Warner Bros., the studio that distributed Twister (1996) and The Perfect Storm (2000), is now releasing Into the Storm, about the biggest tornado of all time. Does a studio once known for its topical, socially conscious dramas now aim to corner the market on meteorological disaster movies? How the mighty have fallen. Directed by Steven Quale, who worked on the James Cameron blockbusters Titanic and Avatar, this movie is a formidable technical achievement. Since the no-name cast won’t draw crowds, everything depends on the eagerness of young audiences to step aboard the roller coaster. Box office prospects are uncertain.
There’s only the most minimal story, and the film probably spends too much time introducing a band of generic characters before the storm actually hits. The main character is Gary (Richard Armitage), the vice principal at a high school in the fictional Midwestern town of Silverton. Gary is a single father raising two teenage sons, Donnie (Max Deacon) and Trey (Nathan Kress). Newcomers in town are the meteorological team headed by weather expert Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies) and storm chaser Pete (Matt Walsh). Also along for the ride are two semi-stoned daredevils who want to get as close to the storm as possible. What links all of these characters is that most of them are wielding handheld cameras, and much of the action is presented through the lenses of the characters’ cameras. But this gimmick has been more inventively deployed in many other films, and it isn’t even consistently used here.
The script by John Swetnam is rudimentary, with only the most minimal and pallid stabs at characterization. A father is preoccupied, the sons are rebellious, and a couple of romances percolate. Nothing about these mini-melodramas is unique or interesting. Nevertheless, once the funnel clouds begin swirling, Quale and his special effects team achieve some remarkably authentic and frightening moments. We don’t get a reprise of the flying cow from Twister, but plenty of cars, trucks, and even planes at the local airport are tossed into the air and come crashing down with a deafening thud. The movie races along; it’s swift and unpretentious, clocking in at just under 90 minutes. There’s genuine suspense in the sequence when Donnie and his new girlfriend (Alycia Debnam-Carey) are trapped underground in a mill that begins flooding. Production designer David Sandefur deserves praise for the landscapes of destruction that he’s engineered. The score by Brian Tyler helps to keep the tension building.
Although the actors don’t have any lifting to do, they’re attractive and likable. The British-born Armitage may be too stolid, and Deacon is a tad too lightweight. But Kress as the wisecracking younger brother is very appealing, and the lovely Callies is thoroughly convincing and sympathetic as the weather woman with a conscience. Still, no one goes to a movie like this to appreciate the fine acting or the elegant dialogue. You hold on to your seat as the storm uproots everything in sight.
Yet the movie awakens a certain moral queasiness. Considering the terrible human costs of storms like Sandy and Katrina, isn’t it a bit unseemly to turn these tragedies into pure popcorn entertainment? At one point Allison observes that storms that used to be once-in-a-lifetime events have become annual nightmares. But if you’re looking for any commentary about the role of climate change in producing these perfectly monstrous storms, you won’t find it here. Instead this film exploits horrendous, real-world suffering for the sake of a mindless thrill ride, and no matter how well executed the havoc may be, that leaves a sour aftertaste.
Production companies: New Line Cinema, Village Roadshow Pictures
Cast: Richard Armitage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Matt Walsh, Max Deacon, Nathan Kress, Alycia Debnam-Carey, Jeremy Sumpter, Kyle Davis, Jon Reep
Director: Steven Quale
Screenwriter: John Swetnam
Producer: Todd Garner
Executive producers: Richard Brener, Walter Hamada, Dave Neustadter, Mark McNair, Jeremy Stein, Bruce Berman
Director of photography: Brian Pearson
Production designer: David Sandefur
Costume designer: Kimberly Adams
Editor: Eric Sears
Music: Brian Tyler
Rated PG-13, 89 minutes