Watching Into the Storm, director Steven Quale's noisy, uninvolving, yet visually stunning spectacle, is akin to riding a high-speed roller coaster at an amusement park. While you're twisting, turning, plunging, and being generally tossed about, it's quite thrilling. But minutes after you disembark, or in this case exit the theater, the excitement vanishes as quickly as a pop-up thunderstorm. Of course, anyone buying a ticket to this mostly dull thrill ride isn't looking for great drama to begin with; they're expecting to see massive tornadoes flatten everything in their path and pose a real threat to the movie's main characters. On that basic level, Into the Storm succeeds. Unfortunately, in every other respect the picture is truly a disaster.
Quale, who served as James Cameron's second-unit director on Titanic and Avatar, knows how to effectively use CGI. The film's final storm, a gigantic, furious funnel of death that picks up airplanes and flips them through the air with ease, is quite impressive, as are the movie's other half-dozen twisters. If only Quale and screenwriter John Swetnam had taken as much care developing interesting characters with stories we could immerse ourselves in as they did generating those jaw-dropping visuals, then Into the Storm would have been something special. The two should have looked to the past to see how it's really done.
Back in the 1970s, disaster movies were all the rage. Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, and The Towering Inferno were huge box-office hits, starred A-list actors like Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman, Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, and Steve McQueen, and earned quite a few Oscar nominations. Those movies couldn't paint with fancy computer-generated brushstrokes like today, but they still managed to produce the requisite thrills, and were involving because they were populated with well-drawn characters who were involved in gripping stories. Not so with Into the Storm. Here, every character cliché is dragged out. Busy dad who doesn't have time for his kids, but eventually becomes their hero? Check. Self-absorbed jerk who wakes up when disaster strikes and sacrifices himself to save his friends? Check. Hard-working single mom who is smarter and wiser than everyone else around her? Check. Awkward teen who has a crush on the prettiest girl in school and gets a chance to save her? Check.
Fortunately, most of the actors (including Richard Armitage, Max Deacon, and Nathan Kress) who play these thin roles bring more to their performances than is on the page. Best of all is Sarah Wayne Callies of Walking Dead fame as that wise single mom, who works as a weather consultant for a down-on-his luck storm chaser (Matt Walsh). Callies is warm, inviting, intelligent, and emotionally vulnerable. Everything the movie itself is not.
But the most annoying thing about Into the Storm is its "found footage" first-person format. This is a movie in which most of the characters carry around a camera or two and record every second of their lives -- even when nothing particularly interesting is happening, which is especially true during the film's plodding first half-hour before any clouds start to swirl. It's an overused gimmick that officially wears out its welcome here. Curiously, the filmmakers didn't employ that other tired gimmick, 3-D, which would have been perfect with all of the cars, trucks, barns, and other debris flying around the screen. But what the movie really needs to jazz up the proceedings are flying sharks. If those man-eaters can invade Manhattan, certainly they should be able to find their way to Tornado Alley.