Thursday, January 26, 2012

Tornado Alley: Man against monster

Tornado Alley (2011) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang

At the risk of stating the obvious, these people are out of their minds.

But we do benefit from their dedication.
The tank-like TIV-2 (Tornado Intercept Vehicle) passes probes set up to gather
data about tornadoes, while charging along a country road in an effort to
anticipate when the next big storm will touch down. The goal: to be right at
the heart of the beast, in order to gather footage and additional information
from within.

Given the popularity of the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers series, a big-screen cousin was inevitable; getting a giant-screen IMAX documentary is icing on the cake.

Tornado Alley is an eight-year labor of love by director/co-scripter Sean Casey, who cut his teeth in this field as director of photography for 2004’s Natural Disasters: Forces of Nature. That film profiled the scientists who study volcanoes, earthquakes and tornadoes, with the goal of better predicting such catastrophes in order to grant local populations more time to get the hell out of Dodge.

Casey cheerfully admits having been bitten by the tornado bug during that project; he decided to make his own film, focusing solely on the Great Plains states — the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, eastern South Dakota and Colorado’s eastern plains — that are rather unsettlingly dubbed Tornado Alley. The area is home to 75 percent of the world’s tornadoes, giving scientists — and thrill-seekers — ample opportunity to study the wind-churning monsters.

Casey deserves credit, from the outset, for resisting the urge to present this as “sport” while ignoring the human tragedy involved. He opens his film with scenes of tornado devastation, which immediately puts the situation into perspective: Anything that might help people escape with their lives should be encouraged and embraced.

The often capriciously random destruction is painful and heartbreaking, as are the brief glimpses of people wading through the wreckage of their homes ... indeed, of their lives. One wonders, certainly not for the first time, how anybody could stand to live in such natural disaster zones, but the answer is equally obvious: The farmland-laden Great Plains region is too large — and too valuable — not to inhabit.

It’s almost as if Nature has required a dire toll in exchange for such agricultural bounty.

Thankfully, Casey doesn’t linger on these images of misery. Presenting the core topic as a hoped-for solution, his film introduces two teams of storm chasers. The methodical, well-financed scientists of VORTEX2 — Joshua Wurman, Karen Kosiba and Don Burgess — lead more than 100 severe-weather researchers from all over the world, employing state-of-the-art communication and technology to coordinate and position a massive fleet of radar trucks, mobile “mesonet vehicles” and the most sophisticated weather-measuring instruments ever created.

Their goal: to literally surround a tornado, and the supercell storms that form it, in order to gather data throughout the beast’s entire “life cycle” and, hopefully, better anticipate where and when the next one will strike.

Such work is unpredictable, haphazard and certainly not without risk; we still don’t know what prompts a supercell storm to spawn a tornado, nor where its erratic path will lead. That latter detail is one of my mild objections to this film; Casey and Paul Novros’ script strongly implies that the VORTEX2 team easily can “follow” and surround a tornado, with no mention of the way in which such storms can arbitrarily change course and slash away in an eyeblink.

That said, one of this film’s most dramatic moments occurs when the sheer size and rain-and-hailstone fury of one storm envelops much of the VORTEX2 team, severing all radio communication. Watching Kosiba attempt to hail all the other vehicles, in succession, and hearing nothing but static — even if this scene is a re-creation — is pretty damn disturbing.

If the VORTEX2 team represents the no-expenses-spared NASA method of tornado tracking, Casey himself supplies the spit-and-bailing-wire, do-it-yourself approach. His “team” is just himself and a few other dedicated associates, and their “fleet” is a single armored behemoth — dubbed the TIV-2, for “tornado intercept vehicle” — that Casey designed and built himself ... after learning how to weld.

Action films often include a crowd-pleasing “suiting up” scene that shows the hero strapping various weapons to belts, backpacks and anything else capable of carrying a payload. Directors Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan upped the ante with way-cool sequences of Batman donning his protective costume and outfitting its utility belt.

Playing to that same visceral thrill, Casey similarly demonstrates how his TIV-2 is equipped. A third axle was added to a Dodge Ram 3500 platform, giving it six-wheel-drive capability. Additional features include four hydraulic, drop-down “skirts” that prevent wind and debris from getting beneath the vehicle, thus minimizing the threat of being flipped over; two stabilizing “spears,” one on either side, that pierce the ground at a depth of 42 inches, for additional anchoring strength; and a tank-style “turret” that encloses and protects the 92-pound IMAX camera.

Again, a bit more data would be appreciated, to better understand the point behind all these protective measures. The film’s press notes describe a tornado’s ability to pick up locomotives and send cars hurtling at distances of up to a mile, but we never hear this in actor Bill Paxton’s crisp, well modulated narration.

(Nice choice there. Paxton co-starred with Helen Hunt in 1996’s Twister.)

Despite weighing 14,000 pounds, the TIV-2’s modified 6.7-liter turbo-diesel engine can crank that puppy up to 100 miles per hour. It also sports a rather flimsy looking set of gauges above the turret, and looks like something out of a science-fiction movie. Small wonder families want their pictures taken with the beast, when Casey stops to fill its 92-gallon fuel tank.

One shudders at both the gas bill, and the minimal miles per gallon involved.

The purpose of all this armor plating? To navigate the TIV-2 directly into the heart of a tornado, and capture its destructive power on film ... at point-blank range.

Casey succeeds at this goal, saving this “money sequence” for his film’s conclusion ... but here’s the irony: It’s quite anticlimactic. We don’t doubt the authenticity of the footage, but the view out the turret is nothing but featureless grey sky, howling wind and crashing rain. There are no points of reference — trees, buildings, telephone poles, whatever — to grant perspective to this extended shot: merely a sideways view of that turret-mounted wind gauge spinning madly. (And we do keep waiting for that fragile piece of equipment to be blown off the vehicle.)

Shots of Casey’s alternately worried and reverential expression don’t really carry the scene; dramatically, the aforementioned hazards faced by the VORTEX2 team are much more suspenseful.

Actually, Casey the filmmaker has an occasional tendency to oversell the “anxiety” of his on-camera self: a TV reality-show affectation that he probably should have avoided.

I also wish he had allowed Wurman more face time, in order to better describe the known science involved here. The best IMAX films — I’m thinking now of the great computer-generated “virtual tour” of the Boeing 707 schematics, in Legends of Flight 3D — educate while entertaining, and do so with slick graphics. Tornado Alley needs more of that, because we viewers could use more hard data.

Still, Casey successfully depicts the dedication and curiosity that fuel this dangerous work, while also conveying the massive size and power of this meteorological enemy. Watching a funnel form, touch down and begin its advance toward a nearby community is very, very disturbing: an image not quickly forgotten, particularly when showcased via an IMAX theater’s massive screen and bone-rattling sound system.

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