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  • Writer's pictureBryce Chismire

Twister (1996)

Updated: Apr 29

When I was a kid – you know how we would’ve felt back then – I was more into sunny weather and sometimes the rain and snow, both when they’re light enough. But whenever I looked at some of the more catastrophic storms afoot, whether it’s with hurricanes, heavy blizzards, heavy downpours, or especially tornadoes, I always reacted to them with fear, most likely because of the possible risk factor they carried in leaving people for dead and homes and locations in ruins. I don’t recall ever dealing with storms that nasty when I was younger, but I always dreaded whatever hazards these storms could have wreaked on those caught in their path.


Yet, when I was younger, I was acquainted with a relatively intriguing movie entitled Twister. I only saw bits and pieces of this movie, not because I was too young to watch a PG-13 movie, but more likely because I didn’t care for it, nor did I understand a good chunk of what went on in the film. Weirder still, now that I’m grown up, Twister is not all about chasing down tornadoes and stopping them like I thought I remembered.

Here’s what the story is really about. Centered around a young meteorologist named Dr. Jo Harding, she was investigating the suspicious conditions of the weather in Wakita, Oklahoma, as the clouds began to formulate and turn into tornadoes as they were to strike down their town and fields. She and her friends, including Dusty, were all storm chasers, which means that unlike those who would’ve ducked for cover or sought out shelter, they would’ve deliberately driven close enough to the source of the storm and study them for research without being sucked in the vortex themselves, or, as Dusty described it, the ‘suck zone.’ However, she’s not the only one trying to get to the bottom of the storms. Joining her was her soon-to-be ex-husband Bill Harding, who joined her so she could help fill out what they both had left to sign of their divorce papers. While Bill attempted to get her to sign, Jo introduced him to a new project she and her friends created: a scientific experiment that she nicknamed DOROTHY, after Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz. It was a giant silver container, and inside it was around a hundred little micro-orbs with detector sensors in each of them. The idea was for them to fling the device into the tornado’s funnel and unleash all the micro-orbs inside it to investigate its speed, strength, motion, and gradual formation as it raged about. They’re doing that not just for tornado formulation research but also to buy everyone in town more time to evacuate before the tornadoes hit. As Jo put it to Bill’s fiancée, Melissa, with these sensors, the warning time could’ve been boosted from five minutes, per the usual tornado warning preparations, to up to fifteen. So, while the storm was out and about and sucking up a good chunk of the town in which Jo, Bill, and their friends lived, they all did the best they could to study the tornadoes and their force while looking out for their loved ones and making sure that they evacuated for safety. Would they have succeeded in getting their experiment up the funnel and studying the tornadoes for precautionary purposes?


I was not aware of what went on surrounding this movie when it came out in 1996, but I did eventually catch on to how it was among a line of films that introduced a new wave of the disaster genre that came about in the late 90s. Take, for example, Independence Day with the alien invasion or Deep Impact and Armageddon with the incoming meteorites. Heck, even Titanic, the 11-time Oscar winner of 1997, was, by technicality, a disaster movie because of the destruction and sinking of the ship. But much like Titanic, along with Mrs. Doubtfire and Jurassic Park, Twister is one of those films rated PG-13 that I was the most familiar with as a young kid, despite having seen only a select few scenes from it. Even though I did not see it all the way through, I thought the idea of watching people hunt down tornadoes and try to stop them was pretty cool, especially since we’re talking about extreme forces of nature raging against human society. At least in my child’s mind, I thought it was cool to see. But now that I’m older, I’ve come to understand that because tornadoes are a force of nature, nothing can stop them any more than anyone can stop Godzilla.

As I thought about it, I find it fascinating how this movie was partially written by Michael Crichton, who created Westworld, ER, and, most famously, Jurassic Park. It leans more toward Jurassic Park territory because Twister is a scientifically focused movie that troubleshoots the horrors and tragedies of natural forces running amuck. Of course, whereas Jurassic Park talks about the consequences of natural forces made by humankind, Twister confronts how people react, logically and scientifically, to natural forces that are bound to leave behind chasms of destruction in their wake.


