It’s inevitable, if unfair, that Into the Storm is doomed to be compared to Twister. Twister, despite having its fair share of detractors, has become the default tornado movie, so well and widely known that almost everyone is familiar with it, perhaps because it is shown with surprising regularity on various cable channels. It’s also a film that I deeply love and I think is an unappreciated masterpiece, none of which could bode well for Into the Storm. But I’ve long believed that familiar stories are worth retelling, and a new take on something old can still have value, so I went into the movie somewhat dubious, but hopeful that it might hold its own. Unfortunately, the only conclusion I could draw by the end also happens to be an unfortunate and overused pun that I nevertheless feel compelled to make: it sucked.
Into the Storm follows various groups of people as the town of Silverton is attacked by a once-in-a-lifetime storm system generating an unheard of series of tornadoes. There’s the storm chaser team, complete with a specially created tornado vehicle that looks like something you’d see on the Weather Channel. There’s the high school vice-principal and his two sons who are dealing with the death of their mother while one of them shyly flirts with the girl of his dreams. And there are the two redneck daredevils, who chase after the tornadoes in hopes of becoming YouTube famous.
The film splits its first half pretty evenly between the storm chasers and the family before the two groups (plus the daredevils) eventually team up. The storm chasers are led by Pete, who created their custom vehicle with the dream of filming the eye of a tornado and the fame and fortune that come along with it. His funding has run out, however, but fate has provided him with one last shot with this latest storm, which he hopes to capture on one of the many cameras mounted all over his vehicle. He constantly fights with Allison, the meteorologist on his team, whom he blames for his apparent bad luck. He argues that Allison, a single mother who left her daughter behind with relatives to go on this chase, has no instincts and is driven only by data. The rest of the team is almost indistinguishable from each other except by virtue of being nicer or more scared than the rest.
Gary, the high school vice-principal, has had trouble connecting with his sons, Donnie and Trey. Donny, a straight-laced 16-year-old member of the video club, is supposed to film the high school graduation ceremony for part of a video time capsule, but he goes off with Kaitlyn, a girl he has a crush on, to help her film a project about an abandoned chemical plant. This leaves Trey, something of a troublemaker, to film the graduation, and means that the family is separated once the tornadoes strike. As for the rednecks, there’s basically no story for them. They spend their days jumping ATVs into swimming pools set on fire, and speed off after the tornado with cameras mounted to their helmets.
You may have picked up on the recurring mention of cameras and filming. You see, Into the Storm presents itself as a “found footage” film, made up of footage filmed by Pete’s crew, Gary’s two sons, and the daredevils on a variety of cameras from high-tech to GoPros to cell phone cameras. In theory, this could have been a great new take on a familiar story (it worked for Earth to Echo), but the execution is so sloppy that it’s almost laughable. Director Steven Quale gives a variety of establishing shots, designed to give us the idea that all of what we’re seeing was filmed by the characters, yet we often see scenes that are apparently being filmed by ghosts, as all of the characters available are in frame at the same time. It makes sense that characters would stop filming in order to save friends and family, but the story demands that we see those scenes, so the “found footage” aspect comes and goes whenever it’s convenient, making the final result very sloppy.
The plot, such as it is, is wafer thin, and the characters are less than one-note. The actors give it their best, and Richard Armitage and Sarah Wayne Callies manage to rise above the rest, but there’s so little for them to work with that none of the actors can be blamed for giving wooden performances. Matt Walsh comes off especially poorly as Pete, who is such a jerk and so uncaring about his team’s safety that even his hero moment near the film’s end failed to resonate at all. The film also could have had the alternate title “Chekov’s Gun” for the number of times that seemingly innocuous elements or dialogue make an appearance only to have a more significant role later, and it’s funny how proud it is of these moments. In Into the Storm a knife is never just a knife, it has to be an important knife later down the line. I could site many examples of this, but to do so would “spoil” the film (as much as that’s possible anyway), but so many things that happen in the first half of the film feel are so heavy-handed that they might as well have a flashing neon sign over them saying “Remember this for later!”
Then there’s the film’s tone, which is all over the place. The movie thinks of itself as something of a monster movie (a direct contrast to Twister), going for “scares” over genuine fear. The film opens with a teaser shot on a teen’s cell phone, as a car full of kids is attacked by a tornado (believe me, “attacked” is definitely the right word for the behavior of the tornadoes). The scene filmed like the opening to a slasher movie, and at least has the honor of being one of the more unique aspects of the film, even if it (and the characters in it) comes off as stupid and laughable. The movie talks about Mother Earth getting revenge for our treatment of her by unleashing storms like Katrina and Sandy, but it never follows through with that idea. It’s mostly a glum, serious affair, but it has moments intended to be serious that come off as ridiculous and laughable, while moments of intentional comic relief elicited only groans from the audience in my theater. The final moments of one character in particular were so ludicrous that I hardly knew how to react. The movie is also remarkably unbelievable, both in the behavior of the tornadoes and the events and the actions of the characters. For instance, a local news helicopter is used early in the film for establishing aerial shots, so that we’ll accept similar shots later in the film, yet there’s no way a helicopter could ever hope to survive the places the director chose to put the camera in amongst the tornadoes (nor would a local TV station ask a pilot and camera man to fly that close to a tornado, particularly considering the airport that gets destroyed is full of seemingly grounded aircraft). It’s inherently distracting from the film’s biggest effects when I’m more concerned with where the supposedly “found footage” came from.
But, of course, all of this might be excusable if the film’s visuals dazzled and amazed. After all, this is a disaster film, and while there have been some masterfully written disaster movies even a poorly crafted one can be entertaining enough if the visuals hold up. Unfortunately, Into the Storm manages to fail even on this front. In fact, this is probably the only instance where it’s really fair to compare this movie to Twister, as that film is now 18 years old and could surely be easily surpassed by modern effects. And while the scope and scale may have increased in the last 18 years, the effects of the older movie still look far better than what the latest and greatest can provide. The tornadoes themselves are bland and uninteresting to look at, and they never remotely feel natural, while the shots of widespread destruction, including the money shot of an airport being destroyed, are shockingly boring. I like to think we’ve moved past the point where we can simply be amazed by cinematic destruction that is otherwise meaningless. But beyond all of that, the visuals lack the artistry of those in Twister, which for my money still stands up as having some of the greatest visual effects of all time.
We’re used to seeing tornado footage on the Weather Channel, filmed by amateurs hiding under bridges or filmed hurriedly out of windows as people seek shelter. Even storm chaser footage is raw and unpolished, rarely getting the perfect shot of a tornado. Into the Storm could have modelled itself after that sort of footage, focusing on the effects of the tornadoes rather than the tornadoes themselves, giving us something similar to a full length film based on the scene in Twister where the team takes shelter in a garage as the world crashes down around them. But Into the Storm doesn’t have the patience for that, and is more interested in tornadoes sucking up gasoline to turn into spinning flame like something out of a Syfy film like Sharknado. The story exists seemingly just to move things along to the next money shot designed to give your eyeballs a workout. I would say that the movie could have benefited from a little more running time to devote to plot and character, but I wouldn’t trust the filmmakers enough to not use it for bigger and louder scenes of mindless destruction. Into the Storm managed to disappoint even my lowest of expectations. It’s neither fun nor entertaining, not nearly as scary as it thinks nor as exciting as it should be. It’s not only unimpressive but occasionally outright bad, and it’s amazing that a film about storm chasers and tornadoes could be so dull.