‘Twisters’ Review: Glen Powell and Daisy Edgar-Jones Lead a Sequel Full of State-of-the-Art Storms, but It’s Less Awesome Than the Original

“Twisters” has something big to compete against — and no, I don’t mean “Twister,” Jan de Bont’s 1996 tornado thriller, which grossed $242 million in the United States and is a movie I adored (I was one of the rare critics who had it on his 10 Best of the Year list). “Twisters,” a stand-alone sequel coming out close to three decades later, will certainly be compared to the original film (to cut to the storm chase: It’s not nearly as good). But it will also, inevitably, be viewed through the scrim of all the real-life tornado footage that’s now readily available to those of us who are couch-potato storm chasers, happy to sit at home watching other people’s close encounters with tornadoes.

This kind of thing was certainly around when “Twister” came out (there were Weather Channel specials, as well as VHS and DVD assemblages of storm-chaser footage shot on camcorders). But there wasn’t nearly as much of it, and it wasn’t as omnipresent. The Internet was just coming into prominence. In 1996, you couldn’t just go onto YouTube and be a click away from seeing the awesome weather-porn equivalent of Godzilla.

More from Variety

I think the fact that you now can raises the bar for “Twisters.” We know in our bones, more than we did then, what tornadoes really look like, how they loom down from the sky and glide along the land, and — most of all — what it feels like to encounter one. I’ve never seen a tornado in real life (it’s always been a dream of mine), but my sense is that the feelings tornadoes inspire border on the religious. It’s not just their destructive power (many hurricanes are more destructive, but they don’t exert the same godlike fascination). It’s the fact that tornadoes seem like beings, like monsters in the form of weather. They are nature’s incarnation of the uncanny.

“Twister” channeled a good degree of that feeling, and the fact that it was made 28 years ago is a testament to how quickly the technology of digital effects had advanced. It’s often the case that visual effects in movies don’t age well, but in hindsight the early-to-mid-’90s were a renaissance moment. The T. Rex in “Jurassic Park” (1993) looked like an actual, stomping, tactile T. Rex. The bus crashing through the ice in “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997) looked like a bus crashing through the ice. And the tornadoes in “Twister,” or at least a number of them, had a stunning corporeality; the F5 at the end felt like a rapidly moving upside-down mountain.

But some viewers thought the effects looked like digital effects, and while I don’t share that feeling, it’s one that I often had while watching “Twisters.” The tornadoes in the new movie are down-to-the-particle replicas of the real thing, and close up, from the bottom, we can just about see the dusty winds that combine to create them, but viewed from a distance they lack the eerie muscular power a real tornado often has, the sense of air churning so fast that it becomes nearly solid. They aren’t scary in that way. They’re impressive but they don’t wow you.

The director, Lee Isaac Chung, made the incandescent humanistic drama “Minari” (2020), about South Korean immigrant farmers trying to make a go of it in the rural Arkansas of the ’80s. And while that wouldn’t seem to make him the likeliest contender to helm a popcorn spectacle as rooted in technological wonderment as this one, he does a smooth and confident job. Yet Chung isn’t a Spielbergian wizard like Jan de Bont. (Spielberg served as an executive producer on both films.) Instead of simply trying to replicate what “Twister” did, I wish he’d tried something more radical and startling to the eyeball — like, for instance, shooting the tornadoes as if they were being filmed on phones, so that they seemed as real as something barreling toward your house or glimpsed in the rear-view mirror.

A great deal of storm-chaser footage — I’d say this is the essence of it — is just hanging back and gawking at tornadoes. That’s what you want to do. But “Twisters” is so busy with everything the movie is “about” that it almost forgets to let us do that. The storm chasers in the original “Twister” were trying to learn more about tornadoes in order to create a storm-warning system. But the storm chasers in “Twisters” have larger — and, I would say, windier ­— ambitions. The film opens with Kate Cooper (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her crew driving through Tornado Alley in Oklahoma, trying to deploy Kate’s grand experiment: sending a dozen barrels’ worth of polymers up into a tornado’s eye, so that it will cause the tornado to wither and die. They’re literally fighting the tornado. But the tornado, which they thought was going to be an EF1 (the Fujita scale has now been replaced by the Enhanced Fujita scale, which began to be used by the U.S. in 2007), turns out to be an EF5. It’s a fearsome beast that funnels three of Kate’s colleagues, including her boyfriend, to their deaths.

