I never thought I’d call Jan de Bont’s tornado flick, Twister, a classic. But compared to the straight-faced schlock epic currently blowing into theaters, Into the Storm, it’s a masterpiece of refinement and subtlety. Hell, it’s almost an art film. Back in the summer of 1996, de Bont paid cheeky homage to the disaster movies of the ’70s (with a wink to The Wizard of Oz) by assaulting the audience with the furious wrath of Mother Nature, including the surreal sight of an airborne cow floating past his camera mid-moo. Now, nearly two decades later, in Steven Quale’s limp and smudgy Xerox of a Xerox, the director throws everything he can muster at the camera (zapping power lines, tin-can schoolbuses, barns seemingly made of tissue paper) while simultaneously tossing all logic out the window. It’s the kind of movie the Weather Channel would make if all of its producers were taken hostage by brain-dead 12-year-old boys.
The hook this time around is that the Storm of the Century is captured found-footage-style (a creaky narrative crutch that really needs to be abolished). While de Bont at least knew enough to open his checkbook and hire the services of real actors (Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Philip Seymour Hoffman) to complement his orgy of destruction with flesh-and-blood characters, Quale is stuck with a cast that looks like they’d rather be huddled underground in a shelter with some peanut butter and a stack of National Geographic magazines until the all-clear siren sounds. Among the soggy cardboard characters are a high school vice principal father (Richard Armitage) and his two teenage sons (Max Deacon and Nathan Kress), a pair of dumb-and-dumber redneck jackasses (Kyle Davis and Jon Reep) trying to parlay their brush with death into YouTube fame, and a team of intrepid storm-chasing filmmakers headed up by The Walking Dead’s Sarah Wayne Callies and Veep’s Matt Walsh (in a role so cartoonishly villainous he’d literally be twirling his mustache if he had one).
As the Big One — or more accurately a pair of Big Ones — heads straight for the small Tornado Belt town of Silverton, the various barely-sketched parties all find themselves in the swirling, 300-mile-per-hour crosshairs with a laundry list of personal issues they each have to work out before they’re turned into meteorological mincemeat. While Quale, who directed Final Destination 5 after cutting his teeth working second-unit for James Cameron on Titanic and Avatar, manages to summon some truly special special f/x (a deluge of baseball-sized hail, a whirlwind vortex of fire), his screenwriter (John Sweetnam) makes a hash of all of the snoozy interpersonal moments between gee-whiz money shots. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as willing to check my brain at the door and submit to an idiotic late-summer spectacle as the next person. But this funnel-cloud fiasco tries to suck up everything in its path, and just winds up sucking. D+