In addition, because I, as a kid, tended to watch movies for the first fifteen minutes before backing out, there is one section of the film I do know very well: the prologue. I remember that scene feeling very gripping and nerve-inducing. Jo and her parents evacuated their home in the middle of the night and made it, along with their dog, to the storm cellar. But after they made it, Jo’s father tried to hold the door down before it was torn off. Unfortunately, the tornado outside was too strong, and as the door’s hinges broke off, the door, along with Jo’s father, was sucked into the vortex. That’s what I remembered the most about Twister and was the most familiar with. It stuck with me not just for being the beginning of the film but because of the tension I felt from it.


As for the rest of this film, what is it about it that I have a soft spot for, and does it still hold up even now?

Well, to start with, I admire the generally grounded, so to speak, atmosphere of the movie and how it’s about nothing but a group of storm chasers and a weather reporter banding together to investigate the conditions of the tornadoes rummaging throughout the town and studying how they could spring forth before any more people get killed by them. I also like how there’s just nothing too sci-fi about it. It’s all scientifically motivated, and what these people do, other real-life storm chasers could do in real life, too.


One of the other reasons this film feels so natural about what it highlighted might be thanks to the acting. However, it took its time to get to that point, and it wasn’t perfect.


Bill Paxton played his character, also named Bill, and portrayed him like he always wanted to be at the top of his game when doing scientific research on tornadoes. However, sometimes, it didn’t sound like Bill was in the mood or giving off just the proper inflections necessary to convey a morally conflicted character rediscovering his passion for chasing down tornadoes while also reeling in from a potential divorce that’s going down. Sometimes, though, Bill did come close to achieving it whenever he was agitated. For example, he did not take it well when Jonas displayed his ‘secret weapon’ to help him with his storm-chasing. However, it also displayed one of the reasons for Bill’s and Jo’s forthcoming divorce: he had a generally short fuse and was argumentative with Jo over specific inadequacies or misunderstandings. I can see that Bill’s heart was in the right place, both the actor and the character, but his performance suffered from some rough spots here and there.


I also admire Helen Hunt’s performance as Jo, who expressed her ability to assess nearby weather conditions and stay on top of it when it looked like disaster was about to strike like it was in her DNA. Jo’s past tragedy prompted her to study more about tornadoes and understand how they worked so that she, too, would prevent other people from dying the same way her father did. That does make the motivations behind this investigation a little weird, though. It’s one thing if she tried to study tornadoes to prevent any further casualties, but the way she reacted to the tornadoes being around, she responded with a deep fascination with them. She expressed such a slight interest in it before watching her father get killed by it, and here she was, trying to study them up close if that meant studying tornadoes for their gain and that of their community. Somehow, it paints Jo’s character in a slightly morbid light, more so than I recalled from her. I cannot help but sense this kind of mentality with these characters, but that’s largely overshadowed by the otherwise realistic approaches she and her friends took in studying the functions of the tornadoes they planned to hunt down.


The rest of the supporting actors also did a decent job with what they were given.

Among Jo’s group of storm chasers is Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Dusty, even though his colorful attitude might turn some people off. Personally, I admire his enthusiastic personality. He and his friends made their methods of storm chasing feel no different from bull riding in the plains or riding a roller coaster; I can feel his love for the thrill of storm chasing this way. That is to say, if they all had the proper equipment to help them with their work, I can feel it. Unless they did, then they’d have freaked out and ducked for cover.


I also found Lois Smith’s performance as Jo’s aunt, Meg, admirable. She may not have expressed too much personality out of her, but her performance just sold her character like she was family, especially since she was likely the only family Jo had left. She played her like a regular aunt and did so with a cheerful and upbeat attitude even as she dealt with injuries and the wreckage the tornadoes unleashed onto her home.


The other performers, however, didn’t quite hit their mark.


Cary Elwes displayed some semblance of credibility in Jonas. But for all the moments when he adequately displayed his potential at proving himself an equally capable storm chaser, it seemed regrettably overshadowed by his - let’s face it -  shallow sense of highhandedness. It made him look too bullyish for me to take seriously.


On top of that, Jami Gertz’s performance as Melissa Reeves felt off. Even vocally, she almost didn’t sound aware she was playing a main protagonist’s fiancée in a disaster film. Yet, at the same time, there’s a hint of personality in her somewhere that could have worked had Gertz devoted more time to refine her performance if the slight amount of sass and arrogance Melissa shared with Bill is any indication. It could have been as decent as the rest of the performances if she had just paid attention to how she spoke and in which tone she spoke. Judging from how she talked in character and reacted during regular situations, I can see Melissa’s character potentially being a Southerner.


