Back in ye olde summer of 1996, few could have imagined that we would eventually look back fondly on Jan de Bont’s “Twister” as the kind of movie “they” don’t make like they used to. And yet, a scant two decades later, here comes “Into the Storm” to prime that nostalgic tear. An all-but-official redo of de Bont’s film for the YouTube/Instagram generation, director Steven Quale’s found-footage Frankenstorm extravaganza generates even more racket than its predecessor (especially in theaters equipped with the new Dolby Atmos sound system) and markedly less human interest — up to and including a shameless heart-tugging coda that wraps itself in Old Glory more snugly than a Tea Party sleepover. Ultimately little more than a feature-length demo reel for nine credited VFX companies, this mid-budget New Line Cinema slate filler may earn some quick late-summer coin from undiscriminating teen auds; all others are advised to save it for a very rainy day.
Beyond the many self-conscious “Twister” callbacks — the small-town Oklahoma setting, the teams of rival storm chasers, a storm of golf-ball-sized hail, an airborne cow — screenwriter John Swetnam (last year’s dreary “Evidence”) and Quale (“Final Destination 5”) do themselves no additional favors by making copious nods in the direction of Quale’s own filmmaking mentor, James Cameron, which only serve to underscore how difficult it is to replicate Cameron’s precision-calibrated balance of the human and the humongous. By the time Quale (who served as second unit director on “Titanic” and “Avatar”) gives us his own version of star-crossed teenage lovers holding on to each other for dear life in a rapidly flooding basement, it’s the movie itself that’s barely treading water. Elsewhere, he has made over “Veep” actor Matt Walsh into a veritable dead ringer for Cameron as Pete Moore, a dogged, storm-chasing documentary filmmaker determined to get “the shot of the century.”
At least Pete has something resembling an actual personality in a movie where most of the characters are so plastic you have to remind yourself this isn’t a sequel to “The Lego Movie.” (It seems a safe bet that this cast does not include two future Oscar winners, a la “Twister’s” Helen Hunt and Philip Seymour Hoffman.) Front and center is stolid Silverton High School vice principal Gary (“The Hobbit” star Richard Armitage) and the two teenage sons from whom he has become predictably distant following the predictably untimely death of the boys’ mother (who, for added value, was also divorced from Gary). So the Freudian storm clouds hover thickly before the atmospheric ones have even moved in — which, when they do, make a beeline for the school, on graduation day.
Hot on their trail are Pete and his team, consisting of an unsurprisingly green camera operator (Jeremy Sumpter) who wonders if the job is really worth the risk, and a single-mom meteorologist (Sarah Wayne Callies) who Skypes with her 5-year-old daughter whenever she isn’t barreling into the eye of the storm — proof positive that a modern career woman really can have it all: job, family and funnel cloud. Traveling in a souped-up storm-chasing vehicle called the Titus (as in Andronicus) that resembles an Abrams Battle Tank crossed with a weather balloon, Pete and company — but mainly Pete — obsess over getting the high-impact shots that will make them all famous (at least among viewers of the Discovery Channel), lest their entire endeavor turn into “the most expensive homemovie ever made.”
Intentionally or not, that isn’t a bad description of “Into the Storm” itself, which flickers and flits between several streams of supposed user-generated video — call it “The Blair Witch Weather Report.” Every character in the movie is pointing and shooting all the time: the Titus crew; the Silverton student body (asked to make “time capsule” videos to their future selves); and amateur Jackasses Donk (Kyle Davis) and Reevis (Jon Reep), who follow the Titus in a beat-up sedan christened “Twista Hunterz,” seeking their own shot at YouTube glory. (Intended as the film’s comic relief, they are more of a pestilence of whom one keeps wishing that the storm will make haste.) Gary’s eldest (and moodiest) son, Donnie (Max Deacon), even skips out on the graduation festivities to help his fellow junior and unrequited sweetheart, Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam-Carey), reshoot parts of an activist documentary she’s making about an abandoned paper mill at the edge of town — eh, kids these days — and of course, keeps rolling even after the whole place caves in, trapping them under the rubble.
Well, there’s nothing like a little cataclysm to make the heart grow fonder, “Into the Storm” suggests. And if it’s cataclysm you want, Quale serves it up in spades. Blackening the skies and spouting multiple simultaneous funnels like some eight-legged Tarantulado™, the movie’s title star cuts such a ferocious swath through the land that it makes the flood from “Noah” seem almost a sunshower by comparison. And while the elaborate CG destruction never quite approaches the photo-real, some of the imagery does have an almost surreal kick to it (like the shot, already given away by the film’s trailer, of multiple jumbo jets taking to the skies solely under wind power).
At its best, “Into the Storm” is like a really high-tech version of those science-museum wind-tunnel simulators that thrill groups of touring schoolchildren with their roaring blasts of hurricane-force gales. But stretched out to even 90 minutes, such thrills become monotonous, and by the time the film arrives at a climax that finds most of the cast waylaid in a storm drain, the effect is like sitting through all the cycles of some ultra-super-deluxe gas-station car wash. Still, better that than when Swetnam and Quale attempt to wax contemplatively about the ethics of our image making and consumption in our DIY video culture — a subject explored with far greater nuance (and less emphatic drum-beating) by George Romero’s “Diary of the Dead” and Brian De Palma’s “Redacted,” still the best of all the post-“Blair Witch” reality-horror pics. “Into the Storm” can make it rain like nobody’s business, but when it tries to be smart, it comes out all wet.