Bring on the bread and circuses. “Into the Storm” features laughable dialogue, far-fetched situations, and generic characters played by actors who almost look like more famous stars. I still had a blast; and if you lower your resistance, you may too.
The movie is straight-up weather porn, a throwback to the disaster movies of the 1970s (”Earthquake,” “Avalanche”) and epic back-lot cataclysms of Hollywood’s Golden Age (”The Hurricane,” “San Francisco”). The genre has simply been updated with post-millennial fears of Climate Change apocalypse. When the climactic mega-twister finally descends on the beleaguered Midwestern hamlet of Silverton — a.k.a. Yourtown, USA — it’s the size of the Mother Ship in “Close Encounters.” And it’s not coming in peace.
Directed by Steven Quale and written by John Swetnam, “Into the Storm” is a down-market “Twister” that still works. The opening minutes introduce us to characters who will soon be whipping around like socks on a clothesline: Widower and high school assistant principal Gary (Richard Armitage, who plays the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield in the “Hobbit” movies; he’s probably glad for the chance to stretch), his quietly rebellious older son, Donnie (Max Deacon), and cocky younger son, Trey (Nathan Kress). Donnie’s nursing a shy-guy crush on Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam Carey); and when she asks for his help filming a school-project documentary in an abandoned mill, he quickly accepts, leaving Trey to deal with control-freak Dad while videotaping the upcoming graduation ceremonies.
Yes, “Into the Storm” is one of those “found-footage” dramas in which every single character has to tote a camera around or there won’t be a movie. That includes the team of professional storm chasers driving into the neighborhood in a supposedly twister-proof armored vehicle called the Titus: leader and type-A jerk Pete (Matt Walsh); broody single-mom meteorologist Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies, of AMC’s “The Walking Dead”); three cameramen, whom we’ll call Smarty (Arlen Escarpeta), Whiny (Jeremy Sumpter), and Lunchmeat (Lee Whittaker). There’s also a pair of trailer-trash daredevils (Kyle Davis and Jon Reep) who’ve watched too many “Jackass” episodes and would do anything to get 10,000 hits on YouTube. In this movie, everyone stands around with phones and cameras filming each other. Not mediated? Didn’t happen.
Other than tortuous chunks of exposition, little occurs in the first half hour. Then the computer-animation wage slaves start earning their keep and “Into the Storm” takes off in an impressive, even exciting orgy of community destruction. We hear about “wall cloud” and vortices and eventually we see spouts forming in the sky and spinning down like the angry fingers of God. The dialogue becomes strictly functional: “We’ve got to get out of here!”, “It’s headed for the high school!”, and, uh, “We’ve got to get out of here!” Donnie and Kaitlyn are trapped in an industrial pit with water rising, but thankfully his camera’s intact so they can get in one last video farewell.
The odd thing is that much of this is genuinely suspenseful, more so than the destruction of major cities and landmarks in your average superhero blockbuster. Since it’s dealing with feasible weather events and our anxiety thereto, “Into the Storm” feels like it all could happen, even when the filmmakers up the ante with flaming twisters — OK, a pretty amazing scene — and a Grand Finale of a blowout that tosses trucks and airplanes around like spitballs. Strangely, the two-dimensional characters add to the intensity, since they’re not so specific as to distract us from the Show. Like us, they’re here to goggle at the weather.
Why do we respond to these carnivals of obliteration, even when they’re as stolid as “Into the Storm”? It’s an itch that has been scratched by thousands of years of doomsday storytellers playing off our insecurities, our sense of smallness in the face of natural and/or divine wrath, and our nagging fear that maybe we did something to deserve this. Plus there’s the ageless delight we take in watching things go boom with no actual harm done. We imagine wrecking the world so we can imagine surviving; it’s a way to make us feel more alive.
“Into the Storm” plays into all those uncertainties and one or two more. The movie has no agenda other than striking as deeply as possible into the hearts of moviegoers who live in tornado country (these days, that includes Revere). Still, one senses a vague Red State sensibility in the script’s refusal to acknowledge humanity’s role in Big Weather and especially in the movie’s lone near-villain: a dangerously bureaucratic blowhard (Scott Lawrence) who might as well be called Principal Obama.
But that’s taking the movie far too seriously, when it’s mostly about irresistible guilty pleasures like widower Gary and single mom Allison surviving what may be the most ridiculous meet-cute in recent movies (hint: It takes place horizontally) or one character riding that mega-twister all the way to the top for a lovely panoramic view of the End Times. What goes up must come down — and it does — but “Into the Storm” stays aloft and spinning longer than it has any right to.