Another theme park ride of a movie without an ounce of emotional credibility to it, "Twister" succeeds on its own terms by taking the audience somewhere it has never been before: into a tornado's funnel.

Another theme park ride of a movie without an ounce of emotional credibility to it, “Twister” succeeds on its own terms by taking the audience somewhere it has never been before: into a tornado’s funnel. On this basis, the first big summer release should live up to its intended status as an action blockbuster and set the world’s box office turnstiles swirling at enormous speeds, even if audiences may not be sufficiently blown away to return for a second spin.

Even more than with most of Michael Crichton’s concoctions, this one conveys the overwhelming impression of a mechanical entertainment, a very high concept in which the characters and their problems seem like utterly arbitrary creations. The premise, involving a bunch of “storm chasers” who hunt tornadoes as avidly as firefighters show up for blazes, is perfectly valid, but the personal dynamics are so simplistically and predictably drawn that, from the out set, even a child could forecast with assurance how the main characters will end up.

Despite the spunky work of Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton, the time between tornadoes is just dead air. Fortunately for thrill-seekers, twisters in this picture are as common as crickets in the country, so scarcely has one funnel cloud blown through than another one swoops down, proving even more ferocious than the one before.

The setup is straight out of an old Howard Hawks movie like “Only Angels Have Wings”: A bunch of fun-loving, daredevil professionals risk their lives, virtually on a daily basis, doing something most rational people would consider ridiculously dangerous. In this case, the ragtag

group, headed by scientist Jo Harding (Hunt), is attempting to place sensors directly inside a funnel, which would give the outfit unequaled status in the meteorological world. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, since someone needs to place the sensors’ satellite-like container, nicknamed “Dorothy” in honor of the picture with the most famous twister to date, directly in harm’s way.

Drawing upon Hawks a bit more, Crichton and his co-scenarist, Anne-Marie Martin, set up a “his Girl Friday” situation with the arrival of Jo’s hard-driving almost-ex, Bill (Paxton), who was the group leader before opting for the soft life as a broadcast weatherman.

Bill turns up in the middle of the Oklahoma farmlands as bad weather is brewing to obtain his divorce papers, so anxious is he to marry his princess fiancee, Melissa (Jami Gertz in the Ralph Bellamy part).

Bill gets a taste of the life he’s left behind with the sudden arrival of the first twister, and has his buttons pushed further when the competition, in the guise of hotshot Dr. Jonas Miller (Cary Elwes) and his corporate-sponsored caravan of black vans, roar onto the scene with their own sensors to launch.

While Bill and Jo rediscover what it’s like to be together in the trenches, remainder of the running time is taken up with the two crews racing around the countryside trying to intercept tornadoes, of which there is a veritable plague — or an abundance of riches, depending upon how you look at it — in order to be the first to launch their sensors.

Films like “Twister” differ from their classical-era progenitors in two key ways: In the older pics, there was a little down time to get to know the characters, and the cast was filled out with great character actors who made each part at least recognizable and often memorable.

Other than the leads, the characters here are incredibly annoying, essentially interchangeable gonzo scientists whose main functions are to yell all their lines and keep moving in order to give the film a feeling of constant motion. None has any identity beyond wardrobe and hairstyle. Would it have been too tough to write a few interesting subsidiary roles?

But clearly that is beside the point, since “Twister” has it all over the films of yore in its special effects. In fact, it’s doubtful that this film could have been made to similar impact even five years ago, so much more proficient have such effects become.

Director Jan De Bont and his ace effects team want to show off what they can do right from the start, including astounding weather effects in the same widescreen frames as the characters with no telltale residue.

The ante is upped with each tornado: Cows fly by, then a giant oil-tank truck comes in for a landing, a drive-in showing “The Shining” is torn apart, an entire barn goes up. Never is the situation just right for placing the sensors, however, until the end, when, once again, the filmmakers deliver something brand new to the screen, which will justify most people’s desire to see this whirlwind of action.

Pic reps a lot of sound and fury, to be sure, and it never lets up, even in the so-called quiet scenes, which are generally filled with argumentative bickering and characters shouting to be heard over either the weather or one another. Never is there a calm moment or a shot that contemplates the awesome majesty and power of nature; in “Twister,” spectacular weather is just a wild horse to be roped and ridden.

Under the contrived circumstances, Paxton and especially Hunt bring a great deal of vigor to their meant-for-each-other characters. Lois Smith is intended to have the meaty supporting part as Bill’s salt-of-the-earth aunt, but the gang’s pit stop at her home scarcely lets her get a word in edgewise. Gertz’s fussy fiancee is never given a chance, being the butt of fun from the get-go as she consults with therapy clients over her cell phone, while Elwes sketches an equally one-dimensional opportunist.

De Bont’s direction is muscular but unnecessarily speedy, rushing like a tornado through everything in his path, while the effects set a new standard in their field.

Jack N. Green’s lensing on Oklahoma and Iowa locations is first-rate, while Michael Kahn’s editing is, if anything, a bit over-strenuous, like the picture itself. Some irritating heavy metal music at times pushes the soundtrack into overload.

Twister

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Warner Bros. and Universal presentation of an Amblin Entertainment production. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Ian Bryce, Michael Crichton. Executive producers, Steven Spielberg, Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Gerald R. Molen. Directed by Jan De Bont. Screenplay, Michael Crichton, Anne-Marie Martin.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor; Panavision widescreen), Jack N. Green; editor, Michael Kahn; music, Mark Mancina; production design, Joseph Nemec III; supervising art director, Dan Olexiewicz; set design, Patrick Sullivan; costume design, Ellen Mirojnick; sound (Dolby/DTS/SDDS), Geoffrey Patterson; visual effects supervisor, Stefen Fangmeier; special visual effects and animation, Industrial Light & Magic; stunt coordinator, Mike Runyard; assistant director, Matthew Carlisle; second-unit director/camera, Alexander Witt; casting, Risa Bramon-Garcia. Reviewed at Warner Bros. studios, Burbank, May 4, 1996. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 114 min.

With

Jo Harding - Helen Hunt Bill Harding - Bill Paxton Dr. Jonas Miller - Cary Elwes Melissa - Jami Gertz Aunt Meg - Lois Smith Rabbit - Alan Ruck Dusty - Philip Seymour Hoffman Laurence - Jeremy Davies Beltzer - Todd Field Eddie - Zach Grenier Kubrick - Nicholas Sadler Bubba - Abraham Benrubi Mobile Lab Technician - Jake Busey Preacher - Scott Thomson

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