Into The Storm is an uncanny valley disaster movie—not as consciously cheesy and cheap as something like Sharknado 2, but built around a similar equation of unreality and gratification.
A massive wedge tornado rips through an airport, sweeping jets off the tarmac; they dance upright in the swirl to the sound of moaning, bending metal. A narrow twister tears into a gas spill, producing an Old Testament column of fire that spins up into the sky. Vortices converge in the center of a small town, sucking up cars, masonry, and an oversized statue of a Holstein cow. None of this seems real in either the visual or the narrative sense; the effects—oncoming storm fronts, roping tornadoes, thick bolts of lighting—have a glossy, artificial texture, and they seem to occupy a different spatial plane than the actors.
All of this plastic destruction is framed through a found-footage gimmick, which registers as equally unreal; a viewer never gets the impression that any of the movie’s cameras are being operated by the characters, or that the footage is being produced by prosumer camcorders. It is crisp, competently and sometimes effectively framed, with almost no shake and pans and zooms that are timed to action. In other words, it looks like a movie, which is more than can be said for plenty of recent films that don’t frame themselves as amateur footage.
In the film, a freak tornado outbreak hits fictional Shaw County, sending high-school Vice Principal Gary (Richard Armitage) on a mission to rescue his eldest son, Donnie (Max Deacon), with the help of a group of storm-chasers led by brittle old pro Pete (Matt Walsh, for some reason). Though the only discernible function of this thin plot is to connect one set-piece to another, screenwriter John Swetnam—who also wrote this week’s Step Up: All In—nonetheless insists on giving every character a capital-B Backstory. Gary is a widower, Donnie makes speeches about his mom’s death, team meteorologist Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies) is a single mom who misses her daughter, and so on and so forth. These paint-by-numbers characterizations serve only to pad out the running time; if the protagonists were swapped out for another group of people, Into The Storm would remain more or less unchanged, the only differences being cosmetic.
As in his debut feature, Final Destination 5, director Steven Quale seems to be going out of his way to keep audience identification to a minimum; the less the characters seem like people, the easier it is to enjoy watching them cower and flee. The result is a non-visceral disaster flick, which wants its viewers to appreciate the scale of the destruction without ever thinking about danger. It’s a shrewd, cynical design move, and one that occasionally pays off. Though Into The Storm lacks the earlier film’s twisted sense of suspense, it manages to pull out a handful of sequences—like the aforementioned airport scene—that take perverse glee in ripping digital landscapes apart. Sometimes, “fake” can be its own kind of fun.