Saturday, August 9, 2014

Cloudy with a Chance: INTO THE STORM

Junky but compelling, Into the Storm provides a chance to marvel at nature’s power from the comfort of a dopey B-movie perspective. It’s a cheap disaster movie that delivers exactly what it promises and not a bit more. The characters are flat, the story is thin, the dialogue is perfunctory, and the cinematography is clean, clear, and unremarkable. But this half found-footage disaster movie from the director of one of the better Final Destination sequels is exactly what you’d expect that to be. It’s full of howling winds and shattering debris in a loud sound mix as the tiny humans scramble for safety. Buildings break apart, vehicles go flying, and people hold on for dear life as the tornadoes roar by.

The plot is as simple as they come, with generic characters situated in shallow subplots about to converge with the impending intense depictions of very bad weather. Storm chaser documentarians (Matt Walsh, Sarah Wayne Callies, Arlen Escarpeta, and Jeremy Sumpter) want a great shot from inside the eye of a tornado and have the heavy-duty vehicles to prove they mean business. A teenage boy (Max Deacon) wants to impress his hot classmate (Alycia Debnam Carey) by helping with her video project homework. A high school vice principal (Richard Armitage) decides to continue with an outdoor graduation despite the forecast and asks his son (Nathan Kress) to help record the ceremony. A couple of drunken backwoods amateur daredevils (Kyle Davis and Jon Reep) want to catch viral video fame.

So thinly characterized they make the folks in Twister seem Shakespearean, these people will soon be caught up in what is to be the Biggest Tornado of All Time. Luckily, they’re all holding cameras. Director Steven Quale cuts their suspiciously professional amateur footage into the usual wide shots of destruction as he marshals CGI storm resources. We watch as the sky builds ominous dark clouds that let loose thunder and lightening, hailstones the size of golf balls, and gusts of wind. Then come the funnel clouds. Lip service to climate change and shifting weather patterns appears once or twice, but really this is all about staging whirling storm clouds and staring in gaping wonder at their destructive dominance. It’s impressive. A pickup slams through a building, grounded planes tumble, a bus bends in two, a school’s roof gets ripped off, and power lines go flying. It’s scary stuff pulpily portrayed.

As the storm escalates, more and more tornadoes descend upon this small town in anonymous anywhere America. The exact location is suspiciously vague, as even weather maps and CNN reports fail to mention where we are, although viewers from southeastern Michigan will surely recognize metro Detroit weatherman Chuck Gaidica talking Doppler Radar on TV in the background of a couple scenes. Anyway, it’s a worst-case scenario weather parable, so the precise place doesn’t matter. It’s all about collapsing an abandoned factory, or creating a towering cloud of fire in a swirl of wind, or letting several funnels merge to create the aforementioned harrowing climactic Biggest Tornado of All Time. It worked on my soft spot for disaster movies pretty well.

It’s barely 89 minutes long with credits, and runs through its scenarios quickly and efficiently. The found-footage gimmick is haphazardly deployed and never really works, but the effects and sound design are good enough to overpower. The characters may be bland and overfamiliar, but screenwriter John Swetnam supplies a dose of manipulation – two sets of separated parents and children, a race-against-the-clock buried-in-rubble scenario, an old man and a dog who are briefly missing – to maintain something of a human interest. It’s transparent. When one side character is told to think of getting back home to his (never seen or heard) girlfriend, you know he’s a goner.

I can’t quite recommend the movie, but if the idea of watching storms swallow up pretty stock characters while smashing apart small town America in scary ways sounds like a good time, well, some of us think it is. Weather goes wild and people shout laughable lines and run into exaggerated situations that are nonetheless gripping in the way the cheesiest disaster movies can still manage real scares through the unimaginable horror and beauty of distant devastation growing ever closer. One moment late in the film typifies the B-movie charms it supplies. A man in a car is sucked up, up, and away into the tornado. For one brief shot, he sits above the clouds, staring in surprise and wonder at the sight before him before plummeting to his death. It’s dumb, but effective.

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