In the film, a team of storm chasers tries to perfect a data-gathering instrument, designed to be released into the funnel of a tornado, while competing with another better-funded team with a similar device during a tornado outbreak across Oklahoma. The plot is a dramatized view of research projects like VORTEX of the NOAA. The device used in the movie, called "Dorothy", is copied from the real-life TOTO, used in the 1980s by NSSL.
In June 1969, 5-year-old Jo Thornton, her parents, and the family dog, Toby, seek shelter in their family storm cellar as a powerful F5 tornado hits their farm in Oklahoma. This tornado is so strong, that the storm cellar door is ripped off, causing Jo's father to be pulled into the storm to his death. Jo, her mother, and Toby survive.
In 1996, 32-year-old Jo, now a meteorologist, is reunited with her estranged husband, Bill Harding, a former weather researcher and storm chaser, who has since become a weather reporter. He is planning to marry reproductive therapist Melissa Reeves. They need Jo's signature on the divorce papers and have tracked her down during an active bout of stormy weather. Jo has built four identical tornado research devices called DOROTHY, based on Bill's designs. The device is designed to release hundreds of sensors into the center of a tornado to study its structure from the inside, with the purpose of creating a more advanced storm warning system. Bill and Melissa join Jo and her team of storm chasers, and the team encounters Dr. Jonas Miller, a smug, corporate-funded meteorologist and storm chaser. When Bill discovers that Jonas has created a device based on DOROTHY, called DOT-3, he vows to help Jo deploy DOROTHY before Miller can claim credit for the idea.
During the first tornado, Jo's truck and DOROTHY I are both destroyed (the truck is picked up and lands upside-down). They continue storm chasing in Bill's truck, with Melissa in the back seat. They find a second tornado, a confirmed F2, and head off on a back road when the twister shifts its track. They soon find themselves driving through heavy rain, and instead collide with a cluster of two violent waterspouts, one of which splits, spinning them around on the highway until the waterspouts dissipate. They're fine, but Melissa becomes hysterical from the ordeal, and Bill has to calm her down.
The team visits Jo's Aunt Meg in Wakita, Oklahoma, for food and rest. While Jo is busy showering, Bill tells Melissa about his relationship with Jo and reflects on the day Jo's father died.
They soon learn that an F3 tornado has formed near some hills, but they have trouble finding it. Jo drives ahead of the team to intercept the oncoming tornado, but a telephone pole falls on the back of Bill's truck and knocks DOROTHY II out onto the road, scattering its mini sensors all over the road. As Jo jumps out to gather the dozens of mini sensors, the tornado lifts and touches down closer. Bill pulls the upset Jo into the truck and moves to safety. The two confront each other over their marriage and Jo's obsession with stopping tornadoes, due to being devastated about her father's death.
The following night, an F4 tornado devastates a drive-in cinema during the showing of the 1980 horror film, The Shining, forcing everyone to take shelter in a pit in a car repair shop warehouse, which is severely damaged due to outer winds associated with and large projectiles tossed into the structure by the tornado, by which the shop misses a direct hit. By this time Melissa has been traumatized by the experiences and recognizes the unresolved feelings between Bill and Jo. In desperation for her own safety, and realizing that Jo needs him more than she does, she peacefully breaks off the engagement with Bill. The tornado continues on to Wakita, devastating the town and injuring Meg while destroying her house. Bill and Jo rescue Meg and her dog from the collapsing house. Meg's injuries are not serious, but she is taken to the hospital for safety while her dog stays with the group. The team then hears that an even stronger storm, an F5, is forming 25 miles south of their position. Inspecting Meg's wind chime sculptures, Jo realizes that the most likely method to successfully deploy DOROTHY's sensors into a tornado would be to add additional body surface to catch the wind.
As they reach the F5, the team adds aluminum from soda cans to work as wind flaps, but the deployment of DOROTHY III is a failure when a tree branch T-bones it. Meanwhile, Jonas attempts to deploy DOT-3 by driving ahead of the storm parallel-wise, and in the process ignores Bill's warnings to turn around. Moments later, the tornado shifts course towards Jonas's truck, causing a piece of metal to come flying through the windshield and impale his driver Eddie. Their truck is then caught by the tornado and thrown into the ground, and both men are killed in the resulting explosion. Jo and Bill set out on their own and are able to deploy the last DOROTHY successfully, using Bill's truck as an anchor. From miles away, the research team immediately sees results on their computers from the sensors. Bill and Jo's celebration is cut short, however, as the tornado shifts course toward them. They take shelter in a pump house where they anchor themselves to the pump plumbing with leather straps. The tornado destroys the pump house and Jo and Bill find themselves in the vortex of the super-massive funnel, securely floating inverted in air.
After the F5 dissipates, Jo and Bill find themselves alone on the floor of the former shed. They decide to run their own lab and rekindle their marriage and the team celebrates their accomplishment.
