The Spin Zone

Twister, released 20 years ago today, is an extremely dumb movie with extremely important insights.

Warner Bros.

“Cow!” says Jo Thornton Harding, as a black-and-white bovine, caught on the edge of a tornado, sweeps, legs flailing, in front of the truck she’s sharing with her soon-to-be ex-husband, Bill “The Extreme” Harding.

The creature is swept out of view. And then: “Another cow!” Jo says.

“Actually,” Bill replies, “I think it was the same cow.”

It’s an exchange that, apologies to Casablanca and Gone With the Wind, may well be the best bit of dialogue in American cinematic history: elegant, sparse, ironic. And even if it isn’t, it is still perfect in the context of Twister, which was released 20 years ago today and which is not a good movie but definitely a great one. Twister was a summer blockbuster that embraced its own delightful mediocrity, combining, among other things: tornadoes, water spouts, a main character nicknamed “The Extreme,” a love triangle, a wackily stonerized Philip Seymour Hoffman, a gently villainous Cary Elwes, and Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. NPR’s Linda Holmes recently crowned Twister as her choice for the “best bad movie” ever, and she made an excellent case, against many worthy competitors, for the film’s triumphal terribleness.

What is in retrospect most remarkable about Twister, though, is what the film got right about its primary antagonist: the eponymous tornado. Twister is a movie about weather that was released right before the era when “weather” got political. It came about largely before “global warming” became “climate change,” and during a time when the existence of those phenomena was still considered to be, in the culture at large, a viable matter of debate. Twister, in 1996, embraced an assumption that is helping to define 2016: the fact that, of all the monsters we fight against in our action movies, one of the most dangerous may be the planet we call home.

Twister would be followed by a collection of films you could group under the loose category of “cli-fi” (short for “climate fiction”): films that, with varying shades of subtlety, address weather as a potential threat to human existence. In Twister’s wake came, among others, The Perfect Storm (2000), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Happy Feet (2006), The Happening (2008), 2012 (2009), Snowpiercer (2013), San Andreas (2015), and Interstellar (2015)—not to mention, of course, documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and Racing Extinction (2015). And Twister itself came as part of a specifically mid-’90s cadre that included Waterworld (1995) and The American President (1996), the latter a rom-com that featured a carbon-emissions subplot. Together those films reflected an understanding of climate change as both an intimate threat and a distant one.

Twister coincided in its release with 1996’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Second Assessment Report, which gravely warned that:

… carbon dioxide remains the most important contributor to anthropogenic forcing of climate change; projections of future global mean temperature change and sea level rise confirm the potential for human activities to alter the Earth’s climate to an extent unprecedented in human history; and the long time-scales governing both the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the response of the climate system to those accumulations, means that many important aspects of climate change are effectively irreversible.

On the surface—in the screenplay that was doctored, without credit, by Joss WhedonTwister ignored those warnings. It was, after all, a summer action movie in the typical explosion-happy vein (it was produced in part by Steven Spielberg). Twister whirled cow(s), and then joked about it. It was a movie about the weather that was effectively not at all about the weather. It was in that sense retrograde, even by the standards of 1996.

But Twister also cannily anticipated the 2016 climate of climate change—specifically through its depiction of an environment that acts not just as a background to human activity, but also as a potential threat to it. The film understood that the weather—weather that is increasingly unpredictable, and increasingly violent—could transform itself into something menacing. That wind and water and air, those most basic of elements, could combine to become a kind of monster.

Movie monsters, as my colleague Sophie Gilbert noted, tend to change with the times, tapping into some of our deepest anxieties about who we are and where we’re going. Godzilla reflected anxieties about the effects of a nuclear world. The Omen reflected anxieties about parenthood. It Follows reflected anxieties about the disembodied threats of the digital world. And Twister, for its part, reflected—and, indeed, anticipated—anxieties about the weather’s ability to turn on us, at any moment. Its murderous monster is, simply, nature. The fears it taps into concern an anxiety that has long been part of human culture, but that has sharpened in recent years: “Mother Earth” betraying her children, as perhaps her children have betrayed her.

The tornadoes of the film can’t, of course, be defeated in the way more traditional movie monsters might. They can’t be killed; they can merely be survived. And the best way to survive them, Twister suggests, is to analyze them in advance of their coming. The film’s protagonists are scientists who are doing their life-risking work to further human knowledge. They are trying to learn more about tornadoes specifically so that people will have more time—even a few more seconds would help—to avoid their fury. “They had no warning,” Jo (Helen Hunt), Twister’s most passionate storm-chaser, laments repeatedly of the film’s tornado victims.

So that was another way that Twister was, despite its inanities, fairly prophetic: It trusted science as a weapon against the film’s biggest antagonist. And it mistrusted everything that wasn’t scientific. The movie’s human villains, it’s worth noting—Cary Elwes and his gang of black-Suburban-driving storm-chasers—are only nefarious insofar as, as Bill scoffs, they’re “in it for the money, not the science.” They’re not bad; they’re just badly motivated. They don’t share Bill’s—and the movie’s—faith in data.

Twister wasn’t alone in that faith: It would be followed by many other blockbusters (1996’s Independence Day, 1998’s Armageddon, 2015’s The Martian) that saw science as essential to humanity’s survival of whatever threat might face it, be it alien invasion or environmental catastrophe. For Twister, yes, that faith manifested in part as a winking recognition that what seems like two cows might simply be a cyclical repetition of the same cow. But the movie also offered a more important insight: that when the monster is all around you—indeed, when the monster is the very world you live in—defeating it is beside the point.