However, other parts of her performance felt better than others. For one, when Melissa was caught in the middle of the storm chasing expeditions that she joined Bill on, I could feel her fear exploding as she panicked about becoming as much of a victim as she thought her colleagues were about to be. It also introduced a slight clash in personalities once Bill and Jo met up, despite being on the brink of following through with their divorce. There was still a likelihood that not all of what they thought they used to share in their relationship had been gone forever and that, somehow, there were still other parts of their relationship that clicked. What that did tell me, mainly when Melissa relaxed with Jo and her friends at her aunt Meg’s house – which, I might add, is another part of her performance that worked – was whereas Bill was more of a risk taker, Melissa was too humble and restrained to willingly partake in something this life-threatening. I think those two aspects – Melissa’s panic-stricken moments and her alienation at Jo’s aunt’s house – were the only parts of Gertz’s performance that I thought she got right. Everything else could have used a little fine-tuning.

The characters evoked a consistent layer of intrigue in their pursuits, which was no small feat when we’re talking about characters in a disaster movie. But as they are, they felt a little standard to me. Had more time been devoted to how they were written, and not just the disasters afoot, they could’ve felt far more engaging and exemplary than they did.


Returning to Melissa, besides being Bill’s fiancée, she was also a reproductive therapist. And every time she joined Bill, Jo, and the others on their missions to track down the tornadoes, she was almost always on the phone. From the looks of it, it’s probably with her patients who all asked her about their problems or concerns. She must’ve been one committed therapist to give sessions on the phone with whichever client called her up. But again, she felt more like she was not one to partake in risky adventures like Bill and Jo would regularly have partaken in. She seemed more concerned about what she’d been doing with Bill and fretting about whether she was suitable for him after fearing for her life with Bill.


Jonas, the guy who stole DOROTHY’s design for his tornado modules, was a cocky guy who seemed more in it for the fame than Bill was. Still, he also showed how he had some scientific know-how despite it constantly clashing with his egocentric personality. He may have seemed shallow, but the idea that, unlike Bill, Jo, and their friends, he went through with his research with corporate backing made him a somewhat fitting foil for someone like Bill.


As for Bill, he just felt like your everyday hotheaded weather reporter who wanted to get to the bottom of investigating the tornadoes that were about to spring forth in town and attempted to settle the score with Jo concerning their divorce before his reunion with his former storm-chasing habits caused him to eventually reconsider his relationship with her.


Jo had her moments of promising specialties to her character, especially when you piece together her past of watching her father be sucked up and killed in the tornado and her desperation to investigate the tornadoes so she would’ve evacuated other people away from the tornadoes as far in advance as possible.


But watching them pick up bits and pieces of their relationship the longer they spent together was where they were at their most substantial. At first, even though it was built up throughout the first portion of the movie, I started questioning how seriously the actors or their characters took it because they all treated the divorce like it was just awkward terrain they were treading through. It was like they knew what had happened before but tried not to bring it up as they attempted to get the divorce papers filled out so they could be done with it. Then, they slowly started to bicker, as expected when they were in their last stages as husband and wife. But the longer they worked together, the more they finally came to grips with each other’s insecurities and started to have each other’s back when trying to get DOROTHY and its micro-orbs into the funnel before they were sucked up into it. Their chemistry felt surprisingly irresistible, and you can feel it throughout the movie.


It’s interesting how, between Mrs. Doubtfire and Twister, I became more acquainted with people whose relationship was on the rocks than I anticipated as a young kid. Mrs. Doubtfire shows what happens when a divorce starts to form and a relationship crumbles despite the couple’s best attempts to patch things up. With Twister, however, even if it didn’t do it consistently, it shows what happens when a potentially divorced relationship might have a sliver of a chance of being rekindled after all.


