1996 - The year that effects extravaganzas went supernova; the year that Hollywood finally figured out how to sell a movie on literally nothing else but the promise of spectacular explosions and other shiny nonsense, depicted with a level of technological prowess that had never before been seen. At least Star Wars had characters and a story and sentiments that people gravitated towards; such trivial niceties were at this point no longer required even as a fig leaf. In our tour of the 100-year history of the Hollywood motion picture, we have finally arrived at the present.

There was only ever one decision facing me when I arrived at '96: of that summer's enorma-hits, do I go with Independence Day or Twister? Favoring the former was its greater cultural impact and its key role in the forming of the Last Great Movie Star, Will Smith; favoring the latter was its greater reliance on CGI rather than practical effects, presaging the future far more clearly. The tiebreaker was that, ever since I first saw it as a teenager squarely in its target demo, I have found ID4 to be inexcusably awful bullshit, whereas I have developed some small level of deeply misguided nostalgia towards Twister these last five or six years, owing in no small part to it being a relic from the good ol' days when summer tentpoles thought that it was perfectly okay to have a running time under two hours. Which was the other tiebreaker.

So first things first, I have been cured of my nostalgia. While Twister holds up rather nicely against the noisy, busy, idiotically-scripted movies of today for all sorts of reasons - it's shorter, it uses visual effects when it must, not when it can, it has recognisable adult characters with adult problems, the supporting cast includes not just young Philip Seymour Hoffman, but also young Jeremy Davies - that does not excuse it from being a noisy, busy, idiotically-scripted movie in its own right. Worse still is how painfully derivative it is, and in what a weird way. This drama about storm chasers on the cusp of divorce tearing ass across Oklahoma in hopes of launching their new experimental tornado research probe is, of all seeming impossibilities, a knock-off of Jurassic Park, a film whose structure it copies in fairly explicit ways. This might well be because the novelist behind Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton, is on hand for scripting and producing duties (in the former capacity, he was joined by his then-wife, Anne-Marie Martin; Joss Whedon and Steve Zaillian were among the known script doctors, but you can't tell), though given that Jurassic Park the movie does not, for the most part, resemble Jurassic Park the book in the ways that Twister is cribbing from, that can hardly be the reason.

Anyway, a tornado movie taking stealing ideas from a dinosaur movie, down to the sound design (the film's tornadoes roar and snarl just like the jungle cats that were one element of their creation, and it's actually pretty effective) and Mark Mancina's score, soaked in John Williams-esque cues that can be practically mapped one-by-one onto the JP score. This is honestly rather impressive. I don't know if I'd be able to do it on purpose if you held a gun to my head.

But Twister also has plenty of opportunity to also copy the whole grand history of natural disaster movies. You did notice that I mentioned a couple on the cusp of divorce? They're Drs. Jo Harding (Helen Hunt) and Bill Harding (Bill Paxton), formerly a pair of the best damn tornado scientists in the business, until the split in their marriage sent Bill off to the Respectable World, where he managed to snag a job as a television weatherman, due to start in the very near future, and find the love of a smart, attractive professional woman, Dr. Melissa Reeves (Jami Gertz). He's finally been obliged to track Jo down on the very eve of his wedding to Melissa, to get the divorce papers signed that she's been sitting on for ages; it's unfortunately also the eve of a major storm system the likes of which haven't been seen in generations, and Jo and her team of colorful eccentrics are too busy prepping their new probe, based on Bill's designs - DOROTHY, which I'd call irritating movie-cute nonsense, but it's based on the NOAA's actual probe called TOTO - for her to waste time dissolving a marriage that died years ago. Luckily for Bill, Melissa is remarkably understanding in addition to being smart, attractive, and professional, and she's just as interested in following the storm chasers on their merry quest as he is.

So we've got the traditional "danger and disaster help to heal a broken marriage" trope - spoiler alert, I guess, but I can't imagine the viewer who actually expects Melissa to last all the way through the movie (on top of all her other lovely characteristics, she has the gracefulness to quietly slink away rather than raise any kind of interpersonal tension; thus endeth Dr. Melissa Reeves, one of the most obnoxiously prim and pure and idealised and wholly impersonal Modern Women ever perpetrated by clueless male filmmakers) - anybody want to bet there's a "personal trauma leads to an Ahab-like fixation" story to go along with it? Heck, we get the nugget of that one even before the broken marriage, in a prologue set in 1969, where we see little Jo's father sucked out of a storm cellar by a massive hell-tornado, in what is surely one of the most unintentionally hilarious Dead Parent scenes in the entire history of cinema.

