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 effective as the blend of TV news helicopter POV shots, security camera footage, cellphone 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 free-lancer with the backing to get the image nobody else has — the "eye" of the tornado, shots from inside the vortex. He has 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, but Allison insists the real action will be in Silverton.
It's graduation day at Silverton High, and vice principal Gary (Richard Armitage) is hoping that 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 time capsule.
Donnie 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 the 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 cellphone 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.
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 and performances that lack urgency.
Movie stars have not just acting chops and screen presence, but that ineffable spark that creates instant empathy. Director Steven Quale (Final Destination 5) 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.