Disaster Movie Reboot offers spectacle but little substance

The original Vortexreleased in 1996, came during a golden age in Hollywood that was breaking down the barriers that previously kept A-list actors out of B-movie material. It didn’t get much better than casting John Malkovich as Cyrus the Virus in Jerry Bruckheimer’s 1997 blockbuster With airbut by casting Helen Hunt in a disaster movie — just a year removed from winning an Oscar opposite Jack Nicholson in As well as possible in the given circumstances —certainly given Vortex a number of unexpected highlights.

Whirlwindsis part of a more recent phenomenon, however: the Sundance-to-tentpole pipeline that began in 2012 when Colin Trevorrow went straight from safety not guaranteed Unpleasant Jurassic World.

Whirlwinds marks a similar step forward for director Lee Isaac Chung, who scored a major indie hit in 2020 with the understated family drama MinarThe two films have some overlap — Chung films Oklahoma with the same affection he previously gave to Arkansas — but with the prioritization of spectacle over plot, Whirlwinds isn’t really the kind of film that an auteur can easily put his stamp on. There’s also a matter of timing; Warners premiered Whirlwinds early July, at the height of the British monsoon season – they call it Wimbledon – which means people flock to out from the pouring rain to see people going outside go inside the pouring rain. Not quite the launch that was probably imagined.

The opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night,” is considered the low point of English-language fiction. Whirlwindsturns that negative into a positive, however, when meteorologist Kate Cooper (Daisy Edgar-Jones) joins some friends for what they call a tornado-taming project. The idea is to outrun an approaching tornado, fill it with polymer (or something) and shrink it. The plan doesn’t work, however, and another storm follows close behind (“Whatever’s in there, it’s big and it’s moving fast!”). Within 15 hazy minutes of soggy, wind-whipped devastation, Kate is alone, the last (weather) girl.

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Fade to black. Before you can say, “Five years later,” it’s five years later, and Kate has a grown-up job in New York, studying the weather from the safety of her desk (“Tornadoes are very rare in New York,” one of her colleagues notes, perhaps sowing the seeds for a more interesting sequel). Kate, however, has been tracked down by Javi (Anthony Ramos), the only other survivor of the opening attack. Javi has been working with the military on a three-part sensor system (Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man) that can triangulate a tornado and create a 3-D map of its progress. Kate’s not interested (“I don’t hunt anymore,” she insists, as the genre-movie script demands), but her reluctance doesn’t last long.

Soon, Kate is back in the field (literally), where she meets Tyler Owens (Glen Powell), a self-proclaimed “tornado wrangler” who chases tornadoes for entertainment and broadcasts his adventures live on YouTube. Tyler wears a Stetson, a large belt buckle, calls Kate “City Girl” and is generally so unreconstructed it’s a miracle The Dukes of Hazzard doesn’t call to ask this week’s guest star back. Tyler has his motley crew with him — “We don’t need PhDs and fancy gadgets,” he cheers — plus a British journalist in tow, a character who will prove as annoying as he is redundant. Anyone expecting the wily, charismatic Powell we saw in Hitman will be very disappointed.

YouTube poster

The ensuing pushing and shoving between Kate and Tyler is about the only thing that keeps the film’s two-hour running time afloat, with a thin subplot involving Javi’s shady boss, a profiteering businessman named Marshall Riggs (David Born), who follows in the wake of each tornado, buying up damaged land and properties from the poor and uninsured (climate change is mentioned exactly once, by Kate’s mother). Unfortunately, it soon dawns on us that this is actually a love story — and the worst kind, in which a down-home country boy brings a neurotic career woman back to her roots. The only thing missing is a scene of Kate taking off her glasses and shaking her hair loose.

Because there’s not much you can do with tornadoes, Whirlwinds changes things for the final act, where instead of chasing the latest tornado, Kate and Tyler decide to get ahead of it and evacuate the unwitting victims in its path. This leads them to El Reno, a cute rural backwater that’s more American than Thornton Wilder’s Our citywhere the biggest and best bit of the film takes place and Kate, now working with Tyler, re-enacts her original polymer plan using rockets filled with silver iodide (or something).

Those old enough to remember the original Vortex and whether you’re expecting a sequel or a reboot, you’ll be surprised to find out that it’s neither, as it’s more of a loose, standalone cover version than either of those options. But outside of that film’s hardcore fans and franchise completists, it’s hard to imagine who Whirlwinds is actually for. The dialogue crackles when it’s not Satnav-speak (“There’s a right turn coming up!”), and the bad behaviour of rapidly spinning air isn’t really anything to invest in. Which, as the credits roll, might explain why there was a 28-year gap between this one and the last…

Title: Whirlwinds
Distributor: Universal images
Date of publication: July 19, 2024
Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Screenwriter: Mark L. Smith
Form: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Glen Powell, Anthony Ramos
Judgement: PG-13
Playing time: 2 hours 2 minutes

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