Into the Storm is at once one of the dumbest films you’ll see this year and one of the scariest. Why is it that Hollywood finds it so hard to create a compelling story around weather disasters? Not unlike Twister, which a mere 18 years ago took one of the silliest of scripts and profitably wedded it to state-of-the-art CGI effects, Into the Storm seems to understand that even the dumbest of characters can be redeemed when faced with the imminent threat of getting vacuumed up into a terrifying funnel cloud.
The film makes a few initial stabs at realism, as it starts off looking like it may be another found-footage flick. Practically all the characters are wielding cameras for different purposes as they converge on the doomed town of Silverton. There’s Donnie (Max Deacon), an AV Club geek who’s been tasked by his dad (Richard Armitage), the vice-principal of the local high school, to record their graduation ceremony, but who instead opts to light off with the school cutie (Alycia Debnam Carey) to help her with a fortuitously timed video project. Then there’s Pete Moore (Matt Walsh), the veteran leader of a group of eager-beaver storm chasers desperate to use their state-of-the-art, tanklike van to document the eye of a tornado in an effort to compete with all the free storm footage crowding YouTube. There’s also Don (Kyle Davis) and Reevis (Jon Reep), a couple of hillbilly dumbshits who like to film themselves doing Jackass-like stunts, because I guess the movie’s idiot index wasn’t high enough.
To its credit, Into the Storm drops the found-footage conceit fairly early on: Director Steven Quale knows we don’t just want to watch storms from the point of view of people’s shaky video cameras, however cheated; we want to see wide, all-encompassing shots of giant twisters taking out entire airports and shredding highways and towns and whatnot. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t drop the conceit early enough to avoid the clunky exposition that seems to be a prerequisite for found-footage flicks. (Consider: Donnie, preparing a school “time-capsule project” to create a video message to his future self, goes around introducing his father and his brother to the camera — because if he’ll need to be reminded of anything years from now, it’s who his father and brother were.)
And then the fucking tornadoes arrive, and everything changes. These aren’t just ordinary twisters; they’re the kind you see in your worst nightmares. Giant ones that seem a mile wide, or families of twisters that corner small armies of cars barreling down highways. The effects are vivid, and Quale, who came up through the ranks working for James Cameron, doing second unit on Avatar and Titanic, does a nice job mixing awe-inspiring wide shots that take in the scale of the storms with the more intimate carnage occurring on the ground. He still can’t direct a performance to save his life, but let’s give him credit for the things he does well.
Indeed, sometimes you wonder if, in some twisted way, these cardboard characters, not to mention their ridiculous dialogue (“This is the biggest storm there has ever been!”), might be an asset. The distance allows us to enjoy the spectacle of all this destruction without having to be reminded of the tragic fact that real people die in real storms all the time. At one point, a tornado hits a highway fire and we get a giant, flaming funnel cloud; when a person is sucked into it, they flail and burn and spin, and you don’t know whether to scream or laugh. You might consider doing both — which is probably a good way to approach this entire movie.