Into the Storm (2014)
89 min., rated PG-13.
At face value, audiences know pretty much what to get out of natural disaster movies, which are always fertile ground for thrill rides. Positioned as a big, dumb, old-fashioned disaster movie, "Into the Storm" works as one of the more exciting detours on Universal Studios' tram tour, doing what it sets out to do and delivering where it counts. While it's to be expected that John Swetnam's script will have a tin ear for dialogue, director Steven Quale (2011's "Final Destination 5") is more concerned with what he can do with impressively convincing special effects and powerful wind machines. "Twister"-lite with GoPro cameras, "Into the Storm" has no intentions of being a prestige picture that would make a racket with writing and acting notices, and even the cornball script is a few competent steps ahead of a SyFy Original Movie to not call too much negative attention to itself. For an unpretentious, superficially involving 90 minutes, there are worse movies and worse ways to spend an evening.
Opening with abrupt intensity as four Oklahoma high schoolers making out in a car face the natural-disaster version of a serial killer in a horror movie, the film already has our attention. The next day, we are following the Titus Team, veteran storm chaser Pete (Matt Walsh) and meterologist Allison Stone (Sarah Wayne Callies), along with three camera operators (Jeremy Sumpter, Lee Whittaker, Arlen Escarpeta). They trail storm cells that grow closer and closer to the Oklahoma town of Silverton, and Pete will stop at nothing until he gets the storm on camera with the use of GoPro cameras on a armored tank vehicle that can remain grounded in winds up to 170 mph. Meanwhile, we meet Silverton High School vice principal/single father Gary Morris (Richard Armitage), who tries disciplining his two sons, 17-year-old junior Donnie (Max Deacon) and brother Trey (Nathan Kress), by making shoot "time capsule" videos. Though Dad wants Donnie to shoot the graduation, Donnie gets Trey to do it, so he can help longtime crush Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam-Carey) shoot her video project at an abandoned paper mill, located a few miles away from the school. Alas, it begins to hail golf balls and everyone better take cover if they want to live.
Maybe it's damning with faint praise, but a big-studio popcorn picture that only lasts an hour and a half without a single alien or superhero and a price tag of $50 million—which, strictly speaking, constitutes as an average budget—is sort of refreshing. When "Into the Storm" was first greenlit, the temporary title was "Found-Footage Tornado thriller," so what remains odd is the execution of the found-footage framework. Pete has two camera operators and Allison has one. There are cameras all over the Titus vehicle. Both of Gary's sons have cameras for their "time capsule" video. However, the film is only a true found-footage movie when it feels like it, making the unaccounted-for footage seem like a cheat and turning the proceedings into a visually customary movie with a musical score. Even when that inconsistency detracts from the film's stylistic choice and invites mockery, the use of "the Titus" makes a more acceptable excuse for storm chasers to put themselves in such perilous situations instead of purely coming off as idiotic script constructs. A fiery tunnel taking out one in-over-his-head character is pretty frighteningly realized. From one character's perspective, there is a stomach-tossing, awe-inspiring moment where someone gets caught in the eye of the storm and goes for a ride above the clouds; it might get the biggest reaction out of audiences. Director Quale also gets plenty of mileage out of people holding onto dear life so they don't take off like a flying cow, especially in the film's climax in a manhole with a loose grate.
If "Into the Storm" can be spectacular on the big screen, it is alternately clunky on the page. There are so many obvious moments of foreshadowing in the banal dialogue that one wishes the life-threatening weather would come already. Almost pointlessly so, character names and titles are given to everyone, but most of them exist as perfunctorily developed fodder for the tornadoes anyway. None of the subplots hold much emotional investment, so it doesn't really make a difference who lives or who dies. At best, we wouldn't mind if Allison lived. If Gary can rescue Donnie and Kaitlyn out of a hole in time before it fills up with water, that would be nice, but if not, no real loss there. In fact, Donnie and Kaitlyn record goodbye messages to their families in a scene so manipulative and cringe-inducing that making the would-be young couple both goners might have brought more weight to the gravely serious situation. Worst of all, though, is the film's alleged source of comic relief. Almost every disaster movie has its irritatingly dopey yokels, and this one has YouTube-wannabe daredevils Donk (Kyle Davis) and Reevis (Jon Reep), who make the "Jackass" and "Duck Dynasty" guys look like charmers with high IQs. These beer-chugging redneck dunces can't get sucked up fast enough.
The star-free ensemble of TV thespians fills out their threadbare roles accordingly, Sarah Wayne Callies (TV's "The Walking Dead") the most credible as meterologist and single mother Allison who's been away on work for three months from her 5-year-old daughter. Richard Armitage (2013's "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug") also makes the most of the unwinking, cliché-ridden material with his steely, authoritative presence, as does Matt Walsh (TV's "Veep") who brings smartass snark. On the grounds of breathless, anything-goes thrills, "Into the Storm" does not leave one hanging. Mostly fun and striving to be nothing more (although the "time capsule" footnote is too hokey and self-important to actually earn the right to be impactful), the experience creates legitimate, grip-your-date's-leg excitement to turn a blind eye to the scripting issues and stiff, merely adequate performances. Sometimes, particularly in a disaster movie, that is enough.
Grade: B -