When Lee Isaac Chung was announced as director of a legacy sequel to Twister, many were quick to bemoan the fact that we’re stuck in an age where helming a Best Picture nominee isn’t enough to ensure funding for your next, personal project. After all, the past few years have shown it’s an uphill battle for any filmmaker with indie cred to smuggle their personal touch into a franchise tentpole––just look at Chloe Zhao, whose strange, uneven MCU project Eternals fell short of even being interesting enough to become a cult curio à la Ang Lee’s Hulk. That specter of an increasingly compromised studio product must have been on Chung’s mind throughout making Twister$, so it’s both a surprise and relief that the DNA of a director who has previously only made intimate character dramas can be keenly felt throughout. 

Which isn’t to say this not-sequel, not-quite-reboot is lacking the spectacle you’d desire in an action movie arriving with a $200 million price tag. There’s nothing here quite so memorable as the sight of cows being whisked away by a tornado or a drive-in-theater screen getting battered during a screening of The Shining––each gust of wind blowing it further out of place in-sync with Jack Torrance’s axe swings––although each moment of over-the-top destruction is staged cleanly and far more creatively than the big money shots in recent blockbusters. Twisters is instead a minor triumph for the aspects you’d expect would get lost in the mix, understanding that a disaster movie only works if you care about the small-scale human drama caught in the middle of it. Let us not forget that the original Twister was structured around an estranged couple facing up to their possible divorce as all hell broke loose around them. 

Befitting a sequel––albeit one with no direct links to the 1996 original––the human stakes this time around are a lot higher. After a prologue in which her attempt to test out a device to “tame” a tornado goes fatally wrong, we pick up with Kate Cooper (Daisy Edgar-Jones) in the present, where her fellow survivor Javi (Anthony Ramos) meets her out of the blue with a prototype for a storm-tracking system that could save millions of lives. Assembling a team, they head to Oklahoma in the middle of tornado season where they cross paths with YouTuber Tyler Owens (Glen Powell), a trained meteorologist who left the field to film himself doing stunts like shooting fireworks straight into tornados. He’s a ridiculous wannabe cowboy who, seeing a shady businessman is interested in using Javi’s tracking system for unsavory purposes, is also determined to steer her down the right path. 

Much as Dwayne Johnson was once cast exclusively in last-gasp sequels for properties that’d face cultural extinction without him, Glen Powell can now be dubbed “Franchise Viagra,” even from a supporting position. With zero disrespect intended to Edgar-Jones or Ramos, the nearly half-hour before his cocky, faintly pathetic jock shows up is the one most in need of an extra jolt of personality their comparatively bland character archetypes can’t offer up. Certainly Powell’s playing a familiar character type, even the various suggestions of a desperation to be liked bubbling beneath the surface––such as the merch with his face on it, transported with him everywhere he goes––adding greater depth in ways reminiscent of countless blockbuster protagonists before him (it wouldn’t be a stretch to call him the Buzz Lightyear of tornado-chasing). The actor’s inherent charisma, however, can make a solidly good movie feel like a great one, all thanks to his effortless charm which elevates any scene partners; by the end, you even buy into a romantic subplot with a fellow cast member he runs rings around purely because he’s the one selling it. It’s not hyperbole to say Powell’s among the few movie stars of the past decade who would have made it to marquee-idol status in Hollywood’s golden age. 

The most obvious, inescapable transformation in this sequel is that climate change becomes an important driving factor, albeit in ways less heavy-handed than you may expect––the term isn’t uttered once, nor does any character pause the drama for a big emotional speech about the urgency to take action. We’re long past the need for a movie to make explicit, impassioned statements of this ilk, which works firmly in its favor; it doesn’t distractingly pause the sillier set pieces dead in their tracks, nor does it insult the intelligence of the audience by spelling out very clear subtext. More refreshingly, it has the same approach when addressing that other elusive big bad of recent blockbusters––disaster capitalism––with its refusal to dumb itself down and over-explain its cultural context. This might, on paper, sound like it’s underwritten in such regard, but it’s one of Twisters‘ most realistic aspects; when faced with life-or-death situations, characters fixate only on possible solutions, not pontificating about the need for them. The only gag about the current political climate is underplayed, too: a bystander claims most tornado warnings are hoaxes as one is tearing into everything surrounding her. I struggle to think of many filmmakers who could let such a broad sight gag play out with surprising restraint. 

Twisters is far from perfect, but Lee Isaac Chung manages to defy odds by sticking the landing in his leap to blockbuster cinema. The film impresses in set pieces, but it’s his brand of delicate, character-driven drama woven in-between that makes this feel fresher than anything currently at the multiplex. 

Twisters opens on July 19.

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