Twister was produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, with financial backing from Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures. In return, Warner Bros. was given the North American distribution rights while Universal's joint venture distribution company UIP got the international distribution. The original concept and 10-page tornado-chaser story were presented to Amblin Entertainment in 1992 by screenwriter Jeffrey Hilton. Steven Spielberg then presented the concept to writer Michael Crichton. Crichton and his wife, Anne-Marie Martin, were paid a reported $2.5 million to write the screenplay.
After spending more than half a year on pre-production on Godzilla, director Jan De Bont left after a dispute over the budget and quickly signed on for Twister.
The production was plagued with numerous problems. Joss Whedon was brought in to do rewrites through the early spring of 1995. When he got bronchitis, Steve Zaillian was brought in. Whedon returned and worked on revisions right through the start of shooting in May 1995. He left the project after getting married. Two weeks into production, Jeff Nathanson was flown in to the set and worked on the script until principal photography ended.
Halfway through filming both Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt were temporarily blinded by bright electronic lamps used to get the exposure down to make the sky behind the two actors look dark and stormy. Paxton remembers that "these things literally sunburned our eyeballs. I got back to my room, I couldn't see". To solve the problem, a Plexiglas filter was placed in front of the beams. The actors took eye drops and wore special glasses for a few days to recuperate. After filming in a particularly unsanitary ditch, Hunt and Paxton had to have hepatitis shots. During the same scene, she repeatedly hit her head on a low wooden bridge because she was so exhausted from the demanding shoot that she forgot not to stand up so quickly. Hunt did one stunt in which she opened the door of a vehicle that was speeding through a cornfield, stood up on the passenger side and was hit by the door on the side of her head when she let it go momentarily. As a result, some sources claim that Hunt got a concussion. De Bont said, "I love Helen to death, but you know, she can be also a little bit clumsy." She responded, "Clumsy? The guy burned my retinas, but I'm clumsy ... I thought I was a good sport. I don't know ultimately if Jan chalks me up as that or not, but one would hope so".
Some crew members felt De Bont was "out of control" and left five weeks into filming. The camera crew led by Don Burgess left the production after five weeks, claiming that De Bont "didn't know what he wanted till he saw it. He would shoot one direction, with all the equipment behind the view of the camera, and then he'd want to shoot in the other direction right away and we'd have to move [everything] and he'd get angry that we took too long ... and it was always everybody else's fault, never his". De Bont claims that they had to make schedules for at least three different scenes every day because the weather changed so often that "Don had trouble adjusting to that". When De Bont knocked over a camera assistant who had missed a cue, Burgess and his crew left, much to the shock of the cast. Burgess and his crew stayed on one more week until a replacement was found in Jack N. Green. Just before the end of the shoot, Green was injured when a hydraulic house set, designed to collapse on cue, was mistakenly activated with him inside it. A rigged ceiling hit him in the head and he injured his back, necessitating a visit to the hospital. Green missed the last two days of principal photography and De Bont took over as his own director of photography.
De Bont had to shoot many of the film's tornado-chasing scenes in bright sunlight when they could not get overcast skies and asked Industrial Light & Magic to more than double its original plan for 150 "digital sky-replacement" shots. Principal photography had a time limit because Hunt had to return to film another season of Mad About You but Paul Reiser was willing to delay it for two-and-a-half weeks when the Twister shoot was extended. De Bont insisted on using multiple cameras, which led to the exposure of 1.3 million feet of raw film (most films use no more than 300,000 feet).
De Bont claims that Twister cost close to $70 million with $2–3 million going to the director. It was speculated that last-minute re-shoots in March and April 1996 (to clarify a scene about Jo as a child) and overtime requirements in post-production and at ILM, raised the budget to $90 million. Warner Bros. moved up the film's release date from May 17 to 10 in order to give it two weekends before Mission: Impossible opened.
The film is known for its successful product placement by featuring the latest iteration of the Dodge Ram pickup truck and several other new vehicle models.
Prints of the film came with a note from De Bont, suggesting that theater owners play the film at a higher volume than normal for full effect.
Twister featured both a traditional orchestral film score by Mark Mancina and several rock music songs, including an instrumental theme song composed and performed for the film by Van Halen. Both the rock soundtrack and the orchestral score were released separately on compact disc.
- Van Halen – "Humans Being"
- Rusted Root – "Virtual Reality"
- Tori Amos – "Talula" (BT's Tornado Mix)
- Alison Krauss – "Moments Like This"
- Mark Knopfler – "Darling Pretty"
- Soul Asylum – "Miss This"
- Belly – "Broken"
- k.d. lang – "Love Affair"
- Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories – "How"
- Red Hot Chili Peppers – "Melancholy Mechanics"
- Goo Goo Dolls – "Long Way Down" (Remix)
- Shania Twain – "No One Needs to Know"
- Element Ethan & 666 - "Downward Spiral" (Remix)
- Stevie Nicks & Lindsey Buckingham – "Twisted"
- Edward & Alex Van Halen – "Respect the Wind"
There is also some other music, such as Deep Purple's "Child in Time" (heard when the team takes the road at the beginning and the assistant maxes the volume in his truck).
