Maybe someday, in the distant future, the special effects technology in Into the Storm will look fake and make audiences snicker. But today, it’s hard to imagine any movie ever topping this one’s depiction of killer tornadoes laying waste to the Midwest.
Short of sweeping the entire audience up into a holographic tornado, while high winds blow the other spectators around, nothing will lay a glove on Into the Storm as the ultimate weather disaster extravaganza.
It’s all about the storms. As for the characters, they don’t get in the way — or rather they do get in the way — of the storm — but they don’t steal the focus. They are there to put a human face on the disaster, so that we have some stake in the spectacle, and to that extent they serve a real function. But that spectacle is the star.
Picture this: A huge tornado rips its way into a gas station. The station explodes into a gasoline fire, and within seconds the fire is sucked all the way up into the tornado, so that now it’s a fire tornado, burning and shredding everything in sight — and sucking people into it. That is, people stupid enough to be standing there with a camera thinking how many hits they’re going to get on YouTube.
Into the Storm runs a brisk 89 minutes, and for every second of running time it finds ways to make tornadoes interesting.
There’s no repetition. Tornadoes head straight toward us, then veer off 30 feet to the left. Tornadoes form in the sky. Tornadoes pop up right, left and center, simultaneously, and zigzag in every possible terrifying direction.
A tornado cuts through a used car dealership and a bus depot, and that looks like something. But no, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen tornadoes hit on an airport. The aerodynamics of the airplanes make them look at home in the vortex, like lost and forlorn dolphins, floating and bobbing in the sky, and waiting to be dropped.
The human perspective is never forgotten. The movie begins with high school kids in a car at night, watching as a tornado sucks up the streetlights ahead. They see nothing, just odd little explosions coming closer — and then they’re airborne.
We also get an idea of what it might be like to be crouching in a building, waiting for the tornado to hit, as the crushing noise — like a New York subway, only worse — comes roaring and rattling closer.
What a weird thing, to be standing in the road, feeling only a strong breeze, while a hundred feet away some hellish funnel, like the finger of an angry god, is lobbing trucks and disassembling buildings. It is a magnificent horror, and it never gets old.
There’s just enough in the story to make it seem personal. There’s a team of scientific tornado chasers, photographers and scientists, including a tornado expert (Sarah Wayne Callies), who can’t wait to return to her daughter.
There’s also a high school graduation in the path of the storm and a principal trying to find his missing teen son.
Perhaps the best measure of the story’s effectiveness is that, given the choice between heightened spectacle and human life, the audience’s emotional impulse is always toward human life. Except in the case of the cameraman who gets sucked into the gasoline vortex — that’s just too good to resist — whenever someone is holding on for dear life, we hope they maintain their grip. We believe just enough to make Into the Storm more riveting.
Cast: Richard Armitage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Matt Walsh, Max Deacon, Alycia Debnam Carey.
Director: Steven Quale.
Screenwriter: John Swetnam.
A Warner Bros. release. 89 minutes. Playing at: Area theaters.