Twister: Accurate Thriller or Twisted Facts
Updated: Jul 1, 2021
A case of Hollywood vs reality.
“Twister” released in 1996, grossed $495 million worldwide, the second highest grossing film in 1996, only topped by Independence Day. “Twister” focuses on Bill Harding (played by Bill Paxton) and Dr. Jo Harding (played by Helen Hunt), ex-lover meteorologists who travel through different parts of Oklahoma to track Tornados while rekindling their lost love through the near-death thrill of tornado chasing to test out Dorothy, named after the Wizard of Oz character, a device meant to monitor the inside of a tornado to understand the workings of it and make a more advanced warning systems. The movie even inspired a Universal Studios attraction: Twister...Ride it Out. But even with its financial success and cultural impact, is “Twister” a scientifically accurate film about the monstrous storms or just another Hollywood exaggeration of natural disasters?
The movie begins with a flashback set in June 1969 where a young Jo, her mom and her dad are all comfy in their home and then Jo’s dad sees on TV that the incoming Tornado is approaching. Around two and a half minutes into the film, Jo’s dad gets his wife and daughter to flee the house with him he says, “TV says it’s big, it might be an F5.” F5 is one of the ratings on the Fujita Scale (shortened to F-Scale), a scale replaced with the Enhanced F-Scale rating system in 2007.
For the sake of simplicity, we will use the original Fujita scale instead of the Enhanced F-Scale which was developed more than a decade after the film was released. One notable inaccuracy in the movie is the Fujita scale was developed in 1971, two years after the flashback scene. The family and their dog all run to an underground shelter. Even though the mom’s blouse is blowing in the wind, the father’s hat remains on his head and the nearby chickens run around without being gusted away. Unfortunately, while the family was in the shelter, the lid breaks open and Jo’s father is sucked away by the monstrous storm. Even with no lid to protect Jo, her mom, and her dog, the tornado passes over and they remain in the basement and do not suffer damage by debris, one of the more dangerous aspects of tornados. For example, an F5 tornado can hurl automobile-sized missiles through the air in excess of 100 yds.
At the 24-minute mark, Bill and fellow storm chaser Dustin/Dusty (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) have the following exchange when seeing a stormy sky before the second tornado in the film. Bill says, “going green” and Dusty responds “greenage.” The green sky is supposed to be a predictor of a tornado or a huge hailstorm approaching. Weather.com says this correlation is just a myth: “As it turns out, a greenish sky is not necessarily a sign of either, despite some existing folklore to the contrary.”
Around the 30-minute mark, Jo and Bill get dangerously close to the tornado while driving around in a truck they crash and the two run and take cover under a wooden bridge. The monstrous tornado passes over them causing the truck to rip up some of the boards and even picks up the truck in the air. This scene gives the impression that one can survive a tornado’s wrath by hiding under a bridge. The Online Tornado FAQ explains it is unsafe to seek refuge under a bridge due to the fact that winds can accelerate and get more powerful when encased in tight spaces, that deadly debris can crash into or even worse, impale whoever is under the bridge along with the winds possibly causing the bridge to collapse and crush the victims beneath it. Bill and Jo unrealistically survive the tornado. Bill and Jo hiding under the bridge is not the only example of a character in the film making a poor choice of shelter in a tornado. Another storm chaser named Laurence (played by Jeremy Davies) takes shelter in one of the storm chaser crew’s cars around one hour and 11 minutes into the movie. Jo makes sure to run over and get Laurence out of the car and into a proper tornado shelter. In the same Tornado FAQ as mentioned earlier, a car if caught in a tornado would fling the car and mangle it into an unrecognizable state.
Speaking of cars, in the scene where Bill and Jo hide under the bridge, the truck they were in is picked up by the tornado and is flung yards away. When it lands in front of Melissa Reeve (played by Jami Gertz)’s car, the truck is fairly beat up but not in as poor state as it would most likely be. Another car incident happens one hour and 33 minutes into the film has the demise of antagonist of Dr. Jonas Miller (played by Cary Elwes) and one of his teammates due to them making a poor turn when chasing the tornado. Jonas’ assistant gets impaled through the front of the truck by a steel beam the tornado picked up. Right after the assistant met his unfortunate end, the truck itself is lifted into the tornado and it can be presumed that Jonas died in the fury of the tornado, but since the film does not show he dies in the tornado and wants to make sure the audience knows Jonas is dead, the truck crashes down from the sky and explodes on impact. The situation is accurate that being in an automobile during a hurricane is essentially a death trap for any passenger, but inaccurate in the fact the truck is mostly intact, excluding the beam, before smashing down.
Despite the sheer power and area of effect tornadoes wield, there are only three on screen deaths: Jonas, his assistant and Jo’s father. Otherwise, every on-screen character manages to survive every tornado, even ones that do not have proper shelter.
One of the things central to the plot was Dorothy, a device that holds tiny satellite sensors that get sucked into the tornado to understand how tornadoes work and can be used to make a more advanced warning system to those in tornado events.
Twister’s Dorothy is based on a real device built in 1979 named TOTO, named after the famous dog in Wizard of Oz. TOTO is short for TOtable Tornado Observatory. As stated on TornadoProject.com, TOTO is described as “It would record pressure, relative humidity, temperature, wind speed, wind direction, and electrical field, all on tape inside the 55-gallon drum shell. The 400-pound TOTO could be mounted on the back of a pickup truck. By rolling it down a ramp, it could be deployed in only 30 seconds. The plan was to drive into the potential path of a tornado, position the device, switch it on, and then leave the area as quickly as possible. The hope was that the tornado would pass over the device but not destroy it.” (The Tornado Project Staff) What caused TOTO to be decommissioned was the fact scientists could not accurately place it in an area that Tornado would pass over. In contrast, the protagonists of Twister get Dorothy in the exact right spot at the end and with the use of cut up Pepsi cans, the satellite balls were able to be winded away into the tornado. It is unknown if the satellite imaging does give a definitive warning system or not since the movie ends soon after the final tornado of the film.
Overall, I had a good time watching the film, it was a fun 1990’s thriller and was fortunately way more entertaining than the Universal Studios attraction the film inspired. In terms of being a scientifically accurate film, it does do justice to the devastating destruction tornadoes can cause, but the film does give extremely poor examples of sheltering in tornadoes by showing characters hiding under a bridge or taking shelter in a car. But for what the film is, it did a lot of good in getting the public interested in meteorology. As Kathryn Prociv said in the Washington Times: “Whether meteorologists love or hate the movie, there is no debate that it has been responsible for getting many young people sufficiently interested in weather to pursue a career in meteorology.” (Prociv, 2019) If it takes something as simple as a Hollywood blockbuster to get people into research to understand natural disasters, get innovative and make it possible for more lives to be saved and for what it is worth, I think this film has and can do a lot of good.
by Drew Cheskin