Monday, November 2, 2020

TWISTER: More Than Just a Movie

by Adam Thas
Twister is a special movie that means a lot to a lot of people.

1996’s Twister was the brain child of Amblin and Michael Crichton that follows a group of storm chasers in Oklahoma during a record setting tornado outbreak over the course of 24 hours as they hope to gather data from inside a tornado using a new set of instruments called “Dorothy.” Let’s just get this out of the way: I love Twister. I don’t know if it’s anywhere close to my all-time favorite movies, but every single time it is on I enjoy the hell out of it. What makes it fascinating to me as a movie is that as much as I enjoy the movie, every time I watch it I find more things to like, and more things to hate.

If you are not aware of any behind the scenes of the movie, the messiness of its production is very much on the screen. The screenplay was passed back and forth multiple times between Crichton and Joss Whedon, and the frequent changes in the Oklahoma weather caused director Jan De Bont to walk off the set in frustration and leave the final three weeks of filming to his assistants. It’s infuriating watching them chase a thunderstorm in one shot, only to be followed by a shot of them getting a suntan on a beautiful day. Anyone with even the slightest understanding of tornados or storms will tell you the science behind the movie is a mess and doesn’t appreciate the complexities of storm chasing or meteorology. Being movie fans, though, I think we can excuse the science. After all, I’ve heard plenty of laser blasts in space.
What has really changed is my appreciation for what Twister is doing right. When I first watched in in 1996, it was a simple disaster/action movie with the best special effects you could get at the time, but it wasn’t until this last time watching it with my son and seeing his reaction did I realize Twister is also a horror movie. As cheesy as it may be to us as adults, Jan De Bont makes the twisters growl and snarl like a monster, sweeping down from the sky and trying to suck up anything in their path. If in 1996 you asked me to name comparable movies to Twister, I would say it was probably inspired by movies like The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure. Twenty-five years later, I’d compare it more to Jaws. The tornados are portrayed as these beasts that just want to be left alone and consume and destroy anything they come in contact with. Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton become our Brody and Quint, tasked with using skill and technology to stop them. It mostly pulls it off and gives us enough about the characters from the “Adrenaline Junky” Dustin (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the “Kind of Bad Guy” Jonas (Cary Elwes), and the marriage turmoil of Jo and Bill (Hunt & Paxton) that we care about their lives and where they end up by the closing credits.

That is not the most special thing about Twister. Nearly 25 years later, we can look back at the trends and statistics attributed to a blockbuster and draw fairly accurate conclusions based on the numbers. According to Professor John Knox of the University of Georgia (who studies academic trends), upon the release of Twister enrollment and interest in meteorology drastically increased the amount of researchers in the field studying tornados, going as far as to call it the “Twister Effect.” Doug Forsyth of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) said his job was to drive around the country and give presentations to small communities about tornado safety and awareness, and said that after the release of Twister more people were coming to the talks, understanding the need for safety, and budgets increased. Probably one of the most famous storm chasers in the world, Reed Timmer, has attributed his and countless others' interest in Storm Chasing/Storm Spotting to the release of Twister.
As I said earlier, the goal of the storm chasers in Twister is to deploy a system dubbed “Dorothy” that puts tiny probes into a tornado as to better study it. Well now it actually exists and it’s called the GlobalSense System. With modern storm chasers/spotters, one of their unwritten duties is to call in tornados and report location and trajectory. To help them do this, they created a system called Spotter Network where Chasers can more easily and accurately do this. Upon Bill Paxton’s death in 2017, hundreds of Storm Chasers across the US lined up to spell out his initials over Oklahoma and Kansas.

Twister not only inspired science, it inspired more Storm Chasers, it inspired people to pay attention, it increased funding, and brought about more numbers in the field. When you look at all of the information and its lasting impact over the past 25 years, Twister has done something that even the best movies haven’t done: it has likely saved lives. While there is no way to put an exact number on how many lives, and there are likely more contributing factors than a movie, what can’t be written off is that a 114 minute movie from 1996 has caused more people to be on this earth than not. That’s pretty awesome.


  1. “Christ Adam, IS THAT WHAT YOU THINK IT DID?! Jesus Adam, why can’t you just forget it!? You can’t explain it. You can’t predict it. Stop living in the past and look at what you have in front of you. Me, Adam”

  2. That's so cool to know that it led to calculable interest and support for science! I share your fondness for this movie, not least of all because Jo was a real badass hero figure for girls like me growing up. Hey, I just noticed she has the same name as Jo March (cool!). I never thought of Helen Hunt as sexualized in this movie, and she got so much support romantically and from her almost all-male team. And yea, like you said, she really had a very tangible, realistic goal to help other people in this movie- not like a Wonder Woman or fantasy world plot. One of the all time best female movie heroes I would say.

    1. Absolutely! It's amazing to me how many people this movie has effected.