Why Twister Is the Funniest Movie of 1996

     June 5, 2020

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Twister returned to Netflix this month, almost exactly 24 years after it was first released in theaters in May of 1996. The premise of the movie is simple – director Jan de Bont looked at his success with Speed, a movie about a bus going really fast and exploding, and thought to himself, “What if the wind went really fast and exploded?” It’s hard to argue with his vision, because Twister went on to become one of the biggest hits of the 1990s, and is one of the top 100 highest-grossing films of all time in North America. Unfortunately, the runaway success of Twister tends to overshadow another of its equally well-deserved superlatives as one of the most unintentionally hilarious motion pictures I have ever seen in a movie theater.

Let me be clear – I do not think Twister is a bad film. Well, okay, I do, but it’s the kind of bad film that I enjoy. It’s cheesy and ham-fisted, and not a single one of its characters behaves like a real person. It was released with a tie-in Van Halen music video that is literally just Dad Rock being played over a montage of weather vanes and cars driving in the rain. I want that music video projected as a hologram above my tombstone in an eternal loop. Twister is gloriously stupid entertainment, and the fact that it is back on Netflix means that I will likely watch it three or four times by the end of next week. For the next several paragraphs, I will do my very best to justify that expense of time.

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Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

Helen Hunt stars as Jo, a tornado biologist who swore vengeance against the storm system that killed her father when she was a little girl. The first stage of her revenge plot involves launching DOROTHY, a cluster of electronic sensors, into the center of a tornado so they can map the storm from the inside out and use that knowledge to contribute to more accurate predictions and early-warning systems. But the way she approaches each tornado with suicidal childlike obsession suggests one of two ulterior motives – one, she’s planning on using the sensors to absorb the power of the tornado and wield it to control the weather like a Mega Man villain; or two, she thinks her father is still inside there, cartwheeling around like a shuriken in a trucker hat for the past three decades. Whatever the case, she shouldn’t be allowed to drive a car.

Bill Paxton plays her soon-to-be-ex-husband Bill, because I guess the screenwriters just got tired of naming people, and in their defense Bill Paxton really looks like a Bill. I love Bill Paxton dearly, and while I thoroughly enjoy his performance in Twister, I must also clarify that it’s one of the worst performances of his entire career. The way he delivers the line “He’s in it for the MUHNEY! Not the SYUHNCE!” is forever etched into my soul. Bill shows up with his new girlfriend Dr. Melissa Reeves (Jami Gertz) to get Jo to sign their divorce papers so he can move on to greener sex pastures. But Jo keeps finding excuses to not sign them just yet, and ends up dragging Bill and Melissa on a storm-chasing adventure. It’s apparent from the moment Jo and Bill first interact onscreen that they haven’t stopped thinking about each other while they masturbate, and this energy propels them through the rest of the film like horny torpedoes. Along the way we are introduced to Jo’s ragtag team of fellow wind dorks, and whoo boy are they the most impossible collection of human beings ever conceived.

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Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

The decision to make each member of the storm-chasing team a different breed of wacky dipshit is a blessed choice that rewards me anew every time I watch the movie. They’re like the Sandlot kids on a science field trip, with everyone assigned fun nicknames that reflect their personality. There’s Preacher, and Rabbit, and, um, Joey (they didn’t think too hard about Joey’s nickname). We also learn that Bill’s nickname is “The Extreme”, and let me tell you there is no greater experience than looking at Bill Paxton’s face while a group of enthusiastic nerds calls him “The Extreme.” It’s like a practical joke. Chief among the nerds is Dusty, a loud, exuberant slob played by Oscar-winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a role that was clearly written for Jack Black (Black has said in interviews that he spent a decent portion of the 90s losing roles to Hoffman), so watching Hoffman Gen-X out in a southwest L.L. Bean hoodie and cargo pants is like peering into an alternate dimension.

There’s also Jonas Miller, played with palpably smug dickheadery by Cary Elwes. Jonas reveals he has ripped off DOROTHY to create his own system called DOT-3, which, if you notice, kind of sounds like “Dorothy”. This cunning display of industrial espionage isn’t lost on Bill “The Extreme”, who vows to get DOROTHY deployed before Jonas so that he and Jo get the credit they deserve. I, personally, had no idea the meteorological community was loaded with such high-stakes drama. It makes me wonder how many times Al “The Extreme” Roker has drunkenly choke slammed Willard Scott through the punch table at a Weather Channel mixer.

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Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

Twister comes to a screeching halt for a sidequest to Jo’s Aunt Meg’s house. Aunt Meg (Lois Smith) might as well start talking about how she’s 8 days from retirement and plans to finally take that trip to Copenhagen she’s been talking about, because it’s obvious she’s only in the movie to get her kindly ass blasted apart by a tornado to raise the emotional stakes for Jo. Aunt Meg notices that Jo is having trouble coping with the fact that her marriage to Bill is ending, and proceeds to offer the absolute worst possible advice by telling Jo she and Bill will end up together no matter what. Goddammit Meg. I’m glad that tornado takes your house and drops a roof on your legs. You deserve to have that Copenhagen trip put off for another year for carelessly tossing around hope grenades like that.

However, because Twister is a film, Aunt Meg’s wisdom turns out to be absolutely correct. After essentially being abducted and driven into multiple apocalyptic storms, Jami Gertz ultimately decides that Jo and Bill’s fuck thirst is too great and agrees to leave town before it destroys her. Jo and Bill are now free to chase the bone-ado, and chase it they do, friends. Chase it they do. Anyways, Jonas gets killed after ignoring The Extreme’s advice against driving too close to a biblically enormous funnel, an event which is immediately followed by Bill and Jo driving their truck directly into the storm and jumping out at the last second. Evidently Jonas would’ve been fine had he but leapt from his truck like Super Dave Osborne; his cockiness blinded him to the knowledge that tornadoes can’t resist delicious four-wheel drive vehicles.

Twister throws a ton of visual effects at us that looked pretty righteous at the time and mostly still look OK now. Jo and Bill run through a handful of storms that increase in intensity, beginning with an F1 tornado that destroys Jo’s truck and ending with the two of them lashed to a water pipe in the eye of a category 5. It all adds up to an extremely enjoyable drive-in movie experience that I keep coming back to even three decades later, which is appropriate considering a tornado destroys a drive-in theater midway through the movie. (Incidentally, the theater is showing Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, breaking the cardinal B-movie rule of “never remind your audience that they could be watching something else right now”. Although, as long as we’re being honest, I’ve watched Twister way more times than The Shining.)

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