‘What we are dealing with,” Richard Dreyfuss’s dorky Hooper tells the arrogant Mayor Vaughn in Jaws, “is a perfect engine, an eating machine.” If Jaws is the perfect revenge-of-nature film, it’s precisely because the man-eating shark is just that: an engine. It kills, it eats, it reproduces. It doesn’t care that the local police chief is afraid of water. It’s not bothered by some ornery sea captain’s vendetta against it. It is totally ambivalent to the world it’s destroying. And that’s terrifying.
Into The Storm throws down an even more perfect mechanism of destruction: a tornado. Or rather, a series of tornadoes. Or …well … it’s more like a bunch of tornadoes (one of which catches fire at one point) that wind through each other’s paths until they form an enormous supertornado, whipping across the full length of the movie screen, a monstrous turbine of totally unfeeling mayhem.
Except maybe it’s not dispassionate. Maybe it’s more than just an engine chugging along. In an epoch of films with names like Heaven Is For Real and TV programs like HBO’s The Leftovers (a post-Rapture soap that seems to posit the existence of God as an actual fact), is it so weird that a scrappy summer blockbuster – budgeted at $50-million (U.S.), peanuts by Marvel Studios standards – functions as a barely veiled Christian allegory?
After all, this is a film where characters talk about their faith binding them together; where an empty church provides sanctuary for hardscrabble storm chasers; where the reluctant hero (funnyman Matt Walsh) redeems himself and is literally carried into the clouds, where he bears witness to a blinding white light that might as well be the Lord’s good grace.
There’s plenty of redemption and salvation here, as the citizens of a small Midwestern town duck and cover for 90 minutes as the supertwister rips through the main streets and middle schools of a picturesque, practically Rockwellian America. But Into The Storm is more attuned to the Old Testament stuff: fire and brimstone, Biblical plagues, trial and tribulations of the human spirit ripped straight out of the Book of Job. In the eye of the storm is The Hobbit’s Richard Armitage, as a brawny high-school vice principal and single dad, shouldered with saving his two sons while keeping an entire town safely huddled in the school building. There’s also a team of documentarians headquartered in a roving tank called the Titus. In keeping with the film’s reverence-for-nature theme, the vehicle shares its name with the Roman commander who led the siege of Jerusalem. It’s as if chasing a tornado is not just foolhardy, but an actual affront to God. And buddy, you should see how God can hit back when He whips a whole bunch of air around.
The film is assembled, as is boringly de rigueur (especially for cheap movies looking to hide their cheapness), in found-footage style, with characters constantly filming everything around them, even when doing so may be totally stupid and dangerous. More often than not, the style opens itself to all kinds of nagging questions. Who is collecting and assembling this footage? Who is licensing Aerosmith songs for the soundtrack? Why is the video quality of a late-model iPhone consistent with that of a professional-grade digital camera?
Into The Storm makes overtures at answering these questions, with characters reminding each other that the footage can save lives. It serves a higher purpose – the highest purpose, even. The film elevates its revenge of nature environmentalism into a ham-handed Edenic parable, its characters wrung through a ringer of righteous suffering in order that they be reminded that they are stewards of the Earth, and each other. To paraphrase a conversation early in the film, we take care of nature, or nature takes care of us.
It’s all very, very silly – not to mention off-puttingly earnest. But it’s a good deal more entertaining than Sunday school.