Midwestern alien encounters of the 70s and 80s for a more contemporary sensibility. When the tornado takes Jo’s father, she decides to dedicate her life to “knowing what a storm is thinking” – which brings us back to the present, to Bill’s arrival, and to the revelation that she has nearly perfected a machine that will permit her to predict a tornado’s path in real time.

Between the prologue and the film proper, De Bont inserts a grid-like map of the United States, positioning the tornado as a challenge and incentive to the increasingly networked mindset of the 90s. In effect, Jo and Bill have spent their lives trying to network tornados – or trying to understand them as networked phenomena. They’re not alone in that endeavour, as we quickly learn, when their nemesis, Jonas Miller, played by Cary Elwes, turns up to chase the same Oklahoma super-storm. Yet they are unique in their intuitive feel for the network, which provides them with an edge that Jonas, with all his corporate sponsorship, can never achieve. That intuition is critical, the film suggests, because tornados are amongst the most ephemeral and least predictable of all natural disasters, especially when it comes to the pivotal moments when they abruptly shift direction – the focus of Jo’s research and fieldwork.

This connection between the tornado and the nascent network is cemented in one of the first scenes that really signals the film’s ambition – the first storm network that Jo and Bill encounter together since their divorce. Many different people converge on this first storm, which De Bont directs with the same kinetic intensity as the Flight of the Valkyries sequence in Apocalypse Now, except that Robert Duvall’s operatic soundtrack is now replaced by a convergence of all imaginable radio frequencies. First, we’re in a truck playing classical music, then we shift to a truck playing rock, and from there to the soundtrack to Oklahoma!, all of these different wavelengths coalescing until they climax with Bill’s fiancée as she scrambles to make a mobile phone call – trying in vain to keep up with Bill and Jo’s tornado networking.

Like the bomb in Speed, then, the tornado is an incentive to create a film that remains in continuous motion. To that end, the screenwriters compress time, setting the action over a single 24-hour spate of tornados that escalate in intensity. Meanwhile, De Bont’s direction match and eludes the speed of tornado too, catching us up in its slipstream so quickly that it’s almost impossible to believe that the action could accelerate further beyond the opening scenes, which would form the climax of any other film. Since Jo’s device has to be placed directly in the “damage path” of the tornado, the action moves closer and closer to the most destructive parts of the storm, even as the storm itself also keeps growing in intensity as well.

For that reason, the film doesn’t have much time or space for any characters other than Bill and Jo, who are always situated at the vortex of frenetic camera movements and hyperactive group choreography. While Jo is always surrounded by her team, they mainly serve a centrifugal purpose here, gathering around her and Bill, and protecting them from the competing spiral of the tornado. None of these characters are differentiated all that much, especially for an ensemble that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman and Alan Ruck, but it doesn’t really matter, since they’re mainly here for their collective vortical pull. In any case, they’re all hactivists, storm hackers, self-appointed cool nerds, so it’s probably lucky we don’t have to spend time with them – although the fleeting glimpses of Hoffman are always endearing.

As the minor characters fade into the background, the tornados themselves take on greater prominence. De Bont started as a cinematographer, and his taste for light is really evident here – the whole film is suffused with the eerie sheen that descends just before the storm hits, while Bill and Jo tend to apprehend tornados through imperceptible shifts in light. Some of the best CGI of the 90s is also on display, since the digital textures of the time worked perfectly for the mercuriality of the tornado, which tends to be glimpsed briefly, from a distance, through trees, and nearly always mediated through the windscreen or windows of trucks. On top of that, De Bont tends to shift to a digital hand-held sensibility when the tornado is close – more on that in a moment – which makes the CGI date even better as well.

Very early on, then, it’s clear that we’re dealing with a study in the sublime – an alternation between the very large and the very small. In one of the most evocative opening scenes, Bill lets a few grains of dust drift from his hands, and apprehends the nearness of a tornado through their trajectory, paving the way for a film that is fascinated with the first distant rumblings of the destruction to come. The tornados here are arguably most terrifying in these early incarnations – when televisions cut to static, or the breeze picks up ever so slightly across curtains, or wind chimes tinkle off in the distance. This shift from small to massive scales is encapsulated in the film’s truly astonishing aerial shots, which often take us across many miles at a time, and triangulate several convoys of trucks, in ways that anticipate the Netflix drone style of the present. De Bont attempts nothing less than to film the action from the storm’s point of view, splitting the different between the supernatural and super-natural.

By this third act, this effects a profound shift in cinematic perception itself, transforming the tornado into a harbinger of a new digital sensibility. Continuing the opening allusions to The Wizard of Oz, Jo names her storm measurement device the “Dorothy.” She has made four Dorothys, meaning the film charts her attempt, with Bill, to fly each successive Dorothy up into the path of the tornado, where it will unleash a series of small devices that will help to record the inner workings of the storm. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s movement up the tornado took her to a different realm of cinematic perception – the advent of Technicolor, first seen by many audiences of the time during these iconic scenes in Munchkinland. A similar transition happens in Twister, except we now glimpse a digital, rather than a coloured, world.

We get our first glimpse of this world with the penultimate tornado, which touches down at a drive-in screening of The Shining, tearing apart the cinema screen just as Jack Nicholson is breaking down the door. Not only does this suggest a need to reinvent even the most iconic moments of cinema as we know it, but it signals, more specifically, a desire to expand the Steadicam, which was pioneered by Kubrick, to the vast spaces of the Dust Bowl and the new perceptual horizon of the twister. In that sense, Twister lives somewhere between the Steadicams of The Shining and the drone shots of the present, poised at a sublime precipice at which De Bont is forced to imagine the digital with a largely analog arsenal and apparatus.

This new digital image culminates with the final sequence, when Jo and Bill manage to launch Dorothy into the heart of the tornado. By this point, the tornado almost defies perception – it’s mercurial and concrete at the same time, a writhing amorphous mass that could eject massive objects or vehicles at any moment. De Bont also seems to sense the impotence of his own camera here, deflecting his images into the hand-held cameras that Jo’s crew use to film the action. The images of Twister thus collapse into its own digital surrogates, as De Bont uses cameras within his scenes to gesture towards images that his own camera, tasked with the stately requirements of a Hollywood blockbuster, can’t quite muster. We see here the distant seed of films like Cloverfield that evoked disaster from the inside out, emphasising the graininess of hand-held footage, and the rawness of the digital image, for a new kind of film.

Twister couldn’t inhabit that style, or even full anticipate it, but its sheer speed evinces its frustration to arrive at a future that remains inchoate except whenever we’re right up against the tornado. As a result, its final chase does genuinely outspeed Speed, collapsing all the old analog strictures of space and time, here figured as all the objects that Bill and Jo had to drive through in the tornado’s wake – culminating with a sidelong house that evokes the multi-dimensional digitality of Christopher Nolan, and Inception in particular. It’s interesting, then, that De Bont returns to stately images of storms in the closing credits – testaments to his taste for cinematography, accompanied by beautiful guitar licks. Call it the briefest of analog lulls, a quiet moment in the eye of the storm before the digital future envisaged here arrived.

About Billy Stevenson (936 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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