Review for Twister
DVD has its limitations. The MPEG-2 technology used to compress video down to fit on a 9GB disc is over 15 years old now, and watching a DVD on a CRT television screen as originally intended is not really that problematic. But today, when the average screen size is some 40 inches, and HD home cinemas are approaching nearly twice that, you’re going to see the limitations of DVD more than ever. One of those is compression. You’re average moving image only has a few moving elements to it, a lot of the image is actually static, and compression effectively means that you update the differences between two frames rather than render each frame exactly as on the film. The more action in a scene, the more moving elements, the harder it becomes to compress that down. Freeze an image on a DVD during an action sequence, and you’ll start to see loss of detail, pixellation, and even picture break up. You’ll rarely notice it on a small screen at 24 frames per second, but you’ll begin to notice it on larger screens. The more complex the motion, the more compromised the image will be.
Now a tornado is effectively billions of particles all moving in separate directions, almost randomly and at high speed. Twister was the first commercially available feature film released on DVD back in 1997 (although the UK version came out in 1999), back when applying MPEG-2 compression to home video was still a nascent science. I might have been satisfied with the film 15 years ago, but on a large screen, the action sequences look almost like VCD now. You can bet that Twister was at the head of my list of films to double dip on when it came to selectively upgrading my DVD collection to high definition.
Bill Harding is about to embark on a new life, a new career as a weatherman, a new wife, even a brand new car. He just has to move on from his old life as a meteorologist first, and his first marriage to Jo. Getting her to sign on the divorce papers isn’t easy when she and her team are busy chasing tornadoes in the Midwest. The aim is to get an instrument package into the heart of a tornado and learn enough to improve prediction times, give people enough warning of a tornado to get to shelter. To add to the mayhem, a former member of their team, Jonas has stolen the design of the instrument package, and got some corporate sponsorship, and is racing them to get to the glory first. But these stormy personality conflicts are nothing in comparison to the real storms that are bearing down on them as Tornado Season reaches its peak.
Twister was one of the first DVD releases, and it turns out to be quite an early Blu-ray release as well. Certainly this UK disc is dated 2009, and the VC1 codec used for its transfer is getting on a bit now. The image is presented in 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p, and compared to recent Blu-ray releases of catalogue titles, doesn’t quite cut the mustard. Yes, it delivers more in the way of detail than the DVD, yes, the colours are much more vivid, and you will see aspects of the film that you probably haven’t seen since its cinema release. But it certainly doesn’t challenge the limits of the Blu-ray format, and digital banding is apparent in some scenes, skin tones are still pretty waxy at times, and despite the major improvement over the DVD, compression still appears to be an issue. Those sweeping helicopter camera shots over swathes of corn all tend to blur into a green morass. The pixellation and mosquito noise that the DVD displayed around fast complex motion is a thing of the past, but the Blu-ray still tends to lack definition in such scenes. It most definitely is an improvement over the DVD, but I would have hoped for more, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t a ‘Special Edition’ release in the future.
No such qualms about the DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround English audio, which is, if you excuse the pun, thunderous. The surround audio is fully engaged, wholly dynamic, and brings across the impact and sheer violence of the film’s many storm sequences with jaw dropping intensity. It’s an audio track that you feel as much as you hear, and the impressive thing is that despite the calamitous action, the film’s excellent music soundtrack, the dialogue is never lost beneath it. You also have audio options in DTS 5.1 Japanese, French, Italian, German, and Spanish, subtitles in all of these languages, as well as Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Greek, Chinese, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese and Swedish.
After its initial DVD release, it was inevitable, in the US at least, that the film would get a Special Edition re-release with extras. Those extra features have been ported over to this Blu-ray, and are all presented in SD 480i format, with the most recent of them from 2007. Incidentally, Twister takes its happy time loading up in my player, even if it is an earlier Blu-ray from Universal, I still have to wait at least 2 minutes from disc insertion to main animated menu screen, with a button press in-between. While you do get the usual My Scenes gimmick and the progress bar popping up during pause or skip, there are no BD Live features on this disc, which makes its load time seem excessive.
