A torturous commentary track -- like the plot -- gets in the way of wrathful, way-cool tornadoes.

By Suzy Hansen
December 16, 2000 1:00AM (UTC)
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"Twister: Special Edition"
Directed by Jan DeBont
Starring Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Jami Gertz, Cary Elwes, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Warner Bros.; widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Full-length commentary by Jan DeBont and special-effects coordinator Stefan Fangmeier, featurettes "The Making of Twister" and "Anatomy of the Twister," trailers, music video

At one point in "Twister," a storm chaser calls a destructive F5 tornado "the finger of God," an awesome and almighty force spinning with beauty and wrath. In the course of the movie, Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton are so relentlessly obsessed with tracking down these divine tornadoes that they destroy their personal lives and their relationships. That might as well be a metaphor for the movie itself: Director Jan DeBont ("Speed") spends so much time and effort on the astonishing digital effects and their God-like powers that he carelessly ignores plot and character -- for him, those details only frame his computer graphics miracles.


Hunt, as Jo, carries the entire cast -- except for a few comic bursts from Philip Seymour Hoffman -- and she manages to convey awe and humility in front of the same monster that ripped her father from a storm shelter when she was a young girl. Bill Paxton, as her husband, Bill (otherwise known as "The Extreme" because he once marched up to one of them twisters and offered it a swig of Jack Daniel's), is that same conflicted, jockish scientist character he annoyingly played in "Titanic." Here he can tell where the twister will blow by sniffing dirt. He has instincts, whereas his former colleague and now enemy, Jonas (Cary Elwes), is a "corporate kiss-butt" leading a competing Secret Service-like entourage of storm chasers outfitted with souped-up black vans and high-tech gadgets. The cat-and-mouse race plays itself out oh-so-predictably, until Jo and Bill's team finally gets a warning device called "Dorothy" up inside an F5 -- and the couple mend their marriage at the same time.

In the DVD director's commentary DeBont says his film is a tribute to nature. That seems honest enough. His photography of the golden Oklahoma landscape is stunning, his skies are otherworldly and his small towns are affectionately if not nostalgically milk-fed American. But ultimately all of these small towns and farms are set pieces to make his main character, the F5, look good as it plows through rusty reapers, ailing red barns and upright cornstalks, hurling spotted cows and tractor-trailers into the wind.

The other extras on "Twister" are interesting enough, especially "The Making of Twister" and "The Anatomy of the Twister." (An earlier DVD edition of "Twister" was released without extras.) The live tornado footage helps you appreciate the painstaking detail achieved by special-effects coordinator Stefan Fangmeier. And while the director's commentary can be illuminating -- DeBont points out digital effects and describes the difficulties of filming in Oklahoma -- for the most part it's torturous. Because the story itself is a disappointing distraction from the storms, DeBont finds himself complimenting his choice of automobiles. When he says a more character-driven scene is important to him, it feels like he's trying to pull a fast one on his audience. In the end, it seems ridiculous to watch anything but live footage of a tornado. Somehow DeBont's film manages to get in the way of his most beloved force of nature.

Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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