I must admit that I have a bit of a storm fetish. Perhaps it comes from growing up in the Kootenays. On late summer afternoons, thunderstorms tend to roll in like clockwork, transforming blue skies to black in a matter of moments. Sunny beach scenes turn into Armageddon. Boaters bolt for cover as the wind kicks up and huge yellow-green waves threaten to dump water-skiers and fair weather sailors into the dark depths of Kootenay Lake. When lightning arcs across the sky, the dogs whine to be let in so they can hide under the dining room table, and the humans run madly around unplugging their various computers, routers and even the phone. If you're lucky, you get a front row seat to the ultimate fireworks show, lightning, thunder and curtains of rain roiling across the valley. Ten minutes later, it's usually all over and everyone goes back to doing what they were doing before.
There is a discernable pattern at work, one that is age old and understandable. But things are changing.
The most cursory look at the news will reveal extremities of weather, floods on the East Coast, and drought in the West. In unexpected ways, animals appear to be feeling the effects. There is an inherent, almost biblical, aspect to some of these events that would give even the most entrenched atheist a bit of pause. Immensity of violence is one thing, but fierce storms are also often insanely beautiful to witness.
If you're looking for an entertaining bit of disaster porn, Into the Storm is not it. It's what might generously be called terrible. But it points up something that is difficult to ignore, namely that the weather is often the biggest and most dramatic show in town these days.
Look at the flying car!
The one uniting quality of Into the Storm and reality is the tendency of humans to stand in the path of imminent disaster and destruction and simply watch it happen. This is where things kick off in the film with a group of high school kids in a car, watching a tornado approach. Instead of running away, they film the power lines exploding in showers of sparks, until the funnel cloud finally reaches them, picks up their car, and treats it like a cocktail shaker. Bloody margarita mix for everyone. After that bravura opening, things quiet down for a bit.
In the nearby town of Silverton, the local high school graduating class is assembling in caps and gowns for their commencement ceremony. The action is presided over by the blandest human being alive, one school vice-principal named Gary Morris (played by human cottage cheese Richard Armitage). Father to two teenage sons (Donnie and Trey), Gary has his work cut out for him. His kids, after lipping off to him in typical teenage fashion, are also busily filming everything they see in order to prepare a video time capsule to be opened some 25 years in the future.
Yes, 25 years in the future... what will that look like exactly? By the year 2040, we will be well past the date set by climate scientists at the Copenhagen Summit of 2009, where it was generally agreed that a rise of 2 C was the maximum limit for global warming. (More on that in a bit.) Predictions differ, of course, but estimates for this date maintain that current carbon dioxide emissions (happening right now) won't even have taken full effect. By then, however, according to various scientifically arrived at scenarios, there will be drought-like conditions in the U.S. that decimate food production. Vanished ice packs around the globe will result in shrinking major rivers and major water shortages. And everyone will have bedbugs. Except this time, we will be eating them, instead of the other way around. (I made that last bit up, but you get the picture: the prognosis is grim.)
Back to 2014, where we still have the luxury of making entertainment out of disaster.
Across town a documentary filmmaker/storm chaser named Pete and his crew are at the end of a three-month stretch of looking for tornados to film, and finding zilch. Allison Stone, a weather expert and all-around bummer, supplements Pete's posse of grad students. (Allison is played by Sarah Wayne Callies, who was universally loathed as Lori on The Walking Dead). Everything she says is irritating, but she's the most sympathetic character here. Armed to the teeth with scopes, charts, knobs and an armored vehicle called Titus, this crew of storm chasers have more equipment than James Cameron. But even with all of their gear, they are at the mercy of Mother Nature, who can be a fickle old cow. She has been withholding storm action and the crew is on the verge of giving up the chase, when word comes down that things are looking up.
Seems a series of twisters have touched down and are swirling towards the Silverton high school. "Run kids run!!!" might be the most logical thing to say, but no one does. The commencement speeches drone on while a wall of black clouds assembles overhead. Even as their school is being torn to shreds, everyone has their phone out to catch the action including little Trey who keeps filming, like a good millennial. Because if you didn't film it, did it really happen?
Meanwhile, older brother Donnie and his secret crush Kaitlyn have gone off to visit the old paper mill and film the decay and pollution therein. The storm brings down the entire building on top of them, burying them underneath piles of rubble and wrought iron. To add an extra level of piquancy, a pipe bursts and water begins to flood in. Just before their cell phones die, they manage to get a message off to boring dad, alerting him to their predicament, then set about filming themselves breathing, perhaps, their last.