This ends her storm-chasing days (or so she thinks), and it’s the tragedy from which Daisy Edgar-Jones’ performance takes off. That prologue presents Kate as a virtual psychic of weather, a kind of tornado whisperer who can read the wind shear and the caps and how and where it’s all going to come together. But once the film cuts to five years later, when Kate is a weather analyst based in New York, she emerges as a doleful and slightly recessive presence, one of those outwardly spunky heroines with an inner quietude, and it’s hard to tell how much of that is the character and how much is the actor. Kate is quick and likable, but you can’t say that she pops much. (I sometimes wonder if British actors like Daisy Edgar-Jones, as impeccable as they are at playing Americans, sometimes end up shaving off a layer of their personality to do so.)

Then again, maybe she’s just leaving all the popping to Glen Powell as Tyler Owens, a good-ol’-boy storm chaser in a white Stetson who has built up a following on YouTube as the “Tornado Wrangler,” a grinning cowboy daredevil who doesn’t just film twisters. He drives his red truck right into the middle of them, welding the vehicle into the ground with automatic screws and pulling off stunts like shooting fireworks into the eye of the storm. He’s the storm chaser as social-media Jackass, and at first the film treats him like an exploitation vulgarian. By contrast, it lauds the crew of scientists that Kate has agreed to join for a week during a once-in-a-generation outbreak of tornadoes. They’re a small corporation of storm chasers headed by Kate’s old chum and colleague Javi (Anthony Ramos), who wants to study the phenomenon of tornadoes by surrounding one by three pieces of radar, the better to gather all that data.

Ah, data! It was what the storm chasers of “Twister” (Helen Hunt! Bill Paxton! Philip Seymour Hoffman!) were gathering as well, but somehow we always knew it was a MacGuffin, the excuse for it all. They chased tornadoes because they cared! — but really, deep down (this was the subtext), they did it for the rush, which is why the thrill of the chase could set off vibrations of sexual energy between Hunt and Paxton as a divorced couple getting back together.

A similar thing happens here, theoretically, as Tyler, with his rawhide grin, razzes Kate, who he insists on calling “city girl.” In this case, though, the rival teams of storm chasers represent Opposing Values, even as the furrowed-brow Kate and the showboat Tyler may not be as far apart as we think. He’s actually, underneath it all, a serious dude who studied meteorology. And is she a thrill-seeker at heart? Not quite, but by the end she’s willing to drive a truck right into the storm to do the right thing. Meanwhile, that very good actor Anthony Ramos is put in the awkward position of having to mope around as Javi, who has a one-sided crush on Kate.

The story of “Twisters” works…fine. Interesting actors like Sasha Lane keep showing up; you only wish Mark L. Smith’s screenplay gave them more to do. Powell, with that squint, that coif, those complex dimples, confirms his old-school movie-star magnetism (think the young Clint Eastwood as a highly evolved brainiac), and there are moments of spectacle that hook you, like a water tower crashing down, or the sequence that starts with Kate and Tyler’s date at a rodeo and climaxes with a fearsome twister that has them clinging to the corner of a motel swimming pool. But “Twister,” in its time, was bedazzling because we had never seen anything like it on the big screen before. Staring up at the tornadoes in “Twisters,” I felt like I’d already seen something exactly like them — and that when it comes to footage of actual tornadoes, I’d already seen something more incredible. “Twisters,” fun as parts of it are, is a movie where reality ultimately takes a lot of the wind out of its gales.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.