"Into the Storm," released nationwide on Aug. 8, follows a team of storm trackers as they chase down massive tornadoes pummeling small towns across the western U.S. What's that? You're thinking, 'Not the most original idea for a movie.'?
Hold on. This movie will blow you away! It won't win any awards for nuance or sophisticated drama, but its special effects are state-of-the-art astounding. Watching the film in the theater, as some of these best effects played out on the big screen, my mouth often dropped open in awe.
Which reminds me: this is the kind of movie best seen on a big screen in a theater. No doubt about that.
Directed by Steven Quale (who worked on 2009's "Avatar") and written by newcomer John Swetnam, the film has several story lines going: There are the storm trackers, including the rough-and-tumble boss, Pete; the beautiful, intelligent meteorologist, Alison; the amiable driver, Daryl; and the eventually frightened cameraman, Jacob. There's the high school graduation ceremonies taking place in the town of Silverton, right in the path of one of the monster storms. There are family and human connections emphasized all over the film: between a father and his two sons; between Alison and her faraway young daughter (with whom she connects via cell phone and Skype); and between high school junior Donnie, and his fetching school friend Kaitlyn. There's also the connections shown between the rescuers and the victims.
And everyone is taking movies in this movie: Donnie is filming interviews he calls "time capsules" with the town's residents. A group of town slackers are filming wild stunts in their backyards, with dreams of YouTube riches and women. And, of course, the storm trackers are filming the skies and the funnel clouds and all the power of Mother Nature.
That's the real story here, the storm. How in the world the technicians created these visual and special effects is beyond me, but somehow they have caught wonderful images. One example: there's a scene where a tornado has hit an airport, sending numerous airplanes up into the air, spinning like toys in the wild wind. It's an image unlike any I have ever seen, and it won't be soon forgotten.
The drama of the film is the power of mother nature versus the power of human connections.
By the way, when I checked the Internet Movie Database, imdb.com, to see who had done the special and visual effects, I was astounded at the long list of names. Pages after pages of names.
But we live in a visual age. These film technicians -- including the entire cast and crew -- are artists of our time, telling stories, in the same way that Charles Dickens was an artist of his time telling stories, or William Shakespeare, or Marcel Proust, or any of the greats of years past.
How do the mere mortals of the story fare when faced with the incredible power of Nature, of not one, not two, but several converging tornadoes, what is deemed the biggest in history? Well, it's tough going, but at film's end, there's a good feeling that mankind will pull through.
Of course this is Hollywood, and this is Show Business. Many of the characters in the story may be a bit more beautiful or handsome than the kind of people we see everyday. And of course the effects are heightened. Reality is turned up a notch or two. Nevertheless: there are tornadoes in the real world; there are disasters; and there are tragedies everyday. Hollywood just turns up the volume on all that.
Perhaps in a way these kinds of movies are about us facing the real monster storm of Mother Nature: our own mortality.
In addition to the big effects, there were small moments and touches I enjoyed about this film. For example, the soft lighting used in the scenes between Donnie and Kaitlyn in a factory where they've scheduled an ill-fated meeting for an environmental project.
The acting is first-rate across the cast. Standouts for me included Max Deacon, who portrayed the young Donnie, and Matt Walsh, who played the character of Pete, the guiding force of the storm tracker team. Deacon, who appeared in 2012's "I, Anna," captures the right innocence and anger of a high school junior. And Walsh, a native Chicagoan who acts and writes, mixes the right degrees of roughness and humanity in his portrayal of the boss behind the steering wheel, snarling orders and peering up into the sky.
I spoke with two men after a matinee screening on Aug. 13 at Cinemark Century Evanston about their reactions. Philip Williams is 25 years old and lives in Chicago, in the West Ridge neighborhood on the northwest side. "It was action-packed," Williams said. "It was good. It was a thriller. The tornadoes were realistic," he said. Asked what in particular he liked, he continued, "The effects. The effects are what really got me."
John Diederich, 63, of Chicago's Edgewater area, also liked the film -- probably even more than Mr. Williams. A realtor by trade, Diederich also singled out the special effects as the best feature of the film.
Remarking on the several tornadoes in the story, Diederich, approving, said, "And they split it so instead of one big event it was several."
Comparing "Into the Storm" with 1996's "Twister" (which starred Helen Hunt), Diederich said he liked the new film "much better." According to the Chicagoan, "''Twister' just had one big tornado, and then it was over. This (new movie) was super: the two big tornadoes that were merged into one."
Diederich also said he "liked the characters." He went on, "It had a little story. It was good."
Back in the mid-1960s, when Diederich was a teenager, he actually experienced a tornado first-hand. He was a student at Lyons Township High School, in La Grange, when a storm hit the school. "It zipped through as we were all in the hallways," he recalled. "We were all freaked out."
Asked what he thought a message of "Into the Storm" might be, Diederich recalled a quote from one of the characters. "Live everyday like it's going to be your last," he said.
Want to stay up-to-date with the latest movies and cultural events? Type your e-mail address in the box below, and click "create subscription.” It's free, there's no spam, and you can cancel whenever you want.