The song queued up on a TV in Dusty's van is Eric Clapton's "Motherless Child".
- Oklahoma: Wheatfield
- Oklahoma: Where's My Truck?
- Oklahoma: Futility
- Oklahoma: Downdraft
- It's Coming: Drive In
- It's Coming: The Big Suck
- The Hunt: Going Green (feat. Trevor Rabin on guitar)
- The Hunt: Sculptures
- The Hunt: Cow
- The Hunt: Ditch
- The Damage: Wakita
- Hailstorm Hill: Bob's Road
- Hailstorm Hill: We're Almost There
- F5: Dorothy IV
- F5: Mobile Home
- F5: God's Finger
- Other: William Tell Overture/Oklahoma Medley
- Other: End Title/Respect the Wind - written by Edward and Alex Van Halen
There are some orchestrated tracks that were in the movie but were not released on the orchestral score, most notably the orchestrated intro to "Humans Being" from when Jo's team left Wakita to chase the Hailstorm Hill tornado. Other, lesser-known tracks omitted include an extended version of "Going Green" (when we first meet Jonas) and a short track from when the first tornado is initially spotted.
In January 2017, La-La Land Records released a limited edition remastered and expanded album containing Mark Mancina's entire score plus four additional tracks.
- Wheatfield (Film Version)
- The Hunt Begins
- The Sky
- Dorothy IV (Film Version)
- The First Twister
- In the Ditch / Where's My Truck?
- Walk in the Woods
- Bob's Road
- Hail No!
- Futility (Film Version)
- Drive-in Twister
- Wakita (Film Version)
- Sculptures (Film Version)
- House Visit
- The Big Suck (Film Version)
- End Title
- Wheatfield (Alternate)
- Waterspouts (Alternate)
- The Big Suck (Alternate)
- End Title / Respect the Wind
As of March 2013, the film held a 57% score at Rotten Tomatoes based on 53 reviews. The critical consensus stated "A high-concept blockbuster that emphasizes special effects over three-dimensional characters, Twister's visceral thrills are often offset by the film's generic plot." As of March 2013, it held a score of 68 at Metacritic, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "You want loud, dumb, skillful, escapist entertainment? Twister works. You want to think? Think twice about seeing it". In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Somehow Twister stays as uptempo and exuberant as a roller-coaster ride, neatly avoiding the idea of real danger". Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "B" rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, "Yet the images that linger longest in my memory are those of windswept livestock. And that, in a teacup, sums up everything that's right, and wrong, about this appealingly noisy but ultimately flyaway first blockbuster of summer". In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, "But the ringmaster of this circus, the man without whom nothing would be possible, is director De Bont, who now must be considered Hollywood's top action specialist. An expert in making audiences squirm and twist, at making us feel the rush of experience right along with the actors, De Bont choreographs action and suspense so beautifully he makes it seem like a snap." Time magazine's Richard Schickel wrote, "when action is never shown to have deadly or pitiable consequences, it tends toward abstraction. Pretty soon you're not tornado watching, you're special-effects watching". In his review for the Washington Post Desson Howe wrote, "it's a triumph of technology over storytelling and the actors' craft. Characters exist merely to tell a couple of jokes, cower in fear of downdrafts and otherwise kill time between tornadoes".
The film opened on May 10, 1996 and earned $41,059,405 from 2,414 total theaters, making it the number-one movie at the North American box office. It went on to earn a total of $241,721,524 at the North American box office. As of November 2012, it has earned a worldwide total of $494,471,524. It currently sits at number 76 on the all-time North American box office charts. Worldwide it sits at number 105 on the all-time earners list, not adjusted for inflation. It was the second-highest-grossing film of 1996.
On May 24, 1996, a tornado destroyed Screen #3 at the Can-View Drive-In, a drive-in theater in Thorold, Ontario, which was scheduled to show the movie Twister later that evening, in a real-life parallel to a scene in the film in which a tornado destroys a drive-in during a showing of the film The Shining. The facts of this incident were exaggerated into an urban legend that the theater was actually playing Twister during the tornado.
On May 10, 2010, a tornado struck Fairfax, Oklahoma, destroying the farmhouse where numerous scenes in Twister were shot. J. Berry Harrison, the owner of the home and a former Oklahoma state senator, commented that the tornado appeared eerily similar to the fictitious one in the film. He had lived in the home since 1978.
The film was used as the basis for the attraction Twister...Ride It Out at Universal Studios Florida, which features filmed introductions by Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt. The attraction opened on May 4, 1998 and closed on November 2, 2015 to make way for Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon.