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.
1:29: “All the warning sirens are down.”
Tornado warning sirens were specifically designed to alert people who happen to be outdoors and only as a supplement to other means of notification, like the Emergency Alert System that frequently interrupts radio and TV broadcasts (and increasingly, your smartphone screen). There’ve been well-documented cases where people base their decision to (not) take shelter on faulty tornado sirens.
This is also a real thing. Just this spring, there were firenadoes on the outskirts of San Diego. When they occur in forest fires, which is actually fairly common, the correct term for these beasts of swirling terror is “fire whirls.” If, like here, they’re attached to a thunderstorm, then they’re just plain ol’ tornadoes that happen to be on fire. Much more rare, but these can also actually occur.
1:35: “There’s three, there’s four, they’re everywhere!”
Yelled by a storm chaser as cars are falling from the sky. I seriously doubt anything like this could ever happen in real life. The closest naturally occurring analog to this scene is being inside a multivortex tornado, in which two to five “suction vortices” have been known to occur at the same time, usually lasting less than a minute each. It’s very unlikely anyone would be able to navigate an armored tank through such an environment.
1:42: “I’ve studied storms all my life. This one is bigger than any storm that has ever been!”
It’s currently not possible to predict individual tornado strength in advance, beyond general probabilities given the overall atmospheric environment that day. Still, the National Weather Service is experimenting with the language of tornado warnings to highlight “tornado emergencies”—storms that have a particularly high chance of producing strong tornadoes. Now, if she was talking about the parent “storm” and not the tornado, I don’t know how she’d ever conclude what the “biggest storm that has ever been” was. On Earth, the biggest storms are hurricanes, which happen over the ocean. Sorry to be a spoilsport, Walking Dead lady.
1:45: Ginormous tornado appears, with great dramatic effect.
The Godzilla of tornadoes in this trailer doesn’t seem to be that far off from the largest tornadoes ever recorded. Last year, the monster tornado that hit El Reno, Oklahoma, was 2.6 miles across, the widest ever recorded. What’s more troubling here is there appears to be a line of school buses evacuating people. As tornado forecasting improves and warning lead times grow, the idea of evacuating ahead of a tornado is increasingly controversial. Last year, an Oklahoma City TV meteorologist told his viewers to get in their cars and drive away from a coming tornado, much to the dismay of most of the weather community.
2:01: Taking shelter in a drainage pipe.
It’s not that great of an idea. People drown. In fact, a few people died doing exactly this just last year in Oklahoma.
2:14: Airplanes take off on their own
In 2012, this fairly stunning video captured a decommissioned 747 briefly lifting off the ground at an airport in California under intense straight-line winds. Normal Boeing 747s need to travel about 180 mph before they take off. The one in California was stripped of its engines, so it was able to nose up at only 70 mph or so. Only the most intense tornadoes (EF-4 and EF-5) have winds over 180 mph, but even then likely only for a few seconds at a time. The tornado in the movie would need to produce winds from roughly the same direction for at least a minute or so to lift a 747 off the ground, which is extremely unlikely.
Overall verdict: Mostly realistic, except for some obviously dramatized special effects. Feel free to enjoy with minimal scientific inaccuracy–induced guilt!
By my count, three times in the 2½-minute trailer there were people holding on to other people’s hands, legs dangling straight up in the air, screaming “Don’t let go!” That same image is also on the official movie poster. Cliché, for sure.
Much more terrifying to me is the found-footage aspect, if it’s done well and brings a sense of realism. This video taken by a man taking shelter from a tornado inside a convenience store cooler in Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011, remains the most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen.
Proof that reality can be much more terrifying than fiction.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.