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Twister (3)

Why I love the solidly mediocre disaster movie ‘Twister’

The 1996 film was released to little fanfare and lacklustre reviews – here we investigate one writer’s obsession with a highly missable tornado tale

Why should a pleasure be “guilty” if we enjoy it? “Guilt Tripping” is a new series in which writers talk about why they love something – be it a film, book, drink, whatever – that the world makes them feel guilty for loving. For the second instalment of “Guilt Tripping”, writer Anne T. Donahue is discussing Twister, the film that (almost) cured her childhood fear of storms.

I grew up wanting to be The Human Barometer.

Of course, this means nothing to you without the proper cultural context. In 1996’s Twister, we meet Bill Paxton a.k.a. Bill, a tornado chaser-turned-meteorologist whose weather-centric instincts were so evolved that his ex-wife’s Aunt Meg nicknamed him accordingly. To be The Human Barometer meant having the ability to predict exactly how a tornado would move. Which, to an 11-year-old with a crippling fear of thunderstorms, seemed rather useful.

I wasn’t allowed to watch Twister when it first came out. At some point between ages 10 and 11, my healthy respect for the weather morphed into overwhelming anxiety over storm season, and while I’ve still yet to see an actual tornado, the number of warnings we got between June and August usually kept me frozen on the cellar steps, hoping my cat wouldn’t die if the roof blew away. (He did die, but of natural causes in 2009. My parents’ roof remains intact.) So, despite Twister being one of the biggest movies of the summer, I couldn’t see it. But by the time it came out on VHS the following spring, I’d calmed down enough to warrant a screening with my dad.

I wasn’t disappointed.

To start, despite lacklustre reviews and C-average receptionTwister is magnificent. It is a cinematic masterpiece that combines the horror of tornadoes with a unparalleled love triangle, headed by Bill Paxton (Bill), Helen Hunt (Jo Harding), and Jami Gertz (Bill’s fiancée, sex therapist Dr. Melissa Reeves). In addition to this, Bill, Jo, and their team (rounded out by Philip Seymour-Hoffman, Alan Ruck, and director Todd Field) are forced to confront their scientific rival – Dr. Jonas Miller, played by Cary Elwes – on a storm-by-storm basis, until one of them dies (I won’t say whom).

So: it is over-the-top, sensational, and totally ridiculous. Its most memorable quote has gone on to be one about a flying cow, and it failed to solidify Helen Hunt as an action film goddess. Even worse: when we cite the late Philip Seymour-Hoffman’s great performances, we fail to include his turn as Dusty – the character we’d all want to hang out with most.

Ultimately, if you don’t like it, I hate you.

The 90s were special in that for a brief moment in time, natural disasters translated into box office currency. 1996’s Twister led to Volcano and Dante’s Peak in 1997, while 1998 gave us Armageddon and Deep Impact. But uniquely, Twister was less about avoiding disaster than it was about pursuing it. After her Dad is killed in a tornado when Jo was a kid, she dedicates her life to figuring them out. Which is when we meet her: Bill shows up to a site hoping to get Jo to sign their divorce papers, but realises he can’t shake his love of the (tornado) chase. And so he gives Jo one day to get the machine they built up in the air – which is perfect timing, since they’re facing a day of historically active thunderstorms.

And while the film’s special effects don’t hold up, there’s absolutely no need for Dr. Reeves (who’s obviously never seen a tornado before, let alone chased one) to be present other than to highlight how different she and Bill are, and the last scene feels a lot like an intense truck commercial, Twister does what movies are supposed to best: it submerges you in a world you lose all sense of logic in.

Which is what I especially needed as a kid still trying to embrace the notion that I couldn’t control the weather (at least not yet). By living vicariously through Jo, Bill, and their team of meteorological geniuses, I told myself I could battle my own fear through knowledge – even if that meant reading as many books about tornadoes as possible, and announcing to my parents that I intended to be a storm chaser in the American south when I grew up. (Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen.) The thing is, Twister didn’t need to be realistic for it to have a very real effect: I learned that you can either choose to be at the mercy of your anxiety or you can confront it (by driving into the core of twin waterspouts).

Twister does what movies are supposed to best: it submerges you in a world you lose all sense of logic in” 

And preferably alongside your best friends. Because while the love story is meant to take precedence over all other dynamics in the movie, it’s the camaraderie between Jo and her teammates that make Twister feel like an adventure, and less the most dangerous courtship in the history of man. We see the way each scientist decks out their own vehicles, blaring their own theme songs, we see the way they vow to keep chasing even after nearly dying during a microburst in a drive-in movie theatre, and we see the way they rally around Jo when Aunt Meg’s town is struck by an F4.

Because that’s the other thing about Twister: Aunt Meg (Lois Smith) rules. While much of Jo and Melissa’s arcs are structured around whether or not Bill loves them, Aunt Meg exists in her own world. She makes steak and eggs for the team and ultimately needs to be physically rescued by them (because she is nearly crushed by her own home) but she is independent, she is wise, and she is an artist who hangs out with her dog while watching Judy Garland films. So while Twister forced me to confront my fear of storms and their tornadic spawn, it also introduced me to my favourite type of movie character: a cool-ass aunt. Or, cinematic proof that while love stories are fun, you don’t necessarily need to fall in love and get married to be an interesting person or to have narrative worth.

Which is admittedly a lot to take away from a CGI-heavy movie about tornadoes. Especially since it ends with a premise so unrealistic even my 11-year-old self felt strange about its logistics. (FYI: tying yourself to a pole with a leather strap will not prevent your death should you be in the midst of an F5.) But Twister wasn’t my favourite movie (until Titanic came out) because I wanted logic and reason or deep, cerebral thought. It meant something to me because it was fun and it was funny and it was suspenseful and cute. I watched, psyched that maybe I’d find my own crew of storm chasers one day (or, at least friends who got my jokes), or that I could chase my fears away with science, or that there was hope that a guy like Bill Paxton would fall in love with me – or if he didn’t, that I would be totally fine with my cool house and my cat (I don’t like dogs) and my Judy Garland films.

Even though I still get a little nervous when a thunderstorm rolls in.

Lead illustration by Owain Anderson