REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For 21st Century Media
Tornadoes, twisters, cyclones-they’re pretty much the same thing. Replete with distinctive, fast-swirling funnels, they have a distinctive appearance. With their potential for wrecking havoc, they have attained a special niche in popular folklore.
Of course, tornadoes have made their presence felt in films. Most notably, in “The Wizard of Oz,” a tornado transported Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) from her Kansas farm to a faraway land, inhabited by wicked witches, munchkins, and talking trees. The 1996 film, “Twister” presented Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt as squabbling storm chasers, who are on the cusp of divorce. Most recently, “Sharknado” and “Sharknado 2” have doubled down by combining our primordial fears of piscine predators with a deep-seated apprehension about natural disasters.
“Into the Storm” depicts a day in a small, Midwestern town of Silverton. An unprecedented panoply of tornadoes are approaching. A team of peripatetic storm chasers as well as local residents must deal with the potentially deadly situation.
The central core of characters are a bunch of professional storm chasers. Their goal is to track down and videotape tornadoes and other extreme weather phenomena. The crew has hit a rough patch, going a year without documenting a single significant event. Pete (Matt Walsh) is the demanding head of the team. His principal assistant, Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies), holds a doctorate in meteorology. There is an ongoing conflict between Pete’s fly by the seat of your pants, intuitive approach and Allison’s more measured, scientifically-based inclinations.
In a cast of virtual unknowns, Richard Armitage is the film’s best known actor. Previously, he portrayed Thorin Oakenshield, the dwarf king in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” Here, he plays a widower, who is the vice-principal of the local high school. His two sons, Jacob (Jeremy Sumpter) and Trey (Nathan Kress) are in the uncomfortable position of attending the high school where their dad is in charge of maintaining discipline. In the face of a megastorm, how will dad balance his official obligations with his sense of paternal protectiveness?
“Into the Storm” gets considerable mileage out of the casting of Scott Lawrence as the principal of the high school. We watch as he delivers a platitude-dominated graduation day speech. Later in the film, as tornadoes veer toward the school, he announces his plan. He does so with great conviction and sincerity, even though it is hopelessly ill-considered. So … who is Scott Lawrence and why his casting noteworthy? Lawrence is a relatively obscure actor with an unremarkable résumé. However, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Barack Obama. He has the exact same 6’1” height, lanky physique, complexion, and protruding ears. In addition, Lawrence has the uncanny capacity to mimic the vocal cadences and inflections of our President. In a film, which is full of unrecognizable actors, it is a hoot to have someone who seems so familiar, even if he turns out to be a doppelganger, rather than the real McCoy. Are the filmmakers trying to score a political point through this casting of an Obama look-alike as a hapless authority figure or is it simply a risogenic element to break the tension? I’ll let you be the judge of that one.
The screenplay by John Swetnam is a no-frills affair. Swetnam’s extant filmography is limited to writing credits for “Evidence” and Step Up: All In,” the fifth in the lucrative franchise. Coincidentally, the latter film has the very same release date as “Into the Storm” and is opening opposite it. Swetnam strips the narrative of any extraneous exposition and provides effective synergy between the various plot components.
Steven Quale (“Final Destination 5”) does an effective job of directing. The long-time James Cameron associate maintains a brisk pace and heightened tension throughout the film. He employs a first person, point of view camera perspective throughout the film and shoots it in real time. Even if they aren’t state of the art, the special effects are experientially awesome. Imagine a tornado engulfing a gasoline pump and being transmogrified into an airborne funnel of flame. Quale adroitly blends the CGI with practical effects. Enhancing a sense of verisimilitude, the actors look like they have been drenched by a torrential downpour and buffeted by high velocity winds.
Quake has assembled members of the crew that worked with him on “Final Destination 5.” The cinematography by Brian Pearson and production design by David Sandefur enhance the visual text of “Into the Storm.” The score by Richard Tyler provides a score that is well-matched to the film’s intermittent moments of extreme peril.
This summer had brought us “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and “Planes: Fire and Rescue.” Both films include anthropomorphized vehicles as characters. By contrast, “Into the Storm” features an actual mechanical entity. It eclipses the CGI contraptions, found in the aforesaid sequels, and exposes how absurd they are.
“Into the Storm” used a modified Dodge pickup truck as a template to create Titus. The contraption is driven by Pete, the head honcho of the storm chasers. It includes bullet-proof Lexus windows, 4 millimeter thick solid steel plates, and a 12-ton capacity winch. It also contains a mini-weather station, which includes an anemometer, humidity sensor, and a potentiometer. Titus has a rotating turret, which gives a 360-degree panoramic view of what is going on outside. Inside, a gyroscopically stabilized digital camera is mounted. It is designed to photograph everything that it us going on outside. After the Titus was constructed, its pristine condition was intentionally distressed by superimposing dents and cakes of mud.
“Into the Storm” will not be mistaken for high art. However, it is hard to deny that it packs an intense, visceral rush. This quintessential popcorn film will blow you away.
“Into the Storm”
*** PG-13 (for sequences of intense destruction and peril, and language including some sexual references) 89 minutes.
Nathan Lerner welcomes feedback at email@example.com.