Why Twister is the greatest action movie ever made
25 years after it first blew away audiences, the tornado-chasing epic is still as good as it gets
Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).
Contains strong language.
When Twister came out in May 1996, my parents made it very clear: I wasn't going to see it. They claimed the special effects would emotionally scar me. They said I'd be traumatized by the death and destruction, and that the language used in a movie like Twister wasn't appropriate for children. But most effectively, they reminded me that whenever we were dealt a storm warning, I'd melt down and panic, convinced my family was going to die (often while begging them to join me in the basement steps).
What I probably should've argued is that while all their points were technically valid, Twister would be the cure. The Jan de Bont-directed adventure film wasn't just some movie about bad weather. It was about relationships. About trauma recovery. About friendship, steak and eggs, and flying cows. It was about scientists and human barometers. It was, to put it plainly, the purest (and greatest) action ever made.
The premise of Twister is, of course, ridiculous. Bill (Bill Paxton), a former storm chaser-turned-weatherman, brings his fiancee, Melissa, to pick up divorce papers from his ex-wife, Jo (Helen Hunt). She hasn't signed them, but she and her team are about to embark on a 24-hour stretch of pure, unadulterated storm-chasing. Does Bill want to join them? No. But also: yes. So he reunites with his former chase team, hoping he'll be present when their state-of-the-art tracking technology is sucked into a vortex and helps them answer how tornadoes happen. For Jo, this shit is personal. As a kid, she watched her father succumb to the suction of a monster twister, and she will not rest until she helps introduce an early warning system to the masses. Plus, she and Bill still love each other, which is obvious to everybody, including the bovine who flies past them during a nightmare water spout attack. ("I gotta go, Julie, we got cows!")
Amidst the mayhem, Twister is brilliant. Helen Hunt isn't beautified or seen traipsing around in heels, trying to outrun clouds while maintaining a blowout. Above all else, she's a goddamn scientist — a veteran Oklahomian whose obsession with storms necessitates putting meteorology above all else and forging friendships with like-minded persons who are as smart as they are funny. Helen Hunt, to my young heart and to my adult one too, still looks like a movie star but exudes the maturity of a seasoned grown-ass woman, grappling with grief and heartbreak and a very pronounced fear of vulnerability. She's interesting, and she's damaged. She is exactly who should be leading a storm-chasing team.
Who, by the way, only add to the magnetism of Twister. Each of Jo (and formerly Bill's) contemporaries don't get much backstory, but we're still given enough to know their purpose and their personalities. We learn who helps Jo navigate roads and routes, who captures tornadoes on-camera, and who may seem like The Dude but can rattle off tornado facts better than anyone. And this helps make the team's chemistry seem warm and natural. Whether they're congregating at Aunt Meg's for breakfast or rallying to save Aunt Meg from the aftermath of a tornado she barely survives, we get the feeling that everybody gets along and actually cares about one another. In fact, the only competition we see amongst scientists is the one between Jo's team and Jonas's (Carey Elwes), a chaser who opted for sponsorships over keeping his research indie. And even then, everyone still does their best to help save Jonas after he finds himself in a tornado's path. The common villain? Fucking weather, which, quite frankly, is the villain of us all.
But that makes Twister especially pure 25 years later. On top of the relationships, the jokes, and the way it strived to teach us a little something about tornadoes, a movie like this just couldn't exist today. Thanks to social media and the abundance of chasers seeking out cool shots over meteorological revelations, storm-chasing as presented by Twister is now obsolete. Yes, teams still exist, but no more is anyone poring over a paper map or relying on Bill Paxton's intuition to guide them down the right path (or at least away from the dangerous one). And frankly, the innocence of doing it all for science above all else is a precious and wonderful thing. Who gives a shit about Instagram likes or viral posts? Give me tornadic knowledge or give me death.
By the time I finally saw Twister months after my parents' initial ban, I was still scared of storms — but after watching it, I began to see my fear as something I could conquer through knowledge. I started reading books about tornadoes, memorizing the telltale signs that one was about to hit, and calling out cloud masses I knew could spawn funnel clouds or water spouts. Was I fun or cool? Not even slightly. But for the first time in my young, stupid life, I actually felt a little bit in control.
And I didn't feel like this zest for life or science had an expiry date. Because one of the best things about Twister is the way it makes adulthood seem less boring or tedious than it's usually depicted. Instead of revolving around grown-ups preventing their only child from watching Helen Hunt's best work, it presents grown-up life as one full of adventure and excitement — a life in which you can be reckless and brave and outrun an F5 on your own two feet. Twister isn't a movie centered on youth or one built on the myth that stories like this one are for kids; instead, it's a movie that promises that friendships, love, and Van Halen still have a place the further you go. Whether it's in tornado alley or not is up to you.