Genevieve: The new sound-and-fury tornado flick Into The Storm has its share of problems (which Tasha helpfully laid out in her review last week), but one of the biggest is the feeling that it’s a film out of time. It’s filmed in the au courant faux-doc style, and has a cursory nod or two to a perceived uptick in megastorms over the last decade, but otherwise, the film feels straight out of 1996, when American pop culture was gripped by a brief burst of cyclone-mania, thanks to one major blockbuster (Twister) and two successful TV movies (Tornado! and Night Of The Twisters) debuting within four months of one another. But except for self-aware made-for-TV hokum like Sharknado, tornadoes and natural disasters of their ilk seem to have mostly fallen out of favor with movie audiences, at least compared to the late-1990s/early-2000s boom in the disaster-flick genre.
On one hand, this is somewhat odd, since moviemaking technology is at a place where even a modestly budgeted disaster flick like the $50 million Into The Storm is capable of rendering intense tornado action that makes Twister’s flying cows look like a student film by comparison. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense: Although natural disasters have been happening since time immemorial, the combination of increased population, improved detection technology, omnipresent media coverage, and concern about climate change and its fallout in the last decade or so certainly makes it seem like the world is being besieged by more catastrophic weather events than ever, all of which lends an icky patina of real-world tragedy to escapist fluff/snuff like Into The Storm. While I was often swept up in the film’s armrest-clutching action in the moment, the after-shots of wide-ranging destruction and the casual deaths of many unnamed extras left me a little queasy, given the resemblance to the deadly 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado. So did the film’s offhand reference to Hurricane Katrina.
While it’s certainly possible for filmmakers to engage with deadly natural disasters in a meaningful, thoughtful way—like 2012’s The Impossible, for instance—I wonder whether our cultural appetite for mindless, escapist destruction at the hands of Mother Earth has been sated by current events, or if Into The Storm is simply part of a cyclical (sorry) trend of disaster movies, which first came into vogue back in the 1970s, before their millennial revival. Or maybe that appetite has been transformed into something else, like, say, pop culture’s current obsession with all things post-apocalyptic. What do you guys think?
Matt: I think disaster movies are being undone by the same thing that inspired Into The Storm’s found-footage structure: widespread smartphones and improved camera technology. When Twister came out in 1996, most viewers had never seen a tornado up close, and there was an inherent allure to finally watching them in action. For audiences who didn’t live in the Midwest, the destruction was so removed from everyday life, there were still plenty of escapist thrills in the swirling chaos of a tornado. Today, there are almost 8 million tornado videos on YouTube, and we’re constantly inundated with real images of real disasters, both natural and man-made, from hurricanes to plane crashes.
In that environment, a movie like Into The Storm is almost inherently superfluous. Why pay $15 to see fake cell-phone footage of a poorly rendered CGI tornado when you can watch thousands of hours of genuine cell-phone footage of authentic tornados for free at home? Some of the disaster sequences in Into The Storm are intense, but they’re also surrounded by some of the most underwhelming characters in disaster-movie history. Digging into the film’s devastation means enduring its turgid dialogue and subplots—yet another reason to just stay home and obsess over real storm footage.
As you say, though, those videos of real twisters remind us of the brutal costs these storms have taken on people and property. Invoking Katrina or climate change, as Into The Storm does, might give the film a bit of real-world relevance, but it also makes it a bit tougher to enjoy the film as mindless fun, or delight in images like the guy who gets sucked up into a fiery tornado. (Or firenado, as it will surely be called in the inevitable Into The Storm direct-to-SyFy sequel.) Maybe it’s impossible to make this kind of disaster movie in 2014 without at least addressing global warming. But maybe that means this kind of disaster movie just doesn’t have a place in 2014 at all.
Or maybe Into The Storm would work better if the film matched its “realistic” visual aesthetic with some people and situations that weren’t drawn straight from the disaster-movie playbook. All genres have their clichés, but disaster movies seem inordinately prone to exploiting theirs, and Into The Storm is no exception, from the large cast of supporting characters who can be plucked off one by one to the bland everyman hero who performs inordinately heroic deeds when the chips are down. (In this case, it’s Richard Armitage, playing the most absurdly competent high-school vice principal in film history.) Why do you guys think disaster movies are so predictable? And what would you say is the worst cliché in Into The Storm? (It’s hard to pick just one, I know.)
Tasha: My vote’s on the ending for worst cliché: The sequence where various characters look directly into the screen and deliver a series of cornball, local-news-worthy reassurances that people are essentially good, that all the characters who really mattered to the audience made it through the storm okay, that Americans are tough and resilient enough to bounce back from an uncontrollable, random, terrifying, overwhelming attack by nature, and that no matter what happens in the future, it’ll all be awesome as long as we all stick together. It’s unclear whom they’re talking to—the tone doesn’t match anything from the preceding hour of the film, and the statements they make don’t seem to be aimed at a real-world audience, so much as an audience from within the film. It’s spectacularly flat and awkward, but hey, there’s a shameless shot of the American flag thrown in to remind us that we can all survive catastrophe together. Because America.
