“If we don’t take care of nature, nature will take care of us,” is the teenage pearl of wisdom that Donnie (Max Deacon) shares in “Into The Storm.” This is indicative of the on-the-nose moralizing in this confused summer disaster flick that struggles to commit to what kind of movie it wants to be. One part environmental warning, another part PSA, and third part revelling in wind and rain-blown destruction, the movie is ultimately a string of set pieces barely held together by the thinnest of stories. It’s mostly about putting people in uniquely extreme situations of life threatening danger, and perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising given it comes from director Steven Quayle, the man who gave us “Final Destination 5.”
To his credit, and to screenwriter John Swetnam‘s (“Step Up All In“), there is a half-attempt made to create characters, as one dimensional as they are. The aforementioned Donnie is the stock angry teen, permanently stewing with rage at his single father Gary (who also happens to the Vice Principal at his high school, and played with Bruce Wayne-esque grimness by Richard Armitage), but at least he has his much more lighthearted brother Trey (Nathan Kress) by his side. Both siblings are video wizards, tasked with filming the school’s graduation ceremony, but there’s a storm brewing, if the title didn’t tip you off. Meanwhile, storm chaser and documentary filmmaker Pete (Matt Walsh) is traveling with a group of cameramen and Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies), a meteorlogist, trying to find the “big one” after a disappointing season of missing tornado after tornado. Pete’s money and patience are running out, and he needs to capture some great footage to sell. He’s ready to face the worst Mother Nature can throw at him with his seemingly indestructible, “Mad Max“-esque, tank-like Titus. (Surely, the strength of that vehicle won’t be tested, right?) There’s also Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam Carey), Donnie’s love interest, as well as a couple of fringe comic relief characters, and amateur storm chasers, who are trying to making it big on YouTube. Yes, really. And no, they aren’t funny.
Working from a well worn template, the story eventually sees all these characters converge, with gradually increasing stakes, and ever rising danger from the storm raging around them. While there’s nothing wrong with following a particular cinematic tradition, the exercise quickly becomes dull in “Into The Storm.” The dramatic notes are played with rote predicability — Gary has to rescue Donnie (and forge their broken relationship at the same time), Allison has a little girl waiting for her at home, Matt’s devotion to the job is both cruel and reckless — which leaves all the heavy lifting to the film’s tornado sequences. Aside from the occasionally dodgy CGI, they are impressive, with Quayle clearly in his element during these moments. But even as the storms get bigger and badder, there are only so many ways you can watch objects and people get blown apart or driven away. The film’s inconsistent tone doesn’t help matters either.
Picking on the found footage aspect of the film seems too easy when most movies these days with a similar aesthetic put in as much logic-free thinking as this one. But one can’t forgive a movie that wants audiences to seriously consider the unfathomable danger of a twister, while also tossing in scenes of the aforementioned comic relief characters slamming back beers, yelling incomprehensibly at each other in vaguely Southern drawls, and goofing around and acting like wannabe “Jackass” members. Even when “Into The Storm” attempts to punish them for their stupidity, they still get an extra moment of more gee-whiz yokel hilarity. Quayle’s approach to what he’s depicting on screen often finds him operating in two polar opposite modes, wanting audiences to be in awe of the tremendous power of nature, while enjoying the destruction at the same time. It’s a balance he can’t manage to strike properly, and it flies completely out of his hands during the climax, in a scene that literally sends one character heaven-bound. Then almost like an apology, Quayle tries to wrap “Into The Storm” in the American flag, with a patriotic finale, and a tribute to communities and citizens helping each other out in times of need. The sequence rings so hollow it’s nearly a parody.
However, even within the spinning cylinder of mediocrity that is “Into The Storm,” there are some minor pleasures to be had. Those are mostly found in Walsh, who is probably best known for comedic supporting turns, but makes the most with what is nearly a leading man part here. He wears an authentic attitude of wearniness and worldly experience, and you kind of want to see what someone like Alexander Payne could do with him. And even if the bulk experience is deadening, Quayle does manage to create the occasional genuine thrill before he runs out of tricks. They are not enough to sustain “Into The Storm,” and while the easy dismissal would be to say it blows, the real problem is that the movie doesn’t rage hard enough. [D]