Sometimes the line between real-life tragedy and action escapism is mighty fine. Wide-release movies have been known to get cold feet (post-9/11 and post-mass shootings) but always return to the well of exploiting our anxieties for cash. Perhaps that's why the tornado-packing Into the Storm feels like a disaster movie (all but a remake of Twister) crossed with a horror-movie aesthetic (the found-footage craze). It used to be a show-business gag: how will it play in Peoria? Given that Illinois is tornado country, one might well wonder.
Scripted by young writer John Swetnam (competing against his script for Step Up All In, which also opens Friday) and directed by Steven Quale, Into the Storm features a motley, essentially unproven cast in a rail-thin tale of survival. Though largely composed of faux found footage from the pro cameras of reality-TV storm chasers (and TV newscopters) and the consumer-grade handicams of high-schoolers, Swetnam also (unless I missed something) includes omniscient-narrative footage when the conceit requires, diluting the purity of the style.
It's a style that, already tired—yep, The Blair Witch Project was fifteen years ago—has the added effect here of insensitive tackiness in the context of global climate change and an apparent increase in the frequency and severity of fatal storms. It's ironic but true that Twister remains more palatable by being a consciously entertaining action fantasy, a cinematic roller-coaster, rather than a hellish "you are there" safari tour through death and destruction.
The paper-thin characters include the aforementioned storm chasers (Sarah Wayne Callies of The Walking Dead, Matt Walsh of Veep, Jeremy Sumpter of Friday Night Lights...), high-schoolers on graduation day (wet blankets Max Deacon and Alycia Debnam Carey, and wiseacre Nathan Kress), and the boys' cranky vice-principal dad (Richard Armitage of The Hobbit), who inevitably finds paternal redemption. Tornadoes strike: these good folks dodge them or chase them and regret it.
"But—but—how are the tornadoes?" you ask. Indeed, they are the real stars, and the digital effects increasingly wow as the picture goes on. Conserving budget and building suspense, Quale uses the ol' Jaws technique: hold back the shark. Early storm sequences tease with cameras knocked out of commission before paying off with anything too close to a money shot, the better to induce gasps with the multiple climaxes to follow.
If there's one thing Hollywood is good for these days, it's delivering exactly what's on the tin. The results tend to be mulchy and of dubious artfulness, but will anyone really feel cheated by a carefully marketed genre pic like Into the Storm? It's for people who want to be scared by storms for eighty-nine minutes, and they're welcome to it.