The Stream

Hollywood is portraying storms—and storm chasing—far more accurately as technology improves. This photo, however, is real.     Photo: Mike Olbinski

A Storm Chaser Fact-Checks a Disaster Blockbuster

Reed Timmer gets right into the thick of huge storms for a living. So we asked him to watch Into the Storm, a new tornado thriller, and report back on how it compares to the real thing.

As a diehard storm chaser, it was difficult for me to watch the tornado disaster movie Into the Storm. This is a subject I really care about, and my expectations were huge. I’m certain the storm-chasing community feels the same.

Well before I had a TV show, I knew I wanted to chase storms for the rest of my life. As soon as I got my driver’s license—18 years ago—I sacrificed everything to make that dream happen. Tornadoes are my unrelenting obsession. Each year, we drive more than 50,000 miles and spend more of our lives on the road than most long-haul truckers, foregoing any prayer of a retirement fund to experience as many storms as physically possible.

My favorite movie as a kid was Night of the Twisters, in which a small Nebraska town is ravaged by a mega-tornado outbreak of apocalyptic proportions and a family struggles to survive a series of violent supercell storms. This made-for-TV movie showed the dark side of tornadoes—the devastation—but the science fiction was way over the top. My other personal favorite is Twister, which introduced storm chasing to the world in 1996, the same year I got my driver’s license. Into the Storm is the first Hollywood storm-chasing blockbuster since then, and it was worth the wait.

Into the Storm takes place around the fictional town of Silverton, Oklahoma, on high school graduation day. Storm chasers and townspeople are in an all-out battle with severe weather and deadly tornadoes. The movie features three parallel story lines: a group of high school graduates who are caught off-guard by the deadly tornado outbreak; a team of modern-day storm chasers whose mission is to intercept the eye of a tornado with an armored, tanklike vehicle named Titus, and a group of beer-drinking thrill-seekers trying to capture the viral YouTube video of a lifetime. These yahoo chasers, as they’re called in the storm-chaser community, are a hilarious touch. The scary part is that they’re a realistic aspect of storm chasing these days. So are armored tornado tanks like my Dominator trucks, Iowa State’s “Dorothy,” and Sean Casey’s Tornado Intercept Vehicle (TIV). The fictional Titus is as badass as any of these, except for the Dominator 3. It’s hard to beat a Ford F-350 reinforced with steel armor, a Lexan windshield, and hydraulic spikes that can keep it locked to the ground like a rolling storm bunker.

  Photo: Mike Olbinski

But here’s the thing that’s really shocking about Into the Storm. It doesn’t just do a good job of capturing the storm-chasing scene; it’s also surprisingly realistic portrayal of the storms themselves. The effects kept me on the edge of my seat even though I’ve intercepted more than 500 tornadoes, including the infamous “twin tornadoes” that devastated the town of Pilger, Nebraska, just a few weeks ago. Yes, the movie tornadoes are exaggerated, but as so much recent footage from security cameras and chasers has shown, buildings really do disintegrate in seconds. Houses do fly through the air.

Into the Storm certainly felt like the real thing to me. The computer graphics of the up-close tornadoes in the movie appeared so realistic that I caught myself trying to figure out the date and location of the real tornado that each one might have been based on. (I’m pretty sure each Hollywood tornado was a combination of several that I’ve chased and even filmed.) It is obvious that director Steven Quale and the movie’s researchers watched thousands of hours of YouTube footage for their research, which is insane—trust me. Even the complex vortex dynamics within the tornadoes were accurate and included features that are only apparent from extreme close range and difficult to capture with a camcorder. Monster wedge tornadoes, bright white ropes and “elephant trunks,” multiple vortex ground-scrubbers, and even the rare concentric rings of condensation that I’ve seen around only a handful of tornado funnels were all there on the screen.

On Facebook and in storm-chaser forums, people have argued about how this movie stacks up against Twister. While I loved that movie, the special effects in Into the Storm are better, not just because the technology has improved, but also because our understanding of these weather events has improved as well. I have to admit, the computer-generated tornadoes in Twister look so fake that they are still a running joke among chasers, as are the alley cat noises used to simulate the tornado roar. Into the Storm gets it right.

In addition to some amazing special effects and the ill-advised group of yahoos in pursuit of viral footage from within the eye of an EF5, even the dark side of these tornadoes was depicted accurately. The aerial scenes of tornado damage in Silverton at the end of the movie are a familiar sight these days, with recent storms seemingly stronger and more violent than ever before. Even with tornado-warning lead times increasing and media coverage of storms at an all-time high, the loss of life is a constant.

There were more than 300 fatalities during the historic “Super Outbreak” of 2011, when 212 tornadoes touched down across the Southeast, from Mississippi to Virginia. And 158 lives were lost to the infamous Joplin, Missouri, EF5 tornado on May 22, 2011. Chasers, the National Weather Service, news media, and emergency managers are striving to prevent tornado deaths, but we clearly have a long way to go.

Is the tornado outbreak that struck Silverton with such severity and destruction in the movie Into the Storm a realistic natural disaster beyond the animation? Just look at the list of real towns recently ravaged that could have been Silverton: Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Smithville, Mississippi; Joplin, Missouri; Moore, Oklahoma; Mayflower, Arkansas; and Pilger, Nebraska. The list goes on.

Just know that storm chasers like us will do everything in our power to let you know when life-threatening severe weather is on the way. Get your weather radios charged up, prepare a safety action plan, and dominate the storm.

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