on May 10, 1996 by Christine James
   Light on story and characterization but heavy on adrenaline, "Twister" is an ultimately unsatisfying inundation of formulaic tensions and showy malevolent maelstroms. Helen Hunt (TV's "Mad About You") stars as Jo, a good-natured, adventurous scientist willing to risk her life to gain information about tornadoes. Her single-minded and often foolhardy commitment is the result of having barely survived a violent mega-cyclone as a child, when she helplessly witnessed her father being sucked into the twister. Jo's determination to discover the secrets of the whirlwind in order to develop an early warning system is assisted by a contrivedly eclectic, ragtag group of obnoxious but spirited, dedicated and purportedly lovable technofreaks. Jo's husband, Bill (Bill Paxton), had always been equally devoted to the thrill of the tornado hunt and even pioneered some important technology for their cause, but for reasons unexplained, he at some point broke up with Jo and traded in his adventuresome nature for a yuppie persona, complete with a prim new fiancee (Jami Gertz). But when, in attempt to retrieve signed divorce papers, Bill is lured to the tornado hotbed where Jo & crew are working, his old passions for both his profession and estranged spouse quickly begin to reemerge. The friction belying adoration between the two of them is predictable and without chemistry. But worst of all is the way in which the excitement is drained out of this potential-packed thriller by the characters' proportionally mild reactions to the terrifying forces of nature that are constantly threatening their lives. First off, it's not well enough established that this rash of monster twisters is highly unusual, and this omission, when coupled with the science team's mostly fearless reactions, makes it seem as though it's not as big a deal as it is. (Urgent newscasts and panicked townspeople would have helped get the audience's blood pressure up.) Jo and Bill get way too close in attempts to get their data-receiving equipment into the funnel, and while they behave with some trepidation, they seem a little too careless, and, until the last possible second, too confident in their abilities to escape, for the audience to build up any concern for their welfare. Or perhaps it's the fact that they do elude so many close calls that causes an eventual desensitization of any sense of jeopardy. Also working against the suspense is the fact that none of the individual characters draw much compassion; with uncharismatic heroes and black-and-white villains, all that's left to root for are the twisters, which are formidably rendered. A constant bombardment of excellent visuals and sound (sometimes serving to anthropomorphize the tornadoes with animalistic growling or banshee-like screeching) help keep the pulse racing to acceptable Jan De Bont levels, despite uninspired performances and writing. Starring Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Jami Gertz and Cary Elwes. Directed by Jan De Bont. Written by Michael Crichton & Anne-Marie Martin. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Ian Bryce and Michael Crichton. A Warner Bros. release. Action. Rated PG-13 for intense depiction of very bad weather. Running time: 113 min
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