[8 August 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There’s always something unsettling about a disaster film. It’s not the notion of nature (or man) creating chaos, and thus calamity, for all the members of our unsuspecting society. It’s not the death, though that’s a horrific given. It’s not even the idea that what we are seeing could be the extinction of the entire human race.
No, the really nasty bit is the concept of survival, the “what if?” after the planet freezes, the tidal wave hits, or the nuclear holocaust ends. As they often say, those who are killed will be the lucky ones. Those left behind face the nightmare of rebuilding and reconsideration, recognizing that, while they made it, many, many more did not.
Thus we have the first of many issues with the Twister 2 wannabe Into the Storm. Made on a shoe-string budget and coming in just as Hollywood’s Summer season is slinking off to Slumberland, there is an attempt here by director Steven Quale and screenwriter John Swetson to forge a realistic thriller out of a wholly unrealistic premise.
What they also do is exploit the pain and suffering of those left behind, their found footage inclusions offering first hand glimpses of people left deserted and destitute. While the need to regroup and reexamine is prevalent, so is a Man of Steel like attitude toward destroying lives and livelihoods for the sake of some passable popcorn entertainment, and barely passable, at that.
Our various videographers include two brothers, Donnie (Max Deacon) and Trey (Nathan Kress). The former is angry at his vice-principal father Gary Morris (Richard Artimage) over the death of his mother. He’s also trying to hook up with a hottie (Alycia Debnam-Carey) in his class. The latter is a self-absorbed slacker who simply loves filming things.
When a massive storm comes barreling down on their small Midwestern town, the guys are joined by tornado chaser Pete (Matt Walsh), his put upon meteorologist Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies) and two Johnny Knoxville wannabes, Donk (Kyle Davis) and Reevis (Jon Reep). All are looking to use the maelstrom as their meal ticket.
Unlike Roland Emmerich, who never met a third rock from the sun he couldn’t tear asunder with CG devastation, Into the Storm is isolated large scale mayhem. You aren’t going to see parts of California break off into the Pacific or a giant wall of water engulf the White House. Instead, we get the initial school graduation set-up, Pete and Allison’s constant bickering, and the arrival of a weather front that promises to turn a bunch of tornados into an EF5 monstrosity.
There’s also the puppy love subplot, an ongoing issue between a seasoned cameraman (Arlen Escarpeta) and his novice and scared spitless lens buddy (Jeremy Sumpter), and the redneck brain damage of Beavis and Butt… sorry, Reevis and Donk.
But it’s not the characters we really care about, it’s the carnage, and at least in that capacity Into the Storm delivers. Somewhat. Granted, this is a $40 million production, which means we aren’t going to get 2012 level effects. Instead, we get decent nods to the destruction Mother Nature can provide, as well as some intriguing moments when the twisters actually take out various buildings, and the last act devastation of an airport. (Though why a small town like this needs a major installation complete with several 747s remains a question.)
Through it all, we get various views of the damage, from video cameras, professional news reports, and even the occasional iPhone. This approach works well because it allows us to experience a kind of familiar “you are there” recognition.
What doesn’t work about Into the Storm is everything else. The characters are laughable and uninteresting, given a singular dimension (‘hates dad’, ‘misses daughter’, ‘endangers his employees’) and very little else to care about. Frankly, we don’t ever worry about what will happen to these people, even if Quale tries for a bit of that patented “anyone can die at any time” suspense. Of course, that only works when you are invested in the individuals onscreen and worry about what will happen to them. Into the Storm offers up at least a half dozen miserable dipsticks that we wouldn’t mind seeing tossed, Dorothy Gale style, into another locale.
And the storytelling is slack. We get huge chunks of unnecessary exposition, either informing us about the various scientific stages of a forming tornado or the boo-hoo bellyaching of each person’s problems. Donnie gets to weep over his late mother while being trapped in an abandoned factory basement, water slowly filling up the space and threatening death by drowning. Does Quale or his film care? No, the boy and his intended babe just sit back and shoot the breeze, this supposed moment of tenderness meant to underscore the overall tragedy.
Except, it doesn’t. Allison’s worry about her five year old or Gary’s handwringing over his sons fails to resonate beyond the basic human responses.
But the biggest problem here is one of exploitation. Imagine setting a film during Katrina and then going over the many flooded homes—many with spray-paint taggings alerting FEMA to corpses inside—and then posing the actors in front of these rumble grave-markers to discuss their character’s newfound sense of survival, of personal strength and resolve. For anyone who has lived through such a dreadful event, the callousness of the approach trumps any attempt at realism.
Yet Into the Storm is obsessed with such aftermaths, scanning high school hallways and various shelters for quick glimpses of fatalities and fear before placing the spotlight squarely back on the cast. Even if these moments are faked (which very well might be the case), they come off as thoughtless and cruel.
Besides, we’ve seen this all before. While CG has made leaps and bounds over the last few years, Into the Storm is still nothing more than a pale Twister substitute, and that Bill Paxton/Helen Hunt silliness only had computer-made tornados going for it, nothing more. Here, there’s an attempt to put a human face on a horrible tragedy, and the results make everything worse. Not only is Into the Storm mindless and mediocre, it’s disrespectful as well.