"Into the Storm" is as close to a real tornado as most of us would ever want to get. Its effects are so spectacular that it makes "Twister" look like "The Wizard of Oz." You wonder, as immersive as all those objects flying off the screen are, why they didn't film it in 3D. Secretly, you're grateful they didn't.
But as impressive as the effects can be, as persuasive as the blend of TV news helicopter POV shots, security camera footage, cell-phone video and storm chaser images mimicked here turn out, the human stories are given short shrift in this "spend our budget on effects" action picture.
Late in the season, "Tornado Alley" storm chaser Pete (Matt Walsh) hasn't scored the money shot. He's a freelancer with the backing to get the image nobody else has -- the "eye" of the tornado, shots from inside the vortex. He's got a hired gun meteorologist, Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies); Titus, a veritable tank of a chase vehicle; some young videographers; and backers about to pull the plug on this venture if he doesn't produce.
"We got nothing you can't get on YouTube," he gripes, blaming Allison's forecasts for their woes.
That last big system whipping across Oklahoma is their chance. Everybody else is headed toward one town, Allison insists the REAL action will be in Silverton.
It's graduation day at Silverton High, and widowed vice principal Gary (Richard Armitage) is hoping they can hold the ceremony outdoors and that his rebellious sons --Donnie and Trey (Max Deacon, Nathan Kress) -- will video it, along with scores of testimonials for a video time capsule.
Donnie (Deacon) gets distracted by a girl (Alycia Debnam Carey), who needs to videotape an abandoned factory that's a waste dump for her internship, so he's a no-show. But the super cell isn't.
The twister hits, and we're sucked into that school with it. But the realism of this gripping school-under-assault scene isn't the first grabber moment. That comes in the opening credits -- teens caught in a car, obsessed with cell-phone recording the tornado that swooped down on them the previous night.
If "Into the Storm" has a theme, it's that. We've become a nation of gawkers, cultists forever holding our phones up to whatever dangerous, tragic or comic disaster is unfolding in front of us.
Drunken rednecks Donk and Reevis (Kyle Davis, Jon Reep) are exemplars of this -- beer swillers with cell phones out imitating those guys glorified by The Weather Channel, The Discovery Channel and others.
"I'm in a TORNADO! I'm in a tornado!"
But Pete is just a better-financed, more mercenary version of them. He's also taking stupid risks more for glory and video fame than science.
Where "Into the Storm" makes you appreciate 1996's "Twister" is in the ways the new film makes the victims mostly anonymous, even if their deaths are spectacular. There's a reason movies are cast with movie stars, and this film makes you appreciate that, with every under-reaction to something this character or that one has never seen before, performances that lack urgency, panic or even awe.
Movie stars have not just acting chops and screen presence, but that ineffable spark that creates instant empathy. Director Steven "Final Destination 5" Quale never gives his cast of unknowns the chance to achieve that empathy except very late in the picture. That's also, belatedly, when a ticking clock kicks in, and we start to fear for characters' lives.
The "America's Funniest Home Video" jokes are weak, foreshadowing is ignored, tamping down the dread the viewer should feel, and everything is just an elaborate set-up for the next "touchdown."
That's when the characters do what the audience does -- gawk, in shock and something like awe. In a disaster picture, that only gets you so far.
'into the Storm'
Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense destruction and peril and language including some sexual reference)
Cast: Richard Armitage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Matt Walsh, Alycia Debnam Carey, Max Deacon
Director: Steven Quale
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes