What happens when you gather an assortment of adrenaline junkies and tired stereotypes in the middle of Oklahoma during a tornado apocalypse? Death, destruction, and science to be sure, but also a full 113 minute film about the worst carpool ever, featuring a few paper cuts and science-y bluster! You know, realism.
We open in Oklahoma, 1969, where young Jo and her unnamed parents are hiding in their storm shelter from an F5 tornado as it growls outside like some modern interpretation of the big bad wolf. Her father is sucked up into the tumultuous vortex and young Jo promises to nurture a massive death-wish until she avenges him by eliminating tornadoes — er, increasing the average warning time to, say, 20 minutes.
Note: Jo’s father is literally the only person who will die on screen this whole time, so you might as well cry now, if you’re feeling it.
Flash forward to the present (by which I mean 1996). In the middle of nowhere, a ragtag gang of wise-cracking humanitarian storm chasers (including Philip Seymour Hoffman as the cheerful pothead Dusty and Alan Ruck as the superfluous navigator) are fixing up their Doppler radars and otherwise having a grand ol’ time horsing around. Enter Bill (Bill Paxton) and his new fiancée Melissa (Jami Gertz), dropping by to ambush a grown-up Jo (Helen Hunt) with a friendly divorce paper signing.
Bill is all about business, as he has become boring and domesticated since he left the storm chasing business to become an uptight TV weatherman in the city. Jo, meanwhile, is flighty, scattered and exudes a tomboy spunk, and we can all immediately tell the second-most important thing to her after tornado chasing is hookin’ back up with Bill! Needless to say, Bill and Jo’s constant flirtation bothers fiancée Melissa, but she’s a psychiatrist and therefore a complete wimp who gives him room to grow and space to connect with his feelings.
They stick around the camp long enough to explain how they all want to improve tornado warning times using DOROTHY: a giant trashcan full of tiny and expensive sensors designed to be sucked up into then monitor a tornado. It’s Bill’s invention and a very original design for the only non-Ph.D in the gang. Soon, however, there’s a tornado warning and they all rush to a truck stop where they find Jonas (Cary Elwes), a veritable Judas of the storm chasing world who has totally sold out his values to follow the somehow numerous and lucrative meteorological corporate sponsorships. “He’s in it for the money, not the science” as Bill says. What a stooge! Oh, and he always steals Bill’s ideas as he has no talent or brains to call his own, just money for improving tornado knowledge! (His fleet of black minivans is totally ballin’, however.)
Note: It’s amazing how all of these characters are supposedly from Oklahoma, yet the only two with noticeable accents are Melissa and Jonas. Read however you’d like into this observation.
Fully back in the storm chasing game, Bill whispers to some cumulus clouds and gets actionable intelligence that a tornado is totally going down across the county. They kick off and find not one but two tornadoes and nearly die twice — in a ditch and on a bridge, respectively. Fortunately the storm god smiles down on Bill, or possibly just pities him; I can’t really tell which, because he’s both the best and the stupidest meteorologist ever.
He’s not a very good boyfriend, either, as by this point he and Jo are constantly imagining one another naked and the awkwardness with Melissa nearby is palpable. Just to make things really clear to her, however, he breaks rule #5 of courting a woman and takes her on a date to meet his ex-wife’s aunt (well, technically his current wife as the paperwork isn’t filed yet). Don’t get me wrong, Aunt Meg is cool, but it’s a definite no-no (as is having your friends tell your fiancée about your first date with your current wife. Especially when it involves gratuitous nudity, drunkenness, and near-suicide. Yeesh.)
The team gets wind of another tornado and runs off, but not before imparting the dangerous, solemn nature of the F5 tornado. Not even these grizzled veteran storm chasers will dare joke about it. They’re really, really dangerous, ya’hear? Definitely wouldn’t want to run into one with nowhere to hide (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). On this chase, Bill and Jo are only nearly crushed by a falling electric pole, electrocuted by falling power lines, and sucked up into a tornado, but at least they have success to show for it! Yes, that’s right, they make valuable progress by arguing about their relationship, with both admitting their undying love for one another. Oh, and Melissa hears! What, you want to hear about DOROTHY? Well, okay: the sensors won’t fly and it’s destroyed — a complete failure.
Note: The continuity errors during this third tornado chase could only have been caused by a phantom updraft or mysterious reflections of Venus off the overabundant Oklahoma swamp gas.
So, the gang decides to take the night off and go to the drive-in theater but boy did they pick the wrong night. A wild tornado appears and kicks their assess. (Well, actually it just gives them a few papercuts — REALISM!) Melissa finally takes this near-death experience and her fiancé’s constant fawning over his ex-er, current wife as a sign to get the hell out, and does so in the calmest, most reasonable way possible. Boring!
Once she’s gone, they notice that the storm is heading toward Aunt Meg’s house so they rush there, save her life and, more importantly, get a eureka moment for fixing their failure of a tornado-studying garbage-can. The secret: put wind chimes on the sensors! (See kids, this is the kind of thinking that a Ph.D in meteorology requires!)
Anyway, they fix the machine and head off to chase a tornado, but this one is an F5! Whoa, didn’t see that one coming! They fail on their first attempt — if you believe it they are both saved and, subsequently, nearly killed by a flying tanker truck full of gasoline — and just manage to get back in the chase when they see corporate stooge Jonas get picked up and exploded by the twister — victory for the proletariat! Unmoved, they drive on and manage to corner the mile-wide tornado in a corn field and finally get their scientific instruments airborne!
After that it’s only a matter of outrunning the tornado then tying themselves to a rusty pipe and riding out the tornado spinning right over them. Easy-peasy. They argue a bit then make out into the credits and live happily ever after until one of them is impaled…or exploded…or squished…during another chase. THE END.
So, there you have it. This bumpy roller coaster ride’s dramatic special effects (good for the time, and they actually have aged well) are balanced out by the brain-meltingly thin plot and trope-ful characters. This movie stands for all of eternity as the noblest tribute to the science of meteorology ever to grace the silver screen, or at least until The Day After Tomorrow.