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  Noel Nosseck
  Starring:  Bruce Campbell, Shannon Sturges, Ernie Hudson, L.Q. Jones, Charles Homet, Bo Eason, Carrie Boren, Aaron Izbicki, Julie Erickson
 John Logan

TORNADO! (1996)

I’m a sucker for disaster movies. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking the Man-punished-for-his-hubris variety, like The Towering Inferno or City On Fire or Deep Core; or the fury-of-Nature kind, like Earthquake or Tidal Wave or Volcano (imaginative titles, ya?); or the recent crop of global warming tales, The Day After Tomorrow and its small-screen spawn, which manage to have it both ways: I love ‘em all! And of course, the only thing in the world that’s more fun than a big, splashy, overflowing with special effects disaster movie is a big, splashy, overflowing with special effects disaster movie’s pathetic, low-budget, made-for-TV rip-off.

As it happened, Tornado! played television a full three days before Twister was released to cinemas (an example of what we in the trade like to call the “Roger Corman two-step”), but for all that there is very little doubt about which of the two went into production first. I might as well state openly here that I’m not very fond of Twister. Its effects are good, sure, but Helen Hunt’s Jo Thornton irritates the you-know-what out of me, as a character, and even more as a scientist. So it might seem a little perverse when I tell you that the thing I like best about this particular Twister rip-off is just how undisguised and shameless a rip-off of Twister it actually is.

Tornado! is set in Texas, in a section of “Tornado Alley” in the vicinity of Amarillo. Government auditor Samantha Callan (Shannon Sturges) flies into the farming community to oversee the field trial of an experimental tornado data recording device developed by Dr Joe Branson (Ernie Hudson), and to decide whether or not the project will continue to be funded. Branson’s field headquarters are the farm of Ephram Thorne (L.Q. Jones) and his grandson, Jake (Bruce Campbell), a former graduate student of Branson’s who dropped out before completing his PhD, and who assists his former mentor’s research by acting as a “chaser”. Branson’s efforts to demonstrate the ability of his invention to withstand the power of tornados and to record vital information that will make it easier to predict their occurrence and course are frustratingly hampered by the difficulty of catching a twister in the first place. The project is further undermined by the contemptuous attitude of Ephram Thorne, who as a child lost his mother to a tornado, and who dismisses any notion of the phenomenon ever being “understood” by science; and by the equally scornful attitude of professional weatherman Richie Cochran (Charles Homet). Unimpressed by what she sees, Samantha swiftly decides that funding of the project will stop – only to find herself being drawn into the lives of the residents of tornado alley, and reluctantly attracted to Jake.

Now – let’s just step back a moment and see where we stand, shall we? We have:

  • An initially hostile couple who fall in love while chasing tornados
  • A major character traumatised by witnessing, as a child, the tornado-related death of a parent
  • An experimental device for recording information about tornadoes, which has to be planted directly in the path of one, at considerable risk to those involved
  • A weatherman who earns the scorn of his professional colleagues/rivals by working for a television station, and for being more concerned about furthering his career than about saving lives

Sound familiar? In truth, “undisguised and shameless” barely covers it. Twister, of course, is hardly a masterpiece of screenwriting, but its dramatic defects are least partially compensated for by its effects scenes. Tornado!, on the other hand--- I really don’t understand how anyone, even a TV executive, could think it a good idea to make a disaster movie on a special effects budget of approximately $0.97, yet it happens with bewildering frequency. Still, rarely do these half-hearted efforts reach the sheer depths of Tornado!, which can’t even afford a tornado!! Seriously. There’s some broadcast news footage of tornados; there are a few building storms; but every time it looks as if we’re heading for the big disaster scene, the pay-off, the Reason Why Most Of Us Watch Disaster Movies In The First Place, we – fade to black. You know – for an ad break. I suppose it’s just faintly possible that when Tornado! was first broadcast, when it had actual ad breaks, this tactic might have been slightly less noticeable; but in a cut-together, uninterrupted form, these ominous three-second blackouts – all of them followed, of course, by hey-you-shoulda-been-here post-tornado wreckage scenes – become increasingly ludicrous. In truth, the most exciting tornado-related aspect of Tornado! is the exclamation mark in the film’s title.

