Steven Quale’s Into the Storm, which opens Aug. 8, is exactly what it sounds like: a movie about people getting all up into a humongous storm. The film is rated PG-13 in part due to its “sequences of intense destruction and peril.” (Two words: fire tornadoes. That’s TORNADOES on FIRE, people.) The movie takes place during a tornado outbreak in an urban setting and uses found-footage techniques to try to make it seem more realistic.
A recent interview with Quale (spoilers!) gives a bit of insight into the shape of the movie, but here are the basics: It’s the last day of school, and during the graduation ceremony, all manner of weather hell breaks loose. There’s lots of running and screaming, there are some storm chasers who try to capture the whole thing on film, and there’s a romance between the guy from The Hobbit (Richard Armitage) and the woman from The Walking Dead (Sarah Wayne Callies). Finally, half the town gets airlifted—free of charge—into the next county amid a smattering of twisters. The official trailer was released last week:
Even though it’s quite clear that movies like this aren’t meant to be documentaries, it’s hard to totally take my scientist hat off. As a meteorologist and former storm chaser, I'm offering a blow-by-blow of the various degrees of far-fetchedness featured in our first 2½-minute glimpse Into the Storm:
0:24: An outdoor high-school graduation ceremony comes to an abrupt end as tornado sirens wail.
This is an area of great consternation for meteorologists. Why aren’t more outdoor activities (like professional sporting events) postponed due to the threat of severe weather? The truth is, they are, but weather forecasters obviously aren’t perfect. It’s hard for event organizers to know just where to draw the line and how to balance the logistics of rescheduling and the blowback if bad weather never materializes. As a result, tragedy still happens frequently. Just this weekend, an Ohio soccer fan was struck by lightning at a Columbus Crew match. He remains in critical condition in a medically induced coma.
0:27: “Get away from the window!”
As the crowd takes to the school hallway, a student continues filming the storm from indoors, with predictable results. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows and outdoor flying debris don’t mix well.
0:34: “Get down, face the wall, cover your heads!”
The wind tunnel effect kicks into full gear as the tornado starts ripping off the school’s roof, complete with people getting sucked through the hallway. How fast would winds have to be to lift someone off his feet? For this meteorologist at New Hampshire's Mount Washington Observatory (known as “Home of the World's Worst Weather”), the threshold was 112 mph.
0:55: Hail falls in a hotel swimming pool as storm chasers enter their mobile command center.
When I was storm chasing in Oklahoma back in 2005 (before I failed all my grad school classes and had to take up journalism instead … ), we barely had mobile Internet. I’d imagine this is what some of the higher-end storm-chasing outfits look like now. The mobile radar trucks we used had a limited capacity for real-time radar displays inside the truck, but that really wasn’t their purpose. The main goal for storm-chasing scientists is to do science (usually from afar, with the real-time data backed up to computers for later analysis), not to place themselves directly in the path of a tornado.
1:08: Dominator™-type chase vehicle whizzes onto the scene.
Thanks to the reality show-ization of storm chasing in recent years, the appearance of an armored chase vehicle here helps perpetuate stereotypes about storm chasers being crazy rednecks with death wishes and egos the size of the storms they’re chasing. As I’ve recently said, these kinds of chasers are probably a detriment to the science, but that’s not really their goal anyway. What my previous article didn’t make very clear is that there’s a big difference between storm chasers (Exhibit A, here) and storm spotters (typically scientists, trained local residents, or public safety professionals like police) whose primary task is to report specific cloud structures to the National Weather Service for public warning purposes in a much less dramatic fashion. The latter are still very much needed even with recent upgrades in technology. What’s not needed are hordes of people trying to all outdo one another for the best camera angle.
1:17: Stabilizer spikes on chase vehicle
This is a real thing. IMAX filmmaker Sean Casey has outfitted his chase vehicle with hydraulic powered stabilizing spikes, which helped produce clear footage for his 2011 movie Tornado Alley.
1:25: Southern accents
A must for any movie involving storm chasing.