Disaster movies aren’t necessarily predictable, Matt—Snowpiercer is a disaster movie about a global snow-pocalypse, Gravity is about a disaster in space, All Is Lost is about a personal disaster at sea, Cloverfield is about a monster-related disaster. All of them have innovative settings and ideas, and characters more interesting than Richard Armitage’s generic Gary in Into The Storm. And only Snowpiercer has a big cast getting whittled away. The problem may just be that because they’re creative and they’re good films, we don’t tend to categorize them as disaster movies. If we reserve the term specifically for films like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow and The Impossible, where people are fleeing killer weather, or classics like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, where they’re dealing with a broken-down human system killing off a big cast, then disaster movies start to look samey and generic. But that’s like saying a film isn’t really science fiction unless it features a killer robot in space, and then complaining that science fiction is boring and predictable because it’s just a bunch of killer space robots. The more you narrow the field, the narrower the field looks.
To the degree that all disaster movies are the same, I think it’s because of the broad things people go to disaster movies for: the spectacle, and the catharsis of people fighting to survive a desperate situation, and winning out in the end. Disaster movies tend to be pretty moralistic, with selfish/stupid/panicky people dying and the innocent and upright surviving, except for the most selfless people, who sacrifice themselves nobly for the greater good. So there’s often an element of wish-fulfillment satisfaction in them as well. And given how the intensity of a disaster situation tends to turn everyone’s personality up to 11, disaster plots are good for forcing people to reveal their true selves, including strengths or weaknesses they didn’t know they had. So there’s a lot of drama in any disaster scenario, as pretenses and politeness are dropped, and people either reach for their personal benefits and survival, or the good of the group. That’s a commonality that isn’t predictable and boring as far as I’m concerned, because there are so many ways of executing it; it’s a story that does constantly play out in real-world disasters (which Into The Storm only slightly resembles), and there are so many ways to approach it that it can be fresh every time. Genevieve, I’m curious for your answer to Matt’s question about the biggest cliché in Into The Storm, but I’m also curious whether you have favorite disaster movies that do surpass the “predictable and obvious” tag for you.
Genevieve: Hands down, my favorite cliché in Into The Storm is the “face-to-face with the monster” moment, when Matt Walsh’s tornado-chasing documentarian gets up close and personal with the killer tornado, succumbing to a moment of awe at the beautiful, horrible power of nature, just before remembering, “Oh yeah, I’m totally about to die a hideous death.”
I do have to take slight issue, Tasha, with your characterization of Snowpiercer as a disaster movie. I think it falls more into the “post-apocalyptic fiction” category, which is a related but different designation in my eyes, as I alluded to in my first question. Disaster movies are about gawping at the carnage as it happens, while post-apocalyptic movies are more about picking through the wreckage that comes after a major disaster and finding a different set of challenges there. And while post-apocalyptic films necessitate a world-changing event of some sort, one where no one on the planet is spared, disaster films can be a little more compartmentalized, relegating the action to a single, unfortunate town, or cruise ship, or airplane, or whatever. I think discreteness and immediacy are what define disaster movies: This is something that is happening right here, right now, and we’re going to watch people deal with what’s been thrown at them. What comes after isn’t important—hence the vague, “We’re gonna be okay!” platitudes at the end of Into The Storm—nor is what’s happening outside of this specific field of vision. In that sense, I like your characterization of All Is Lost and Gravity as disaster films, and I’ll extend it to another, similar movie I love that I’ve never thought of as a disaster film before, partly because it’s based in real life: Apollo 13. I guess given that most people know the outcome going into the film, it doesn’t necessarily pass the “predictable and obvious” test, but as an in-the-moment experience of people dealing with a sudden, unexpected catastrophe, it certainly fits.
But Tasha’s description of the commonalities of the disaster-movie genre actually made me think of a different, related genre that might help explain the appeal of disaster movies: horror. In general, I don’t care for traditional horror films, because I’m squeamish about gore and jump-scares. But I suspect the vaguely illicit thrill I felt watching a fire-tornado suck up a dumb-shit camera operator in Into The Storm isn’t that different from what a horror fan feels while watching dumb-shit teens get picked off by a masked killer. The two genres also come with a matching set of moral complications, based in deriving pleasure from the suffering of fellow human beings, even if they are fictional creations. In order to enjoy these sorts of films as escapism, viewers have to be able to maintain a certain distance between what’s happening onscreen and their own experience; these sorts of movies realize our worst fears, and that’s only thrilling if you can maintain the “It’s only a movie” divide. For that reason, when it comes to catastrophic events I actually fear (as opposed to, say, Godzilla attacks), I tend to like my disaster movies as over-the-top ridiculous as possible, and populated by the thinnest-drawn characters lazy screenwriters have to offer—which is why I’ve seen The Day After Tomorrow more times than I care to admit. Global weather catastrophes do scare me, and I am afraid of the effects of climate change on our future, but I feel pretty confident none of it will play out like it does in that movie, with the wolves on ships, and characters being chased by cold. So it’s easier to get caught up in the spectacle and feel that rush of catharsis without triggering real-life fears.