Riding it out
All of this is really just filler. The real star of the show is just getting warmed up, and she is ready for her close up. After destroying the school and the mill, the storm wafts away to wreak havoc on used car lots, trailer parks and suburban McMansions. What a diva! Most of the time, our little band of humans simply stare dumbly at the Cuisinart in the sky bearing down on them and ripping solid building asunder. Cars, the sides of buildings, the occasional cow, are falling all around them, but no one appears unduly fazed. This is the kind of film that tips you off to the immediate demise of certain characters, by stating, "This time next week, generic actor #1, you will be sipping margaritas on the beach with your smoking hot girlfriend." Well, no actually, as you will be rendered genuinely smoking hot when you are sucked into the middle of a firenado, which is precisely like it sounds, a tornado on fire.
The only thing missing here is a shark or two, swirling around, snapping at Tara Reid's runaway boobies. Into the Storm isn't quite in the category of dumbness reserved for Sharknado and Sharknado 2: The Second One, which takes bad filmmaking to some new celebratory place. But it occasionally comes close, especially in the characterization of two idiots who, emboldened by the Jackass ethos, decide to ride their ATVs into the heart of the storm and film what happens next. If only they were suitably rewarded for their troubles.
But this is really only a prelude to the real show, which is a convergence of tornados turning into a massive shaggy beast, an EF5 tornado that threatens to tear everyone a new one. It's the ultimate blow job, folks! This is the money shot, if you will, in disaster porn, the moment when all the action converges, and stuff flies everywhere.
The kids take shelter in a storm drain, and in an effort to save the dumb teenagers, documentarian Pete, who has up until now behaved like a royal shit, puts his life at profound risk by stationing his armoured vehicle in the front of the storm grate in an effort to shield those inside from totally pissed off Mama Nature.
Into the Storm occasionally seems to be a retelling of the life and death of a storm chaser named Tim Samaras, who was killed on May 31, 2013 when a tornado picked up his car, and obliterated it, along with everyone inside. Samaras, along with his son and another storm chaser were also killed.
The National Geographic piece is interesting in its description of mechanics of a tornado, but it really picks up speed when describing the capriciousness of the storm. Some people lived, and others did not. Reading descriptions of what happens to the victims of a tornado -- skin abraded like they were sandblasted -- is terrifying even on the page. Other folk were sucked right out of their cars, battered to bits. Cars, trucks and trailers were lifted into the sky, turned into the equivalent of squashed tin cans, while a passel of cows were picked up, swirled around, and then deposited back on the ground with nary a scratch. There is no denying the innate and profound fascination that storms invoke in humans.
As Allison, Into the Storm's annoying meteorologist, states, super storms used to be once in a century type events but now occur roughly every year. Real scientists confirm that the violence of storms is on the rise. Researchers from Florida State University concluded, "The Oklahoma City tornado on May 31, 2013, was the largest tornado ever recorded, with a path of destruction measuring 2.6 miles in width." But tornados are perhaps only the most highly visible aspect of climate change. Methane bubbles aren't as cinematic, but perhaps will prove more deadly than anything else.
I don't want to ruin your fun good times by telling you that we're boned... so let's let Naomi Klein do that instead.
Klein's new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate drops this September. You can get a cursory feel for the subject in a piece she wrote last year for The New Statesman entitled "How science is telling us all to revolt."
The article begins with Brad Werner's presentation at the 2013 American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, entitled "Is Earth Fucked?"
Writes the fine Ms. Klein: "Standing at the front of the conference room, the geophysicist from the University of California, San Diego walked the crowd through the advanced computer model he was using to answer that question. He talked about system boundaries, perturbations, dissipation, attractors, bifurcations and a whole bunch of other stuff largely incomprehensible to those of us uninitiated in complex systems theory. But the bottom line was clear enough: global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that "earth-human systems" are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When pressed by a journalist for a clear answer on the "are we fucked" question, Werner set the jargon aside and replied, "More or less."
Going to ground
So back to the film in question, which ends with a bunch of hearty Americans promising to rebuild as they walk off into the broken devastation of what was once their town. Maybe they ought to rethink that idea since that non-reflective can-do spirit is what helped cause there to be more super storms like the one that flattened their world.
As Klein argues, assumptions of endless growth need a rethink. "[O]ur entire economic paradigm is a threat to ecological stability. And indeed... challenging this economic paradigm -- through mass-movement counter-pressure -- is humanity's best shot at avoiding catastrophe."
Consensus on the need to do anything we can to avert climate change is well nigh universal among scientists. Klein argues that scientists are the ones holding the key to slowing the machine down long enough to let other groups mobilize for action. But science itself is under threat, especially in our dumb sweet Canada, where the Harper administration has set about shutting down libraries, destroying research and muzzling scientists.
That's why it doesn't work too well when a silly little film like Into the Storm tries to make a villain out of nature. The true villains are humans who possess powers of reason and collective action, yet refuse to change their behavior, and economic system, in the face of so violent a signal from nature. Such villains make the rest of humanity pay for their sins.
Let's return to the Kootenays for a moment, or anywhere, really, where you can see rocks, mountains, water and sky, and sit and watch a storm roll in. Let that storm shake you, move you. Then ask yourself, "Who is blowing whom?"
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