The Making of Twister lasts 14 minutes, and is a rather old-fashioned EPK addition from back in 1995, with voiceover guy talking about the movie, interspersed with interviews with the cast and crew, and behind the scenes footage, and clips.
Anatomy of a Twister lasts 8½ minutes and is more of the same, with an emphasis on the CGI effects used to bring the tornadoes to life.
Chasing the Storm: Twister Revisited lasts 29 minutes, and is a retrospective look at the film, with interviews with the director Jan de Bont and other members of the crew. Bill Paxton is the only cast member to contribute though. This has the 2007 date stamp on it.
Nature Tech: Tornadoes is a useful addition, a 45 minute History Channel documentary that looks at the science of twisters, and how detection has improved over the last 50 or so years.
Music Video: Van Halen’s Humans Being lasts 3½ minutes. Prepare to thrash those air guitars.
You get the Theatrical Trailer, and finally there is the audio commentary with director Jan de Bont and VFX supervisor Stefen Fangmeier. It’s a nice 2-handed commentary that becomes a decent and interesting conversation about the film, and thankfully there’s not a lot of dead air to get in the way.
All of the extras are subtitled where required.
Twister is 18 years old! Hell, the original DVD release is 17 years old. Numbers like that don’t bear thinking about. They induce the same intake of breath, and reverent silence that the F5 moment in the film does for the meteorologists, only it’s not as funny when you’re staring the tornado of middle age in the face. I’ve got to stop re-watching 90s movies which are now old enough to vote as the incipient depression is killing me. If only they weren’t more fun than films being made today. Twister is still great fun. It gets its mix of mass destruction and chaos with engaging characters and an endearing sense of energy and humour just right. It is still disposable, summer blockbuster fodder, but compared to the movies that we get for summer blockbusters these days, it might as well be high-brow entertainment, a proper Nordic crime series of a movie.
It’s like those adverts you get for smartphones these days, with disclaimers that some steps may have been removed to aid clarity. Twister is a visual, inventive, and fast paced ride of a film, but its storm chasing antics, the terminology and the equipment is all based on real science. It’s instant hit science, with the actual hard work of crunching numbers and sitting around cogitating edited out, leaving the adrenaline rush of the action and the character drama.
It may be ridden with clichés and doesn’t actually add much that’s new to the medium of cinema, but it really is the depth that has gone into the writing, the creation of the characters that makes this film work. Most disaster movies get you into the theatre with the promise of wholesale destruction and special effects (of which surprisingly many in Twister were accomplished practically), but here you actually stick around for the character drama. Jonas may be the stereotypical sell-out pseudo-villain, but his corporate sharpness and identikit army of researchers make for a great contrast against Jo Harding and her rag-tag band of scientists, all of which get distinct characters and the potential for engaging back stories, whether it’s Rabbit with his navigational skills, or Dusty, who’s just... well Dusty, and a potent reminder of what such a great loss to cinema Philip Seymour Hoffman’s early passing was. The counterpoint of Jo and Bill’s marriage break-up (with new fiancée Melissa tagging along for the ride) keeps the dramatic energy as high as the visual energy of the action.
An odd thing I have noticed of late with this movie, may be a sign of that middle age onset, is that the way this film amps up the action, gets the adrenaline pumping and keeps me glued to the screen is perfectly judged, and then it provides a release for that tension with its end credits. Ever increasing circles of destruction continue to electrify, and then come the end credits, all mellow fluffy clouds, accompanied by Van Halen’s Respect the Wind, and it’s like being rocked to sleep as a baby. Twister’s Blu-ray may not look as good as it could, but it sounds fantastic, and it’s still very much worth the double dip if you want to retire that aged DVD.