What do you think, Matt? Can you derive legit thrills from this genre’s more over-the-top, ridiculous trappings, or is a bad movie a bad movie no matter how you slice it?
Matt: First of all Genevieve, it’s not a “fire-tornado.” It’s a firenado. That’s just science.
To your question, I think there absolutely are horror—or, more specifically, slasher—elements to the way disaster movies dispatch their characters, who tend to be divided into the two types Tasha mentioned earlier: People We Want To Survive, and People We Want To Be Killed In Horrible Ways. Just as we might enjoy a cold chuckle when Jason filets a couple of “dumb-shit teens,” we might also find sadistic thrills in the untimely demises of people too stupid to extricate themselves from potentially disastrous situations. It’s sort of like laughing at the Darwin Awards; yeah, these people died, and enjoying that is morally indefensible. But there’s also a sneaky feeling that the victims also had it coming. In the case of Into The Storm, there are definitely some characters we are supposed to be rooting for, like noble Richard Armitage on a quest to save his missing son, and characters we should be rooting against, like Richard Armitage’s idiot boss, a high-school principal who thinks it’s a good idea to hold a graduation ceremony outside when the forecast calls for firenados.
The problem with Into The Storm is that it so badly bungles its characters and their various subplots that it inverts the intended sympathies: Armitage’s Gary is so impossibly competent and noble, and his son is such an obnoxiously hunky “geek,” that it’s hard to care whether they live or die. Meanwhile, the cannon-fodder characters, like the pair of redneck amateur daredevils who decide to start chasing twisters in order to become YouTube stars, are so comparatively fun, I hoped they wouldn’t get killed, even though they were clearly headed for trouble right from their first scene. And the movie never even offs the stupid principal, even though he’s the one who puts everyone in harm’s way. That’s the sort of stuff that separates a bad disaster movie from the “legitimate thrills” of a good one.
Still, I’ll confess: When the storm-chasing cameraman who spends the entire movie worrying about getting killed by a tornado finally summons his courage and then is not only killed by a tornado, but burned alive and torn apart by a firenado, I cackled like a horrible, heartless monster. Tasha, does that make me a bad person or a good viewer? What is the “correct” response to a disaster-movie scene like that one? And how guilty should I feel about the pleasure I take in writing the word firenado over and over?
Tasha: Pretty guilty. I think you’re trying to make fetch happen, Matt, and it’s so annoying that I’m now rooting for you to get trapped inside a burning building that happens to have been built atop a luxury liner that’s sinking in the middle of an ocean inexplicably torn by one of those giant oceanic ice storms we’ve heard so little about lately. And yes, I’m a little disturbed by your glee at watching that cameraman get sucked into the maelstrom and burned alive, especially since the scene was played for horror, not laughs—it’s even followed by a dutiful, obligatory scene where the characters clash over who’s responsible for his death, and proclaim that they all feel really terrible about it. (Then he’s never mentioned or thought of again, which makes it pretty clear how little Into The Storm cares about anything but the spectacle.)
I think it’s notable that the last film Into The Storm director Steven Quale helmed was Final Destination 5, yet another installment in the mechanical, comically over-the-top series about death itself engineering preposterous coincidences to bump off a bunch of young, generically pretty people who managed to dodge a fatal accident early in the film. There’s a horror franchise that doesn’t care about its characters in the slightest, and that exists only for the morbid glee of, “Oh my God, look how that guy died!” Into The Storm does at least do better than that, but still has a flatness and apathy about the human connection, a feeling that most of the characters are just mouthing dull approximations of meaningful characteristics, without the actors engaging with the material. (Except Matt Walsh, whom I really liked, and the reliable Scott Lawrence, who sold his stuffy firenado-defying principal pretty well.)
And that, for me, tends to kill any interest in disaster or horror movies. While I appreciate what Genevieve says about cheesy, over-the-top films feeling safer and less emotionally wracking, and I’ve certainly done the gawp-and-titter thing over particularly gruesome or surprising deaths in horror films, watching fake people die in fakey ways, which then prompts big, brief fakey responses in their fakey friends, just doesn’t touch on what I find interesting about cinema at all.
At their best, disaster films can reach beyond cheap spectacle and catharsis, and create a bond between the audience and the protagonists. I think we all want to think we’d do well in a crisis, that we’d keep our heads, help other people, and make smart choices that would let us survive. And seeing that modeled onscreen can be satisfying and—as much I dread saying this—uplifting. There’s a satisfaction in seeing a believable character in a film pull off something we hope, in our secret fantasies, we’re good enough to do ourselves. That for me is where disaster movies become interesting—not in watching paper-cutout people fail, but in watching interesting ones succeed.
And failing that, there are at least films like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, which explores how people cope with an inevitable disaster, or Peter Weir’s Fearless, about how people grapple with survivors’ high or survivors’ guilt—films that do something interesting and daring with the idea of disaster, and what it raises in us. For me, any film about calamity that doesn’t use the trope to explore some aspect of being human—not being chum in a blender, but being a person—is a bigger disaster than whatever crisis the characters are facing.