It's all just torque

TWISTER Jan de Bont (PG); Forget the disaster movie: this is a tale of a tempest with temperament, a tornado with its own sexual identity. And as for the post-storm afterglow...
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The Independent Culture
In the first sequence of Twister comes a moment characteristic not of the director, Jan de Bont (Speed), nor of its writer/producer Michael Crichton, but of Steven Spielberg, who acted as executive producer. A midwestern family is cowering in a storm cellar. The skylight shatters. Savage winds are tearing at the hatch. But while her father struggles to keep it closed in a desperate tug of war with the storm, the little girl is bathed in golden light. She stands up, more curious than afraid, while nature flexes her mighty muscles. It's pure Close Encounters. Is the tornado going to take her and play tender games with her? Read her bedtime stories and return her to her mother?

Not quite. The tempest takes her dad. But this sequence gives fair warning of how the film is put together. On the one hand, elaborate special effects will show us the weather at its most astoundingly destructive, on the other the script will relentlessly humanise the storm. There's no aspect of nature that we don't immediately turn into an aspect of ourselves.

The major characters of the film are storm chasers, driven partly by scientific curiosity and partly by love of adrenaline. Bill (Bill Paxton) thinks he only wants his estranged wife Jo (Helen Hunt) to sign the divorce papers, but he is like a veteran cop unable to resist one last case, or an alcoholic accepting one last drink. He's brought his nice new girlfriend along, but then Jo outmanoeuvres him by unveiling the ultimate other woman: Dorothy. After that, he has no will of his own.

Any film about tornadoes is likely to have Wizard of Oz references - in Twister, Jo's Aunt Meg (Lois Smith) is a mixture of Aunty M and one of the witches (a good one, even if she does have a house on top of her at one point). Dorothy, though, actually has a picture of Judy Garland stencilled on the side. Dorothy is a device designed to release hundreds of sensors into a tornado, to track its internal structure. All Bill and Jo have to do is put it right in the path of a twister.

The film tries to keep a straight face about the terrible damage done by tornadoes, the need to give people more warning, but joy in mayhem is just too strong. The script was originated by Michael Crichton's wife, Anne-Marie Martin, but it's typical of his cardboard psychology that Jo should turn out to have been the girl in the storm cellar whose dad was taken back in 1969. She's a perky Ahab, and the tornado is her great white whale. Aunt Meg has dealt with the tragedy, not by doing anything silly like moving to Kent but by staying right where she is and making sculptures influenced by the twister, huge wind chimes and mobiles.

The film's selling line, "The Dark Side of Nature", makes twisters sound like manifestations of a meteorological id, and that's how it seems at first. We hear the first thunder when Bill admits he's going to remarry. The first twister appears as Bill and Jo quarrel, as if it were a poltergeist conjured up by a bad marriage. But in the course of the movie, id gives way to libido. What's up there in the sky is, basically, great sex, a roving multiple orgasm. We keep seeing Jo and Bill clinging together, sweaty and dirty, after an encounter with a twister. It's pretty clear that the earth has moved for them, along with everything else.

These days, hurricanes are given boys' and girls' names in alternation, but in Twister a tornado is only ever "she". Bill knows when they're going to change direction, capricious as they are. He's intuitive, and Jo is fearless in her desire.

Melissa (Jami Gertz), on the other hand, the new girlfriend, is so out of touch with herself that when it rains torrentially, she puts an umbrella up! Talk about frigid. No wonder she's afraid of that ruthless spiral of excitement in the sky. Melissa wears white, and doesn't like to get her clothes soiled. She refuses Aunt Meg's steak-and-eggs breakfast- she's embarrassed by appetite. And what does she do for a living? She's a reproductive therapist. She helps people to have babies. As if that were what sex is about! At one point, she's counselling a client who's giving birth, saying "Breathe" and "Push" into her mobile phone, while right in front of her a twister splits in two ("We've got sisters!" shouts Bill). The tempest goes into labour.

Her counterpart is Jonas (Cary Elwes), a rival meteorologist who has sold out to business interests, thus enabling Crichton to portray his hero as ruggedly individualistic despite the usual encrustation of technology. Jonas has all the hardware, but no understanding of twister psychology. He can't find a storm's G-spot to save his life. With a name like that, what are the odds of his ending up inside the whale? If he trespasses into what Bill's team calls "the suck zone", he may find something closer to vagina dentata.

Jonas has a Dorothy of his own, a cheeky rip-off called Dot, except that the eggs in his pod are cubes. Is that any way to pleasure a tornado? Admittedly, there are technical problems with the original Dorothy until Jo, in a moment of inspiration, realises that the sensors must have something to give them a bit more lift. There is an aerodynamic argument here, but also, surely, a symbolic consideration. At short notice, her team cross- dress the eggs as spermatozoa. If they had time, perhaps they'd fit them with individual wiggling tails. Under the gun, they come up with little propellers made from soft drink cans. Now, when Dorothy shoots her load, the storm will be properly seeded.

Twister isn't strictly speaking a disaster movie, since the characters actively seek out danger. It relies for its structure on a succession of ever more severe tornadoes, each of which moves on or blows out. All the film leaves behind is a few last flurries of aroused air, a few wisps of smoke from the massive destruction. The sky, briefly satisfied, enjoying a post-coital cigarette.

n On general release from tomorrow