Thursday, August 7, 2014

Review: "Into the Storm"

You may recall that another tornado-themed special effects extravaganza, 1997's "Twister," was turned into a theme park ride at Universal Studios Orlando. In it you sit in a theater with the scene of a small town square on stage in front of you, and animated props and special effects simulate the effect of a major tornado leveling the place. It's good hoky fun.

That's pretty  much the experience of "Into the Storm," an astonishingly similar new film with better (or at least newer) special effects but less interesting characters, mostly played by actors you've never heard of. Oftentimes they'll just stand there, staring at the devastation being wrought in front of them, and we know they are just serving as our video game avatars.

This new disaster flick, directed by Steven Quale, comes from a screenplay by John Swetnam that is purportedly original. Like "Twister," though, it focuses on a team of storm-chasers who are desperately seeking to record a mega-tornado event leveling entire towns in the Midwest. The two leaders of the expedition, the brainy woman scientist and the flash-and-showbiz man, constantly spar over the dangers and tactics of their mission.

Sound familiar?

The new movie adds a few twists. It also features a trio of teens who get caught up in the twister party, with some other stuff dashed in about tensions between working single parents and their kids. Most notably, though, is the use of the "found footage" style of filmmaking, in which many of the characters are constantly carrying around cameras, and the shots of what we see are (mostly) supposed to represent what they captured.

"The Blair Witch Project" more or less invented this style, and it's been copied so much that it's practically become a movie genre unto itself.

Of course, when it's used in the context of a massive weather event or other incredible disaster, it seems pretty ridiculous that people would continue to clutch and aim video cameras instead of, y'know, trying to save themselves.

Or help others. There's one shot where some people are trying to move a heavy I-beam that has trapped some people in a hole filling with water, and you wonder why the guy filming this doesn't lend a hand.

To their credit, the filmmakers do include one scene where a dad yells to his son, "Put down that camera and run!" The lad obeys half of his imperative.

Pete (Matt Walsh) leads the Titus Team, a band of storm-chasers who film tornadoes for a documentary film project. They've got a cool tank-like vehicle that's supposedly twister-proof -- want to guess if that theory gets tested? -- and a team of experts and cameramen. Unfortunately, it's been a year since they spotted a sizable tornado, their funding's about to be pulled, and Pete has lost faith in his new weather scientist, Allison, a single mom with pangs of regret about leaving her tiny daughter.

(She's played by Sarah Wayne Callies, best known for her role as "Please kill her now" on "The Walking Dead.")

In the amiable town of Silverton, Donnie (Max Deacon) is an amiable high school junior with mad video skills and a crush on Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam Carey), a smart conscientious type. Donnie and his brash brother Trey (Nathan Kress) are supposed to film the school's graduation ceremony for their stiff dad Gary (Richard Armitage), who is vice principal. Instead, Donnie ditches the graduation to help Kaitlyn with a video project, which conveniently takes them out to an abandoned factory where they can become imperiled.

Armitage, for those who don't know the name, plays Thorin Oakenshield in the "Hobbit" movies, though you probably won't recognize the face as it was covered by hair and prosthetics. He's reasonably engaging, though like most British actors his American accent sounds forced and inauthentic. (Honestly I can think of about two who are really good.)

There are some genuinely fun moments in the movie, such as when a tornado makes a tanker truck explode, and the flames get sucked up into the vortex, resulting in a nightmare vision straight out of hell. I also liked the scene where the mega-twister picks up jetliners and they perform an eerie airborne ballet.

(Though it's highly curious as to why a little dink town like Silverton has such a huge airport.)

Though in general the movie's pretty go-go serious, there are some moments of levity. Most of these are bound up in scenes with a pair of yokels named Donk and Reevis (Kyle Davis and Jon Reep), who perform "Jackass"-like stunts and decide to get into the tornado-chasing game on a whim, with amusing results. I chuckled at the screen titles informing us of Donk's stats of "312 YouTube hits" and Reevis' job title of "Instigator."

"Into the Storm" is reasonably entertaining and disposable, the sort of movie you watch, enjoy and immediately forget.

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