There's something almost quaint about the idea that, once upon a time, the stars of disaster movies were ... well, stars. In the 1970s, when disaster was big box-office business, filmmakers gave their massive-scale life-threatening scenarios a patina of respectability by casting big-name above-the-line talent in the lead roles: Burt Lancaster in Airport, Gene Hackman and Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in The Towering Inferno, Charlton Heston in Earthquake, Charlton Heston again in Airport 1975. And if all that star power distracted from the relative technological simplicity of the special effects, so much the better.
Then came the 1990s and the CGI visual-effects age—and with it, the notion that the disaster itself was the above-the-line star. So while Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012) may keep the spirit of Irwin Allen alive with his throwback star-studded spectacles, more common are blockbusters in the spirit of 1996's Twister, where the end of any given money-shot storm sequence was an implicit cue to audience members that it was safe to visit the bathroom or snack bar.
Into the Storm continues in that tradition, adding the now-seemingly-even-more-popular device of faux-documentary/found-footage. In the small northern Oklahoma town of Silverton, a team of storm-chasers—led by driven filmmaker Pete (Matt Walsh) and meteorological researcher Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies)—try to find some amazing footage for their planned documentary before their funding runs out. Meanwhile, it's high school graduation day in Silverton, and vice-principal Gary (Richard Armitage) is trying to track down his missing son, Donnie (Max Deacon), who's been trapped in an abandoned factory while trying to help the girl he has a crush on, Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam Carey), with a scholarship project.
If you were feeling generous, you could say that the framing structure is employed when it proves convenient, and abandoned when it doesn't. It's certainly efficient that Donnie and his brother, Trey (Nathan Kress), are making video time-capsule recordings that allow us to know within a matter of moments that their mom is dead and that Gary is tense and distant; it's similarly useful that someone is eavesdropping on Allison so that we know she's guilty over leaving her 5-year-old daughter behind while she's on her research trips. And when director Steven Quale (Final Destination 5) occasionally would rather feature an impressive God's-eye-view shot of destruction, or include some dramatic non-diegetic music while Donnie and Kaitlyn are gasping out their possibly last goodbyes to their families, hey, there's no need to get doctrinaire about this whole found-footage business.
The problem with that particular approach is that it's also a tonal cue. While Into the Storm also includes footage from a pair of dim-bulb YouTube Jackasses-in-training (Kyle Davis and Jon Reep) gleefully risking their lives, the general vibe from hand-held documentary-style footage is that we're getting something gritty and realistic, chronicling an actual disaster. That may work to ratchet up the tension when a twister is tearing the roof off a school building and threatening to whisk people away, but it makes for some jarring moments when one character gets sucked into a flame-nado, or another is lifted above the vortex for a brief idyllic glimpse over the top of the clouds, or we get a fairly obvious nod of recognition to an iconic moment from Twister. There are ways to make that kind of "we're actually inviting you to laugh at this" disaster movie work, as the success of Sharknado has demonstrated; jittery hand-held footage probably isn't it.
It's obvious that plenty—if not most—viewers come to a movie like Into the Storm not caring about any of that, provided they can see some impressive big-screen carnage. Yet despite the leaps in CGI capabilities in the nearly 20 years since Twister, Into the Storm doesn't exactly break new ground in showing flying debris and people clinging to something for dear life lest they be swept up into the funnel. The disaster movie may still serve its primal function of letting us know that people forget their petty quarrels and take care of the things (and people) that really matter when the chips are down, but if Into the Storm isn't going to elevate the state-of-the-art in storm porn, why not stay home and watch Discovery Channel? Or maybe The Towering Inferno? We're always gonna want Paul Newman to pull through.
INTO THE STORM