A group of scientists chase tornadoes across America in a attempt to learn more about them.
So tornadoes pass into the muse of one Michael Crichton, the reigning techno-king of Hollywood. And they make for rich pickings, indeed, for the science obsessed scribe: nature out-of-control, loads of accompanying technobabble, and the chance for huge screen-filling set-pieces.
But instead of channelling his premise of weather geeks careering across middle-American farmland in chase of the swirling masses of destruction into one of his populist novels, he decided (with the help of his wife Anne-Marie Martin) to make it straight into a movie. Computer generated tornadoes interacting with real-life actors? Cool idea. But could it be done?
Rope in one Jan De Bont, last seen whipping a bus through LA's rush hour traffic, and the boys at Industrial Light & Magic and - hey presto - visual effects to smack the collective global gob. Their "mission impossible" was accomplished. It's a shame such an effort was not afforded to the rather plodding storyline and lacklustre script. Twister is about one thing, and one thing alone: a thrill session. In that, it delivers tenfold.
The central hook is that a group of weatherfolk, dressed nattily in grunge gear, their four wheel-drives loaded with state-of-the-art equipment, are aiming to do the impossible and launch some sensors up inside a twister. This, for the sake of mankind, will allow them to predict their movements more quickly and hasten advanced warnings. Luckily for them, and the movie, it's about to be a double whammy of a tornado season.
And that, really, is all there is to it, plotwise. The team, led by the feisty Jo (Hunt) and her estranged hubbie Bill (Paxton), chase the tornadoes, getting seriously up close and personal in the seemingly vain effort to get the early warning ultra-sensor "Dorothy" in the twister's path.
There are attempts to add dimension: the spiky relations between the couple with Bill's new girl Melissa (Gertz) along for the ride, a formulaic but under-used bad guy in Elwes' corporate-funded competitor and the rum nuttiness of the science-school dweebs of the team (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alan Ruck, Sean Whalen and Scott Thomson as comic relief). But they're fooling no one. This is about the twisters, five of them, building up to the rip-roaring (literally) wham-bang conclusion.
Apart from the odd spot of shoddy matte-work, the effects do for wind what Jurassic Park did for dinosaurs. From the get-go we're launched into a high speed chase - no buses, just jeeps and wind masses arbitrarily destroying farm buildings - and from there they just get bigger. The last 20 minutes predictably roll out that big gun, the F5 (top of the Fujita-Pearson Tornado Intensity Scale) leaving the audience suitably rapt by the sheer dynamism and flawless believability of it all.
De Bont knows about kinetics, he just lacks the skill to instil any lasting emotional level. Hunt and Paxton, valiant as they are, are simply ciphers to deliver us to the next thrill.
Twister is a disaster movie - houses collapse, cows fly, death looms - but a strange one where the victims are not unwittingly forced to face death, but, rather happily almost drunkenly imperil themselves like high-risk junkies (the compassionate subtext just doesn't rub). While it's hard to stir any sympathy for them, their excitement is infectious. Hence this film encompasses everything that is both grating and great about the blockbuster: it gives scant regard to character depth or dialogue while still being a must-see hoopla of computer trickery that weakens the knees and raises the neck-hairs.
Like all white-knuckle rides, once you're done you fancy doing it all over again.