Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Into the Storm is a middling film that uses its spectacular special effects and sound design to distract from its bland, predictable narrative. Tornadoes will always look extraordinary no matter how they are presented; their sheer force is something that undoubtedly inspires awe to an outside observer, even though their destruction can lead to death and destroyed homes and families. The elements are ripe for environmental commentary and family drama. Yet they are presented on screen with no care for subtlety or inspiration, instead relying on familiar character tropes and plot points that never elevate the story past its admittedly intriguing premise. The film follows a group of storm chasers led by Pete (Matt Walsh), a determined man whose ultimate goal is to lead Titus (his tank of a storm-tracking vehicle) into the eye of a tornado. He is working on a storm documentary alongside Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies), a scientist who has spent three months away from her daughter and relies on numbers over instinct.
After four high school students die from a small tornado sweeping through Silverton, the documentarians decide to head to that town despite hearing about tornadoes potentially touching down in Riverside. A stormfront is approaching that looks ominous and ripe for the shots they need in their hunting. Allison’s insistence on Silverton having the meat of the action allows the story to connect with Donnie’s (Max Deacon). He’s a high school student who’s helping the vice principal/his father, Gary (Richard Armitage), shoot a time capsule documentary for the school. They are all preparing for graduation and Donnie has struggled to connect with his father after his mother died. He ends up skipping the graduation ceremony, electing for his brother (Nathan Kress) to shoot while Donnie runs off to help his crush, Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam Carey), on her project. Sure enough, she and Donnie get stuck while the storm blows through the area, disrupting the graduation and tearing apart the family once more.
The story feels jumbled together and coincidental, which only becomes further enhanced by the introduction of two idiots that like to do stupid things for the Internet. For some reason, these comedic sidekicks pop up in a strange subplot that never really meshes with the narrative; they cross over from time to time, but most of their scenes involve moronic behavior and annoying traits. I suppose Into the Storm has that type of story that doesn’t particularly care about characters, though. That’s understandable. Every time the story wanders into melodrama, the filmmakers go for spectacle and aim big. They certainly succeed, since the tornadoes are impressively rendered and interact seamlessly with the characters on screen. There’s a sense of urgency and genuine stakes when they are presented in the background or coming straight toward the protagonists. The sound effects, particularly in Dolby ATMOS, are stunning and enveloping.
Despite this desire to create a new-age disaster film, though, director Steven Quale never develops a singular voice behind the screen. The direction sporadically moves from cinematic lenses to handheld work, often insisting that the narrative feel more grounded in reality by providing teenagers or the film within the film’s camera crew following the action. The inherent problem with this is that cinematic views are far more engaging and pronounced. They can define a scene and give the viewer a sense of language and understanding for the full narrative. So why ruin that with shoddy camera work? The cast is well rounded, with Matt Walsh and Sarah Wayne Callies in particular taking advantage of their characters and providing the audience with some semblance of emotionally driven excitement. The story falls apart too quickly in its conclusion, though, attempting to sum up the perseverance of Americans in the face of danger. It’s a muddled message belonging in a far different film, preferably not one with a tornado on fire.
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)