“Into the Storm” opens Friday at Point, Eastgate and Star Cinemas. PG-13, 1 hour 29 minutes, two and a half stars out of four.
Four teenagers are out in their SUV, planning a makeout session on a dark and stormy night. One of them sees something mysterious up ahead, and, over the objections of his friends, decides to investigate. Dumb move, kid — they all get killed.
Not by Freddie Krueger, or by Jason. By weather.
“Into the Storm” is a disaster thriller that, at least in that prologue and several other points in the film, plays off horror movie tropes to get its jolts. (No surprise that Steven Quale, a Sun Prairie native, last directed the final “Final Destination” movie.) These are tornadoes that can appear seemingly out of nowhere and sneak up on the unwary; in one scene, using classic horror movie framing, we see a door slowly open behind an unsuspecting victim. Only it’s blown open. The movie is even shot as “found footage,” a gimmick that horror movies burned out on five years ago.
Aside from those touches, “Into the Storm” is a decent enough workout for your local multiplex big screen and sound system. After that jolt from the prologue, the film takes an unusual (gratifyingly so) amount of time setting up the protagonists of the film. Max Deacon is Donnie, a nice high school kid living under the thumb of his widowed father (Richard Armitage of “The Hobbit,” surely the buffest vice principal in the history of public education.) Matt Walsh of “Veep” is Pete, a documentary filmmaker leading a group of storm chasers (including Sarah Wayne Callies of “The Walking Dead”) around Oklahoma in search of a killer storm. Somewhere in there is a couple of good ol’ boys for whom a tornado might provide fodder for the ultimate YouTube video.
Quale builds suspense slowly, teasing us with reports of tornadoes that never touch down and giant red blobs approaching on weather maps. When the first tornado hits and tears the local high school a new one (in the middle of graduation), Callies intones “We ain’t seen nothing yet.” Of all the carnage, my favorite is a small, surreal touch, the sight of a girl’s tricycle embedded in the side of an SUV.
Pretty soon tornadoes are crashing helicopters, flipping cars, even sucking up flames into a deadly firespout. This is uncut destruction porn, but “Into the Storm” does a pretty good job balancing its meteorological pyrotechnics against the plight of its heroes caught in the middle. I especially liked Walsh, a founding member of the improv comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade in a more serious role, playing the kind of arrogant dillweed who usually gets offed in the first 30 minutes, only to survive and become a more interesting character.
In the end, though, when a mile-wide storm is sending tanker trucks and cargo planes into the air, the CGI effects win out over the human drama, and the climax is largely the actors hunkering down in a drainage ditch as everything goes boom around them. And an optimistic, triumph-of-the-human-spirit denouement feels awfully forced.
Plus, all those tornadoes, and they couldn’t figure out a way to put one shark in there?