Ask a meteorologist about the 1996 tornado thriller Twister, and they’ll either find it packed with howl-inducing inaccuracies, or enjoy it despite its flaws.
Kathryn Prociv, a meteorologist and storm chaser, wrote in the Washington Post that she counts herself among the camp of weather buffs who love the film despite its scientific inaccuracies. However, that doesn’t stop her from highlighting some of the groaners in store. For instance, the lead storm chaser (played by Bill Paxton) knows that a twister’s on the way when the sky turns green, but that’s actually not a fool-proof sign:
“A green sky is actually a real phenomenon with severe thunderstorms,” Prociv writes. “Storms that appear green are usually at least 50,000 feet high and green is the only wavelength filtered through the thick cloud. Any storm that is 50,000 feet tall is likely capable of producing severe weather such as very large hail and tornadoes, but it does not guarantee a tornado as implied in the movie.”
When they do arrive, the tornadoes of Twister also turn out to be a lot more nimble than their real-life counterparts. While a real-life twister does wobble or curve on its path, it doesn’t make the skittery, rapid zig-zags seen in the movie.
The cinematic twisters also seem very selective about what they pick up. While Paxton and Helen Hunt drive around chasing tornadoes, “objects much, much heavier than their truck swing magically around them (as if suspended by giant cables from a crane, or something) while the truck remains firmly planted on solid ground,” meteorologist Chris Capella griped in his review of the movie for USA Today.
And while veteran tornado chasers do report that large twisters do roar, the “saber-toothed growling and snarling sounds coming from the spinning vortices” in the movie are overdone, Capella says. Most survivors compare the sound of a tornado to the rumble of a freight train; “Never has a fierce tornado been described as feeding time in the lion’s den.”
Twister’s storm chasers also call out a tornado’s rating (“We’ve got ourselves an F3!” et cetera) while they’re watching it form on the radar. But actually, the Fujita-Pearson Intensity Scale, which ranges from F0 to F5, is based on the damage that a tornado inflicts, so it’s impossible to rate a twister as F-anything until after it passes.
Other inaccurate tornado details abound, as many meteorologists point out on Twitter:
— Jeff Frame (@VORTEXJeff) April 5, 2013
You have no chance holding the door to try to keep a tornado from opening it. #Twister
— Mike Cox (@wxmc) April 5, 2013
But “whether meteorologists love or hate the movie, there is no debate that it has been responsible for getting many young people sufficiently interested in weather to pursue a career in meteorology,” Prociv writes. “That is a great thing!”
Rating: 2 twisters out of 5:
Note: One detail that didn’t make it into Twister is the curious phenomenon of tornado-plucked chickens—newspaper stories are full of reports of naked poultry found alive, clucking, and almost completely naked after a tornado passed by. The current reigning theory is that the chickens lose their feathers as part of a natural survival mechanism called “fright molt,” usually meant to let a bird get away if a predator nabs it by the tail feathers. This American Life explored the phenomenon more in-depth here.