About Bill and Jonas’ rivalry, it was evident that Jo had known Jonas for a long time. In fact, she might’ve known him since they were little since Jonas was into storm-chasing, too. But he’s more concerned about the fame, attention, glory, and money he would get from his storm-chasing expeditions, down to making a copycat version of Bill and Jo’s project DOROTHY and passing it off as his own idea. But while that is bad enough on the surface, I feel like there’s a bit more unevenness from both sides. Whereas Jonas was more concerned about getting attention for himself as far as storm chasing goes, Bill, Jo, and the others were very committed to being careful about their evaluations of the tornadoes coming forth.


At first, it looked like this was setting up a possible underdog story. Bill, Jo, and their friends felt like the rogue team trying to rise and get the job done, and even though he was in it for the attention, Jonas had some corporate backup to help him on his expeditions. But from the rest of the movie onward, surprisingly, there was little to no interference or competition between them because Bill, Jonas, and each of their gangs all lunged into the same tornadoes for the same goal: to study them and warn everyone about their arrival. It could’ve been utilized more throughout the movie, if for nothing else than to showcase Bill and Jonas’ clash in personalities concerning their drive to get the sensors up the tornadoes. I looked at Bill and Jonas like they were a couple of rams trying to get the job done while trying hard not to lock heads against each other. But in the grand scheme of things, the towering fear factor felt from the tornadoes, notwithstanding their best efforts, became more apparent throughout the movie and arguably felt more important.


Of course, this film wasn’t without its moments of levity. Getting back to Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Dusty, he and his friends conveyed the idea of storm chasing in a lively light, like it was more exciting than it really was. Even whenever they weren’t concerned about that, their bantering still brought some excitement to the movie and a sense of fellowship to the group, and most of the time, it felt welcomed since this was a disaster movie.


And need we forget

Cow… another cow…

Maybe it was just Jo and Melissa’s fear-induced numbness doing the talking, but the spontaneity of such lines as this added humor in spots where they shouldn’t be appropriate, yet it happened to fit.


With many disaster movies, I feel like they tend to toss aside character moments to keep their focus on the disasters at hand, which seems like an all-too-common mistake they make. But I know some disaster movies did an excellent job with what they had, as Titanic did by the time the ship struck the iceberg. And while Twister is no different, I still like the frivolous energy, what’s at stake, and how it highlighted enough of the human dilemmas apparent within the community, primarily through Bill and Jo, as they evoked a sense of there being something and someone to lose unless someone acted in the moment. Jo felt that the hard way when one of the tornadoes hit her aunt Meg’s house after it ripped apart the drive-in theater. So, I like how Twister balanced it out.


Speaking of which, the first half of the movie seemed bumpy, with some inconsistent acting, overtly modest moments with the characters, and the off-putting acting by Jami Gertz. However, except for this close-up shot of a horse – seriously, what was that doing there? – the second half of the movie was when things started picking up steam, and it’s not just because of the size of the tornadoes getting bigger with each one intervening. After all, we’re talking about a few F5-level tornadoes here. Because the stakes got higher, I noticed that many of the movie’s core elements gradually improved: the performances, the effects, the editing, the pacing, almost everything. Even Bill and Jo’s conversation at the end of the movie as the tornado dissipated, I could tell they relished the moment as they got more comfortable, less stressed, and more in a celebratory mood, as I’ll bet the audience would’ve been at this point. So, I think if that close-up shot of the horse was taken out, it would have made the movie’s last half an incredible one to end the movie on.


One other section of the movie that I can’t help but look back on with surprising fondness is the music by Mark Mancina. Some of the musical pieces throughout the film felt a little too glorious or enthusiastic. For example, he displayed some of the music in the movie with a certain softness that may have undermined the travesties of the tornadoes the characters faced together. However, in other circumstances, as far as the characters were concerned, it did help emphasize the characters’ humanity and modesty depending on the dilemmas they each went through. Whenever the music played over more nail-biting scenes, it reflected what happened before us with suitably chilling impulses. So, while it’s nothing to write home about, it still benefitted the movie just fine.


The songs played in the film weren’t half bad, either. Twister’s most famous song, ‘Humans Being’ by Van Halen, initially would have sounded like your typical hard rock song, but the vocals were well done, the music was catchy, the guitar work was skillful, and its themes about human perseverance are most admirable, even if it seemed too on the nose in addressing its more grotesque adversities.