Still – for all of its embarrassing limitations, Tornado! does have one thing that Twister does not, one thing that saves it from being a total waste of time and effort; and that thing is, of course, The Bruce.

Newsflash: Bruce Campbell is slumming here. Boy, bet you never heard that before, right? But slumming or not, he’s the best thing about Tornado! – bet you never heard that before, either – and for some of us, the mere presence of The Bruce is reason enough to watch it. It is not, after all, every man who can call a woman a “tight-ass bean counter” and yet make it sound like the sweetest compliment she’s had in ages; and besides – he sure can cut a rug….

If Tornado! fails as a disaster movie, as a straight drama it has at least some merit; and for this we can thank the efforts of its cast. The “initial antagonism turns to love” chestnut has been around so long, Adam and Eve were probably bored with it. When Jake Thorne and Samantha Callan are introduced at the tiny regional airport, you can see them exchange a look that says as plainly as words, “No sense in wasting time – let’s get on with the verbal sparring!” Remarkably, Bruce Campbell and Shannon Sturges very nearly make this work, partly because they’re both professional enough to put this kind of paint-by-numbers stuff over, and partly because if the story of Tornado! is wearisome in its familiarity, the dialogue is rather better than you’d expect in a film of this nature. (I shall have a bit more to say on the subject of Tornado!’s screenwriter a little later on.) Occasionally, unexpectedly, the script even pokes a little fun at its own clichés. There comes a moment, for instance, when Ephram Thorne, the film’s inescapable Wise Old Man Who Is At One With Nature, intones a frankly embarrassing speech about how tornados have “a devil’s heart, and a dead soul”. Far too many films ask us to take this sort of tosh at face-value; so it is a remarkably welcome moment when, shortly afterwards, another of the “chasers”, Tex, ridicules it outright (“Ohhhhh, tornadoes got a heart and a soul….and a gall bladder, and a stomach….”) while most of his auditors, clearly veterans of the Ephram Thorne School Of Rhetoric, snicker appreciatively, and Jake squirms with mingled mortification and annoyance; it takes the outsider, Samantha, to step in and tactfully turn the subject. Nor is Tex later killed off for this display of disrespect, as you might anticipate.

Freeing Samantha Callan from the morass of made-for-TV expectation – she, in turn, is The Career Woman Who Must Learn The Error Of Her Independent Ways – proves beyond the capacity of Tornado!’s screenplay, but at least she maintains her sceptical attitude for rather longer than is usual. (We learn, with more than a little incredulity, that Samantha is known around Washington as “The Terminator”: she’s the one her superiors send in when they want a project killed off.) Still, there’s never any real doubt about her eventual destiny – particularly not after the script plays the Androgynous Name card: “Call me Sam!” Much more successful is the tinkering with the character of Jake Thorne, who can sometimes be a bit of blow-hard, a bit of a know-all, a bit of a jerk….and the script acknowledges as much. The film’s most surprising moment comes when a tornado manifests itself – just in time to stop Samantha from flying back to Washington to file a negative report, of course. The chasers set out in pursuit, partly intent upon finally testing Joe’s device in the field, but mostly in an effort to warn the townships that are facing potential destruction. In touch with the regional warning service, Jake is asked to make a call as to which way the tornado will go, and which communities must be issued a warning. He does so….and he is wrong…. This unexpected outcome has the effect, of course, of legitimising Joe’s recording device. After all, if Bruce Campbell can be wrong in his predictions of tornado behaviour, then clearly such a device is needed, despite what the Wise Old Man might say to the contrary.

Oh, yeah. Joe’s recording device. Remember that? I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t: the star of Twister has been reduced to a minor supporting role here; and every time the good doctor starts to explain to us how his invention works, the film tactfully cuts away. Consequently, some of you out there might well be wondering just what Tornado! is doing being reviewed here; and in truth, its inclusion is a bit of a cheat, given the perfunctory nature of its scientific content. However, what little “science” the film possesses is rather interesting, inasmuch it illustrates clearly the complete ignorance, or perhaps I should rather say, the complete lack of interest of your average film-maker in the basics of science. Now, in this instance I’m not talking about the way science is conducted, but something far more elemental: the way that it is funded.