As it putters along, Twister's story evolves without any fussy nuance or surprise or imagination to get in the way of the reason we're actually here: watching box office titans Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton rekindle their romance. Or, y'know, the storm thing. And we at last arrive at the most important element in the Twister stew, the one that separates it from all its obvious forebears: director Jan de Bont, formerly a cinematographer of some really great action films and thrillers over the years - he worked several times with Paul Verhoeven, in the Netherlands and United States both, and did a marvelous job shooting Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October for John McTiernan - and whose sole directorial credit at that time was 1994's Speed. Which is, surely, the best of the five films he ended up making in a roughly curtailed career, but it still showcases all of his worst weaknesses as a filmmaker: a tendency to double-down on rampaging sound effects, to cut with jagged severity between shots that weren't really built to be crosscut that way, and to encourage his actors into bright, emotive, one-note performances, when he bothers to care about the humans in his movies at all. All of these tendencies are even more strongly present in Twister (just as they would continue on, becoming stronger still in e.g. The Haunting remake of 1999 - the worst, but also the de Bontiest of Jan de Bont's films), which helps to explain how one cast could contain two actors of such enormously divergent talent as Hoffman and Paxton both giving basically the same kind of performance.

The filmmaking of Twister was apparently just as chaotic and stormy as the content: de Bont was by most accounts an enormous dick to the cast and crew, leading to the entire camera team walking out (Jack N. Green, Clint Eastwood's guy at that time, stepped in as D.P., and the very Unforgiven/Bridges of Madison County feel of misty landscape painting is much the film's single most effective element), and this can absolutely be felt in the shrill acting, with only Hunt emerging as a terribly fleshed-out, authentic-seeming person (undoubtedly helped by a script that doesn't bother giving anyone else clear motivations), and the choppy staging. But this much has to be said: the director knew what he wanted, and where it absolutely counts, Twister is aces. Simply put, the whole thing is a pretext for hyper-dramatic storm sequences, cunningly spaced in the film so that they're always just far apart that we're starting to get itchy for the next one, and with a nice little gesture in the script that each one is a step bigger on the tornado Fujita Scale (which ranges from F0 to F5 - "the finger of God" says one character direly regarding the latter extreme, in a perfect moment of disaster movie corniness), so we always have the promise of stronger, noisier winds and inkier skies and higher stakes. And de Bont's bullying perfectionism, while it does absolutely nothing for the limp character scenes, absolutely results in some great weather action. The digitally-replaced dark grey skies are beautiful and terrifying, the CGI tornadoes hold up, for the most part, without a single hitch almost two decades on; but then, it is not a new observation that the carefully-chosen CGI of the '90s generally looks better than the "fuck it, lather the whole thing in digital gimcracks" of the '00s, or even all but the very, very best of the '10s. Not all the effects are great: that infamous flying cow looks pretty damn crappy nowadays, compounding what was already a terrible gag. But for the most part, the stuff Twister promised and delivered in '96 still delivers: enormous, roaring superstorms whose visual impact is awesome in the most exacting sense of that word.

To get to that awe, sure, you have to slog through some tired writing, staticky performances, and arrhythmic filmmaking, but what do you want: great spectacle or decent filmmaking? You may, perhaps, want both, and point to dozens of classic popcorn movies to make your case why you should have it, but we are in Contemporary Filmmaking now, and such concerns do not bother us.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1996
-Brothers Joel & Ethan Coen make their (relative) mainstream breakthrough with Fargo
-Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in Eraser, his one huge hit film that people always forget about
-Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet ignites a trend in modern-dress literary adaptations

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1996
-Mike Leigh's ensemble dramas of everyday Britons suffering reach their popular zenith in Secrets & Lies
-Olivier Assayas makes the cutting, inventive satire of the French film industry and international movie culture, Irma Vep
-Zhou Xiaowen's historical epic The Emperor's Shadow is the most expensive film made to that point in China