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Modern storms, but less spectacular than the original

Modern storms, but less spectacular than the original

The film follows the pattern of “Twister,” but 30 years of footage from real storm chasers has raised the bar for Lee Isaac Chung’s tornado thriller.

“Twisters” has to compete against big competition — and no, I don’t mean “Twister,” Jan de Bont’s 1996 tornado thriller that grossed $242 million domestically and which I really liked (I was one of the few critics to put it on the year’s 10 best films list). “Twisters,” a standalone sequel coming out nearly three decades later, will certainly be compared to the original film (in storm-chasing terms, it’s not nearly as good). But it will also inevitably be viewed through the veil of all the real tornado footage that’s now readily available to us couch potato storm chasers who like to sit at home and watch other people have their encounters with tornadoes.

There was certainly something like this when Twister came out (there were Weather Channel specials and VHS and DVD compilations of storm-chasing camcorder footage). But there wasn’t nearly as much of it, and it wasn’t as ubiquitous. The Internet was just starting to emerge. In 1996, you couldn’t just go to YouTube and click to see the fantastic weather-porn equivalent of Godzilla.

I think the fact that you can do that now raises the bar for Twisters. We know instinctively, better than we did back then, what tornadoes really look like, how they descend from the sky and glide across the land, and – most importantly – what it feels like to encounter one. I have never seen a tornado in real life (it has always been my dream), but I feel that the emotions that tornadoes evoke border on the religious. It is not just their destructive power (many hurricanes are more destructive, but they do not hold the same divine fascination). It is the fact that tornadoes, like Beinglike monsters in the form of weather. They are the embodiment of the uncanny in nature.

“Twister” conveyed a good measure of that feeling, and the fact that it was made 28 years ago is a testament to how quickly digital effects technology had advanced. It’s often the case that visual effects in movies don’t age well, but looking back, the early to mid-’90s were a moment of renaissance. The T. rex in “Jurassic Park” (1993) looked like a real, stomping, tangible T. rex. The bus breaking through the ice in “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997) looked like a bus breaking through ice. And the tornadoes in “Twister,” or at least some of them, had a stunning physicality; the F5 at the end felt like a fast-moving, upside-down mountain.

But some viewers thought the impact saw like digital effects, and while I don’t share that feeling, I often had it when watching Twisters. The tornadoes in the new film are replicas of the real ones in every detail, and up close, from below, we can just about see the dusty winds they create, but viewed from a distance they lack the eerie muscularity that a real tornado often has, the feeling of air swirling so fast it almost becomes solid. In that way, they’re not scary. They’re impressive, but they don’t thrill you.

Director Lee Isaac Chung made the blistering humanist drama “Minari” (2020), about South Korean immigrants trying their luck in rural Arkansas in the ’80s. And while that doesn’t make him the most likely candidate to direct a popcorn spectacle as rooted in technological wonders as this one, he does his job smoothly and confidently. But Chung is no Spielberg wizard like Jan de Bont. (Spielberg was an executive producer on both films.) Rather than simply trying to repeat what “Twister” did, I think he should have tried something more radical and more terrifying to the eye — like filming the tornadoes as if They were filmed with iPhones, making them seem as real as something racing toward your house or something you would see in your rearview mirror.

A lot of storm chasing footage – I would say that’s the essence of it – is just to stand back and gawk at tornadoes. That’s what you want to do. But “Twisters” is so busy with everything the movie is about that it almost forgets to let us do that. The storm chasers in the original “Twister” were trying to learn more about tornadoes in order to develop a storm warning system. But the storm chasers in “Twisters” have bigger — and, I would say, windier — ambitions. The film opens with Kate Cooper (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her crew driving through Oklahoma’s Tornado Alley, trying to conduct Kate’s big experiment: sending a dozen barrels of polymer into the eye of a tornado to make it wither and die. They are literally Battle the tornado. But the tornado that they thought would be an EF1 (the Fujita scale has since been replaced by the Advanced The EF5 (on the Fujita scale used in the US since 2007) turns out to be a terrifying beast that causes three of Kate’s colleagues, including her boyfriend, to fall to their deaths.

This ends her time as a storm chaser (or so she thinks) and this is the tragedy from which Daisy Edgar-Jones’s performance begins. This prologue presents Kate as a virtual weather psychic, a kind of tornado whisperer who can read wind shears and caps and knows how and where everything will come together. But when the film is set five years later and Kate is working as a weather analyst in New York, she emerges as a sad and slightly reserved presence, one of those outwardly feisty heroines with inner calm, and it’s hard to say how much of this is down to the character and how much to the actress. Kate is quick and likable, but you can’t say she particularly stands out. (Sometimes I wonder if British actors like Daisy Edgar-Jones, as impeccable as they are at playing American women, sometimes strip away a layer of their personality to do this.)

Then again, maybe she’ll just leave all the silliness to Glen Powell as Tyler Owens, a good old white-stetson-wearing storm chaser who has built up a following on YouTube as the “Tornado Wrangler,” a grinning cowboy daredevil who does more than just film tornadoes. He drives his red truck right into the middle of it, welds the vehicle into the ground with automatic screws, and performs stunts like shooting fireworks into the eye of the storm. He’s the storm chaser as a social media jerk, and the film initially treats him like an exploitative vulgarian. In contrast, he praises the crew of scientists Kate has joined for a week during a once-in-a-lifetime tornado outbreak. They’re a small group of storm chasers led by Kate’s old buddy and colleague Javi (Anthony Ramos), who wants to study the phenomenon of tornadoes by circling radar pieces one by three to better collect all the data.

Ah, data! That’s what the storm chasers of Twister (Helen Hunt! Bill Paxton! Philip Seymour Hoffman!) were collecting, too, but somehow we always knew it was a MacGuffin, the excuse for everything. They chased tornadoes because they cared!—but deep down (that was the subtext) they did it for the thrill, which is why the thrill of the chase could set off sexual energy vibrations between Hunt and Paxton as a divorced couple getting back together.

In theory, something similar happens here, when Tyler’s rude grin teases Kate, who he insists on calling “city girl.” In this case, however, the rival storm-chasing teams represent opposing values, although furrowed-brow Kate and braggart Tyler may not be as far apart as we think. He’s actually, underneath it all, a serious guy who studied meteorology. And is she a thrill-seeker at heart? Not quite, but in the end she’s willing to drive a truck straight into the storm to do the right thing. Meanwhile, very good actor Anthony Ramos is put in the awkward position of moping as Javi, who has a one-sided crush on Kate.

The story of Twisters works… well. Interesting actors like Sasha Lane keep cropping up; you just wish Mark L. Smith’s script had given them more to do. Powell, with that squint, that hairdo, those complex dimples, confirms his old-school movie-star appeal (think of a young Clint Eastwood as a sophisticated mastermind), and there are spectacular moments that keep you hooked, like a collapsing water tower or the sequence that begins with Kate and Tyler’s date at a rodeo and climaxes with a terrifying tornado that leaves them clinging to the corner of a motel swimming pool. But Twister was stunning in its day because we’d never seen anything like it on the big screen before. Looking up at the tornadoes in Twisters, I felt like I’d seen something just like it before – and that, as far as footage of real tornadoes goes, I’d seen something more incredible. Twisters, as entertaining as it is at times, is a film in which reality ultimately takes the wind out of the sails of its storms.