Filmed across America’s Plains states where he bulk of of the world’s tornadoes occur, Tornado Alley follows career 'storm chasers'. Filmmaker Sean Casey and his crew race after storms in an armoured 'tornado intercept vehicle" engineered and built by Casey to withstand the impact of the gale force winds at a tornado’s core. Casey' goal is to navigate the vehicle directly into the heart of a tornado and capture its essence on film, at point blank range.
Inert black clouds and ill-defined characters suck a lot of the expectant excitement out of director/’star’ Sean Casey’s IMAX-sized Weather Channel special, Tornado Alley. Narrated by Bill Paxton with the same twangy monotone that has kept him from A-list stardom for two decades, Casey’s Midwest odyssey promises much but delivers frustratingly little; even on the world’s biggest screen and in the crispest third dimension, the essence of a monstrous killer-storm remains elusive.
Casey has been a storm-chaser for eight years, indulging in his passion to the point of constructing a heavily-fortified vehicle that can withstand the 200 kilometre/hour winds that close-proximity 'tornado buffs’ must endure. Sharing his passion but bolstered by expensive, state-of-the-art technology are the team from VORTEX 2, led Karen Kosiba (in a Hollywood dramatisation, her 'sexy lady scientist’ caricature should be played by doppelganger Amanda Peet). Together, these adrenaline-junkies criss-cross the landscape to graph and pinpoint the moment when warm Gulf of Mexico northerlies combine with cooler Jetstream air currents to form violent cells of intense cylindrical pressure.
The filmmaker also doubles as his own star (a recent trend in documentary that can’t end too soon), but Casey short-changes himself by not investing his work with the passion that has driven him all this time. He rarely speaks to camera, leaving it to Paxton to paint a picture of a man obsessed – which the narration ultimately fails to do. Determined to capture the 'funnel’ at the core of a tornado, the film builds to the moment this life-defining event occurs but then skims over it with a perfunctory nonchalance (truth be told, I actually didn’t register it had happened until Paxton pointed it out).
'Weather’, even the kind that offers the spectacle of a tornado maelstrom, may not be the ideal subject for the IMAX 3D format. Shots of distant cloud banks twirling are never less than awe-inspiring, but the images appear far more flattened than audiences have come to expect from the mega-screen format. Trees taking the brunt of the front and dust/mud whipped up by the encroaching storm prove suitably spectacular, but extended scenes of cramped mobile-labs, computer simulations and kinetic footage of the teams speeding over back roads only goes so far.
Most telling is the lack of any real 'human-interest’ element in the film. Jan de Bont’s Twister (1996) was never accused of being overly profound (it featured Paxton and a sexy lady scientist caricature, in the form of Helen Hunt), but at least it provided an emotional element (however meagre) that complemented the scientific jargon and SFX onslaught. By refusing to explore in full, the personalities of those driven to hurl themselves at one of Mother Nature’s most powerful manifestations, Tornado Alley forces its audience to focus on storm footage which, regrettably, never quite engages.