Disaster movies are by design not long on character development. Instead they bank on our love of being virtually, vicariously in fear for lives.
Still, they need to establish personalities deep enough to care about, or at least halfheartedly root for. Despite spending the first interminable 20 minutes attempting just that in the earnestly unrealistic manner of an after-school special, “Into the Storm” quickly spirals downward into a vortex of vapidity.
The action transpires in a single momentous day in the life of small-town Silverton, Okla., where an assistant high school principal (Richard Armitage, best known for playing Thorin in the “Hobbit” films) and his two teen sons prepare for a graduation ceremony destined to be interrupted by an unrelenting series of mighty winds.
Meanwhile, a group of storm chasers including meteorologist Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies of “The Walking Dead”) are casing the joint following a twister that recently claimed the lives of four teens in a car. Shoved in for meager comic relief are Donk and Reevis (which not coincidentally rhymes with Beevis), a slack-jawed ”Jackass”-wannabe duo.
Director Steven Quale, who honed his craft under James Cameron on “Titanic” and “Avatar,” takes full advantage of digital enhancements made available since Miss Gulch rode her bicycle across the sky in “The Wizard of Oz,” but also effectively adds realism with some handheld camera work and footage shot by real-life storm chasers.
Trouble is, after the first few roof-ripping tornadoes tear through town, the movie is oddly short on suspense. The snake’s nest of funnel clouds racing across the terrain packing winds of 200 miles per hour often seem to pause conveniently for a line or two of stilted dialogue to be uttered. The biggest nail-biter of a scene involves not whirling tornadic activity, but rather two teens stuck under debris as water rises to their chins.
The numbing effect of seeing so many objects and the occasional human buffeted about and sucked into the ether forces the mind to wander. Where did the hundreds of other Silverton residents go, and why is there no evidence of carnage, not so much as a random severed limb, alongside all the flattened buildings and crumpled cars? Why were a bunch of semitrucks lined up next to some passenger jets, other than that they look so cool somersaulting through the turbulent air side by side? Why would you seek shelter in a storm drain right after two in your party almost drowned from being trapped in water?
Such questions wouldn’t occur if you were on the edge of your seat. But the biggest lesson of “Into the Storm” — beyond ensuring you’re near a concrete underground bunker at all times — is that story still rules.