Movies like “Into the Storm” are an endurance test – not merely for the attention span of the audience, but for the patience of minds like mine that are exhausted by repeated visits to the tired and storm-battered corners of middle America. They seem to be manufactured rather than made, assembled out of parts of any number of pictures that highlight the framework, then spliced together by hands that have been convinced they can still pass as solid entertainment in a culture that has ready access to their older (and often better) predecessors. Only occasionally will they be dressed up in the skin of something novel, although there always remains the question of purpose: if the source was good enough to redo in the first place, what are the odds of doing it better a second time? For a good way through this latest excursion in volatile tornado alley, I was at least cautious in my disdain: perhaps under new direction, through the “found footage” camera lens that is a go-to for just about all things, something more interesting could be done with the concept of ambitious disaster pictures. But fate, alas, is not on anyone’s side here – least of all those watching it all happen. When a character holding a camera up to his face announces “this is the biggest tornado I’ve ever seen” while foolishly standing just a few yards from its swirling vortex, I had not fear or concern for him: only the hope that he would get sucked up and the movie would be over.
The brief opening scene sets the tone. Four teenagers are inside a car, excited by an impending school event, when the weather around them turns into a violent frenzy that involves downed power lines and nearby lightning strikes. One of the passengers leaves the vehicle to catch close-ups of the chaos on his camera. The others beg and plead for him to come back inside. He does, although it is of little value to him: off in the distance down the road, their car is pulled into a cyclone that tosses them around violently, and the camera goes blank as their screams are stifled by a loud crash. Tornado season, it seems, has just begun in the deep south, and these are its first casualties. How convenient for the rest of the characters that they, too, will be carrying around film devices just as the next series of storms arrives.
The central arc of the film is about a team of storm chasers known as Titus, who have arrived in Oklahoma at the height of the season just as a cluster of storms begin to converge over the open plains (“the system will cover five states!”). The team’s leader Pete Moore (Matt Walsh), apparently obsessed with the anomaly, always seems to be in a miserable mood as he barks orders and condescends to amateur cameramen. Some of his harshest is directed at Alison (Sarah Wayne Callies), a meteorologist along for the excursion, who overhears him in one early scene angrily confessing on the phone that she is too unqualified to work for him. Not that she finds the scenario all that ideal in the first place, either; in between assessing radar maps and exchanging hostile barbs with Pete over the correct locations of impending funnel clouds, she is usually video chatting with a young daughter caught in that familiar quandary of absent parents: wondering when dear old mommy is going to come see her again after a long absence.
Another subplot, meanwhile, involves the strained relationship of Gary (Richard Armitage), the vice principal of a local high school, and his son Donnie (Max Deacon), who feels invisible unless his father has something harsh or disrespectful to say. That their family is naturally at odds because of the apparent untimely death of the mother is hardly a surprising revelation, and all the obligatory tension is observed through a camera held by Trey (Nathan Kress), Donnie’s brother, who sarcastically editorializes what he sees while others are barely listening. Why is there a camera at all, you ask? Because he and his brother are on dual assignments with the school board: to collect footage for a local time capsule, and film the outdoor graduation that will occur later that same day. Still fuming from his last encounter with dear old dad, however, Donnie abandons his post to go spend time with Kaitlyn (Alycia-Debnam-Carey), a high school crush, who conveniently persuades him into a shabby abandoned factory just outside of town with him right before the sirens in town start blaring on the loud speaker.
Where are we going with it all? Common disaster movie law dictates that the prospective witnesses must not be happy or docile people leading up to the tragedy, otherwise that would negate the dramatic potential of them being trapped in nearly fatal situations that require them to race against the clock to save one another. Sometimes, there might be some comic relief involved, such as when “2012” included a wacko conspiracy theorist or when “Independence Day” featured a middle-aged loudmouth whose personal vendetta led him into the crosshairs of the mother ship. It all adds to the variety, they say. “Into the Storm” answers that necessity with two social media daredevils named Donk and Reeves, who film themselves in all sorts of death-defying stunts for their YouTube channel while shouting colorful analogies into the microphone. Do they seek shelter when they know a deadly twister is headed their way? Of course not – they simply smile in glee and roar happily against the wind while the natural monstrosity crosses their vantage point, because you know, living on the edge in the face of mortal danger is the greatest formula for making a viral sensation on the Internet.
Somehow, someway, all the people and their personal stories and grudges will converge, because the movie will require them to – all while they are holding onto their cameras so that us lucky viewers have the opportunity to watch every moment and detail, right down to revealing secrets, private confessions and even near-death experiences. Ignoring the fact that it would ever be feasible to catch enough footage to piece together a cogent story here, however unconsciously, let’s examine the improbability of one of the movie’s most principal scenes: the climactic highlight. In a critical moment when several vortexes collide in on one another, essentially creating a super-tornado with wind speeds greater than 300 miles per hour, how is everyone close to the action able to hold onto their equipment without it blowing away? The race culminates with all the key players huddled together in a storm drain while the center of the tornado itself rages directly above them, yet not one of the camera vantage points ever falters. No, not even when the Titus vehicle itself, possessing drills that can hold it in place in winds nearly up to that speed, is effortlessly blown away from the scene of the carnage, do the devices ever get compromised. Are these cameramen at all, or actually superheroes with an iron grip in disguise?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know what you’re going to say. “But David, it’s just a silly, harmless disaster movie. Lighten up.” If it’s the disaster you come for, you might find your enthusiasm tempered. The tornados themselves are badly modulated, appearing as little more than CGI blobs that would look more right at home in arcade games. Close-ups are intentionally distorted and swift, because a stable shot might reveal the implausibility of the visual. Characters also tend to stand between the camera and the action, as if their half-hearted narration might conceal the certainty of what’s behind them. It’s all so pedestrian and forced, like a version of “Twister” with only a fraction of the budget. You don’t have any substantial fun at these kinds of outings – you only get headaches. That is ultimately the legacy we are left with in this genre in an age where it is no longer acceptable for the disaster itself to be middling or average. As they get bigger and more destructive, their scope surpasses the abilities of ordinary studio budgets. That is perhaps what made the found footage idea seem so appealing to the filmmakers of “Into the Storm.” You can cut corners and have a reasonable explanation for it. Never mind the fact that if a tornado was really that powerful, no footage would survive long enough for us to see it in the first place.
Written by DAVID KEYES
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