It starts with the distant sound of thunder. But those tempests won't stay distant for long, oh no. This film isn't called "Into the Storm" for nothing.
Basically a B picture with a sizable effects budget, "Into the Storm" knows you bought your ticket for the tornadoes, not the dramatics, and acts accordingly. Its story line and performances are no more than serviceable, but those terrible twisters are state of the art.
Hollywood has tackled nasty weather systems before, most notably in 1996's "Twister," directed by Jan de Bont, starring Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton and featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his more obscure supporting roles as storm chaser Dustin "Dusty" Davis.
Special-effects technology has advanced considerably in the intervening years and, as orchestrated by visual effects producer Randall Starr, "Storm" features an entire smorgasbord of effects, which Starr is happy to delineate in the press notes: "traditional wedge tornadoes, slender rope tornadoes, a fire tornado and a massive two-mile-wide tornado." Whew.
Though those intense, unnerving storm systems have no trouble holding our attention, the same cannot be said for the rest of the film, which does have a promising premise but lacks the wherewithal to make the most of it.
As written by John Swetnam and directed by Steven Quale (whose last film was the horror item "Final Destination 5"), "Storm" was conceived as a point-of-view film. Everything we see is footage shot by one of the characters, which has the effect of putting the audience behind the camera.
The "Storm" cast is capable if little known. (The biggest name is Richard Armitage, who plays exiled dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield in the "Hobbit" films.) But none of them has anything particularly new or involving to do with themselves until those winds start howling.
Met first is a team of professional storm chasers who have been rattling around the country for months in the Titus, a tank-like vehicle specially built down to its bulletproof Lexan windows and 4 millimeters of steel armor plating to withstand the toughest of tornadoes. Or so Pete Moore (Matt Walsh) thinks.
A dyspeptic documentary filmmaker, Moore is after "a sight nobody but God has witnessed: the eye of the tornado." So he is more than a little miffed that the team's resident meteorologist, Allison Stone (Sarah Wayne Callies), has been unsuccessful in guiding the crew to places where tornadoes are about to touch down. Her luck, however, is about to change.
Stone suggests a tiny town called Silverton, Okla., and though Moore grumbles, we know she's right this time. The film has already introduced us to a few of Silverton's citizens, and that wouldn't have happened if a storm wasn't headed in their direction.
Sixteen-year-old high school junior Donnie Morris (Max Deacon), head of the video club, has the standard issue array of teen problems. His younger brother Trey (Nathan Kress) is obnoxious, his father Gary (Armitage), the school's vice principal, is always on his case, and Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam-Carey), the girl he has a crush on, barely knows he's alive. Can you imagine.
Silverton is also the home to the film's nominal comic relief, a pair of moronic amateur thrill seekers named Donk (Kyle Davis) and Reevis (Jon Reep) who will try anything in the hope of getting footage that will go viral on YouTube and make them famous.
Once the storm chasers arrive in Silverton and all that bad weather makes itself known, "Into the Storm" kicks into a more effective gear. It's no spoiler to reveal that these tornadoes just happen to be the biggest storms that ever were, and watching them chew up buildings like they were so many corn bread muffins can't help but be involving.
Praise also goes to production designer David R. Sandefur, who among other things saw to it that the sight of the chaotic wreckage those tornadoes left behind them is as unnerving as the twisters themselves. "I waited my whole life for a storm like this," top chaser Moore says, and "Into the Storm" shows us that that wait has not been in vain.
'Into the Storm'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for scenes of intense destruction and peril, language, sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: In general release