Although, as I mentioned up above, 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow has since engendered an entire sub-genre of global warming-themed films and mini-series, it wasn’t the first of its kind. Tornado! opens with the traditional Ominous Warning graphic, this one about the increasing frequency and severity of meteorological phenomena such as tornadoes, and the concomitant need for better early warning systems – systems based on information provided by devices such as the one developed by Joe Branson. Unlike its big-budget cousin, Joe’s machine is a purely stationary gathering of complex data recorders, housed in a casing surrounded by firing mechanisms meant to anchor it to the ground securely enough for it to withstand even an F5 storm – just supposing one should conveniently happen along…. Branson’s device, by the way, is twee-ly named P.A.T.T.I. – “Portable Analyser of Technical Tornado Information”. And as it happens, “Patti” is also Branson’s wife’s name: a fact which, he claims, didn’t dawn upon him until “weeks after” he named his invention. I think if I were Mrs Branson, I’d be contemplating a D.I.V.O.R.C.E. Now, this sounds all very well in theory, but how does it work? We don’t know. The arrival of Samantha, there to decide (supposedly) whether funding to the project will be continued or not, just happens to coincide with the device’s first ever field test.

Joe Branson receives Samantha with a puppy dog eagerness that barely conceals his sweaty desperation at being confronted by the holder of the purse-strings; Jake, with frank and immediate hostility. Both of them regard her from the outset as The Enemy, and it is no surprise when their instincts prove well-founded. Samantha first confesses to Jake that she has really been sent to shut the project down, and later, that her mandate comes courtesy of the “anti-environmental lobby” in Washington, which wants to “pull the plug on any project that even acknowledges global warming”. Jake is outraged by this, and clearly the viewer is supposed to be, too; and under certain circumstances, I might well be; but---

We learn, over a series of conversations, that Joe’s funding has been running for six years; that it has taken every day of those years for him to produce a model that can even go to field trials (if I were him, I don’t think I’d be shooting off my mouth about how “naming it” was the most difficult part of the project!); that at no time previously has the funding body so much as inquired into how Joe has been spending its money, let alone demanded a little bang for its buck….yet when someone is (for whatever reason) sent in to see where the money has gone, it is treated as an outrageous imposition, proof of how eee-vil they are back in Bad Ol’ D.C.

Needless to say, this is not, to put it mildly, how scientific funding is generally administered.

And, hey! – call me venal, but if I could find a funding body willing to hand over the moolah, to take no interest in what I was doing with it, and to wait a full six years before it bothered to ask for some sort of pay-off, or even to think about cutting off my cash flow, well, as far as I’m concerned that body could be just as eee-vil and agenda-ridden as it liked; I’d still be perfectly happy doing business with it.

Tornado! is one of those films for which I feel an affection considerably beyond its merits. I can’t remember when I first saw it, but by the time I saw it the second – third? – time, it had attained a certain significance in my mind. As the opening credits rolled, I found myself thinking, “Hey, I know that name….and that name….and that name….” I couldn’t immediately place those names, granted; but they were nevertheless somewhere in the bulging Rolodex of my memory; and a quick trip to the IMDb revealed that many of those who participated in Tornado! in 1996, including director Noel Nosseck and co-star Shannon Sturges, would go on to one of my favourite stupid killer animal films, 1999’s Silent Predators (a heartwarming tale of rubber snakes on the rampage). But this time around, the name that really leapt out at me was that of screenwriter John Logan. Tornado! was Logan’s first professional assignment. He has since gone on to work on a few bigger budgeted projects, and achieved a certain measure of success. Gladiator….The Last Samurai….The Aviator…. No, it is not for these more recent achievements that I know John Logan’s name. To me, he is, and will always be….the screenwriter of Bats….

Sorry, John!