City folk like myself may have a hard time fully grasping the awe and wonder of a film like Tornado Alley, the new IMAX documentary in which filmmaker Sean Casey drives a homemade tank into the heart of a tornado just to get the perfect shot. Admittedly that should sound like a neat concept to just about anybody, but if you don’t actually live in Tornado Alley – the widespread area in the center of the U.S. where tornados are most frequent, and most violent – you may find yourself wondering why any reasonable person ever would. The scenes here of the carnage following a large twister are powerful, even biblical, and although I live in earthquake-prone Southern California it’s not like just anybody can grab a camera and film a life-threatening natural disaster in Los Angeles every year. But that’s what Casey did, for tornados at any rate, and the result is spellbinding but short, thrilling but lacking palpable drama. It’s an IMAX documentary, and we’re here for the big screen presentation of events we cannot experience for ourselves, for better or worse, more than any other reason.
Casey spent almost a decade preparing for Tornado Alley, building his homemade tank with armor plating and spikes that shoot into the ground to prevent an updraft, and then going out in search of a tornado that he would have time to get in front of. It’s a level of commitment unmatched by the film’s running time – 43 minutes – and storytelling structure, which in no way indicates his relentless efforts, exacerbation at repeated failure, or indeed any kind of real conflict. Casey gets in his tank, tries and fails a couple of times, and finally gets the shot. That’s more-or-less the end. The footage is intercut with informative pieces about tornado science and history, and the parallel story of other, more professional storm chasers using high-tech equipment to acquire actual information about the meteorological phenomenon as opposed to simply record it on film. Their story has no satisfying conclusion, perhaps because their dedication to science provides them with no specific goal to accomplish… just a lifelong pursuit of life-saving information.
For that reason it’s a little surprising to see no actual interaction between the intrepid Casey and these equally intrepid scientists, both of whom risk their lives for their jobs. It’s easy to imagine a clash between their ideologies, with college professors thumbing their nose at the thrill-seeker or possibly even openly arguing with Casey about his tactics, shenanigans and so forth. Or maybe they all got along famously. We’ll never know. Tornado Alley lacks character, Casey’s or anybody else’s, but that’s not what it’s about: it’s about filming tornadoes in 75mm, and that footage is startling.
With powerful winds, looming clouds and Godlike twisters dominating the screen, the actual towns – riding the bottom of the frame for dear life – feel helpless in the tornados’ presence. Plumes of destruction emerge from the clouds before our very eyes and it’s difficult not to feel something uncanny during the experience. These tornados are at once natural and wrong, giving the impression that once in a while the world just turns against us with an all-powerful furor, and with no discernable motive. Tornado Alley captures that awe and spectacle and Casey eventually gets his shot… although really the sound-design takes center stage at that point. Wind doesn’t actually look like anything, we discover with mild disappointment. It’s a brief rush that might have been the most incredible moment in Casey’s life, but we don’t ‘quite’ feel what he feels because the film doesn’t do a good enough job of making his journey ours: skimping on the duration of his struggle, the conflicts he must have endured, and the little details that would have made it all seem real to us.
Perhaps that’s more of reality television’s thing: documenting people’s lives as they pursue a goal, perhaps a foolish goal, that provides conflict and setbacks, victory and ultimately resolution. A bit of personality, or preferably character, would have made Tornado Alley into a ‘Must See.’ Instead it’s a fascinating curio, a thrilling snippet of greatness for the scientifically inclined or perhaps simply anybody who thought Twister was cool. The filmmakers sure did. They brought on Bill Paxton to narrate the film. His dry southern tones add an air of importance and even melancholy to the proceedings, but don’t quite bring the film out of its shell. It may be an incredibly shot documentary about tornados, but Tornado Alley still could have used a few more twists and turns.
Crave Online Rating: 7.5 out of 10