But let’s talk about probably the most significant factor that drew people into Twister: the visual effects, primarily those of the tornadoes. Because, again, Michael Crichton penned this film, there’s bound to be some reliance on impressive eye candy to properly heighten the terrifying aspects of what the characters confronted in the movie. But when the VFX team worked their magic on the tornadoes, they went all out to ensure they looked as large, menacing, swift, sneaky, and unsuspecting as any tornado could be. The effects were also apparent when applied to where all the tornadoes struck down on land, whether on the houses, the cars, or any remote spot on which the tornadoes came forth. The tornadoes could even be seen or felt during nighttime, adding to their genuine fright factor. You can feel like everything is being ripped apart beneath everyone’s noses. Animals and debris were flying everywhere, and there’s a strong likelihood that those who got caught in the tornado could have died from it. You can feel the ferocity and force of the winds that came from the tornado. You get too close, and you’ll feel like you’ve been sucked up and flung out into the wide-open space to your death.


Now, some people have mocked the movie’s use of a lion’s roar to accompany the tornado sounds, and I agree that it does seem silly to add it onto a tornado every time it’s approaching. But one, the lion’s roars are not used as abundantly in the movie as it seems. And second, to me, it just adds to the eerie and ominous effects of a tornado creeping up close. So even though, scientifically speaking, it may not be possible to hear in a tornado, they didn’t feel out of place here.


Also, there’s something I find cheeky about how one of the tornadoes the characters had to evacuate from was right beside the drive-in theater as it showed ‘The Shining.’ I wonder if maybe the creators threw that movie in to heighten the horror elements of the tornado coming in just as Jack Nicholson’s character was about to do his thing. I feel like it adds some sly wittiness to an otherwise horrifying tornado scene, mainly since, this time, everybody, even the protagonists, was scrambling for shelter.


It’s a given with films like Twister, but is it scientifically accurate? Not 100%. Some situations occurring here would not have reflected what happens when a tornado is about to spring forth. For one, the sky doesn’t always consistently change to green when a tornado is about to form. And anyone should think twice before ducking under a bridge or evacuating to a nearby hangar to avoid a tornado, as Bill, Jo, and the others have done.

TOtable Tornado Observatory (TOTO)

However, there’s one bit of scientific accuracy I never anticipated picking up on. DOROTHY was based on a real-life weather module with the same purpose, despite its less-than-successful attempts, called the TOtable Tornado Observatory, or TOTO. Catch the resemblance?


The dedication of the film’s creators should also be worth noting. Producers Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, along with the cast, made a trip to the NSSL (National Severe Storms Laboratory) to gain a better handle in storm chasing and tornado research. This commitment to authenticity likely contributes to the film’s grounded nature and the characters’ scientifically plausible methods of action.


I also acknowledge how, when this film came out, it opened everyone’s eyes to the art of storm chasing and that, if anything, it turned a formerly obscure and overlooked practice of weather study into an exciting yet risky venture of voluntarily diving into the belly of the beast to come back out alive with the reports that are desperately needed for everyone’s safety.


No matter what came of it, however, this is one of those movies where I remember looking at it one way as a kid but looked at it from a whole ‘nother angle as an adult. And while I wouldn’t appreciate it any more than I did as a kid, I still cannot bring myself to say that I am turned off by this movie either, even if all the characterizations are a little weak and a couple of scientific liberties were taken in this movie. Regardless, the performances were still good – 80% of the time – the low-key approach with the characters felt refreshing, and the collective visual effects were well done. Once you reach the end of the movie, with everything being set at the table for the main characters, you feel like you are getting your blood pumped up for them to successfully launch their micro-orbs into the tornado or flee for safety away from the tornadoes’ grasp.


If you expect a movie that fulfills on a story and character-based level, you might walk away disappointed. Otherwise, if you don’t mind minor inconsistencies scattered throughout the picture and are ready to watch some storm chasers hunting down ferocious forces of nature…


Well, it’s no masterpiece, but I guarantee you, you’ll be in for a fun ride. Just as long as it’s not up the ‘suck zone.’


My Rating

A low B

Works Cited

Donegan, Brian. “We All Love the Movie ‘Twister,’ but Is It Scientifically Accurate?” FOX Weather, Fox Weather, 4 Nov. 2021,

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