Weekly Geeky Question #34: The Best & Worst of Cinematic Tornadoes

Every week in 2018, the plan is that my friend Rod is going to ask me some geeky question that will answer in a post. This week is Week #34, and this week’s question breaks away from comic books for the first time in a while.

What are some of the best and worst uses of tornadoes in movies?

The Day After Tomorrow.jpg

Pretty random, eh?  Actually, Rod asked me two questions this week, this one and one about sharks (which we’ll get to next time)…and yet he didn’t have Sharknado in his mind when he asked them.

Anyway, Rod’s thoughts are that tornadoes are tha they are some of the mos tamazing, extraordinary natural events that occur.  And that they are so unique as to be almost “otherworldly”–yet they can be used so weirdly, or even stupidly, in fiction.  So what’s the best and worst that I’ve seen?

Very quickly after he asked me this, I thought of four uses of tornadoes in films.  Now that a full day has elapsed since then, I still can only think of four films.  Looking at the internet for more ideas, the only one that’s there that I’ve seen but haven’t thought of is The Day After Tomorrow, which I barely remember, and mostly for things freezing.  But apparently there are some tornadoes that ravage Los Angeles.

OK, so I quickly went and rewatched that scene from The Day After Tomorrow, and indeed as part of the movie’s evidence that the environment is taking a turn for the worse, tornadoes do strike and kill a bunch of characters who are introduced just for that scene.  It’s pretty spectacular, with its modern special effects and over-the-top imagination,  but still part of a forgettable movie.

Anyway, let’s quickly look at the four movies I’d already thought of, in turn, starting with the obvious one I’ve already referenced:

Sharknado (2013)

Directed by Anthony C. Ferrante

Sharknado was a TV movie about the terrible day when a giant school of sharks get propelled by wild weather onto the beaches of Los Angeles and start ravenously eating everyone in sight.  It’s pretty disastrous, because they don’t only wind up on the beaches, but on the streets, on the bridges, inside the houses…really, just about everywhere.  And then, as the title suggests, they come screaming out of the sky as they are carried by raging tornadoes.

The tornadoes actually only come into things in the last act, as before that it’s just floods.  But in the climax of the movie a bunch of the main characters have to figure out how to keep these “sharknadoes” from destroying populated areas of Los Angeles.  Luckily, in the bizarre dimension where this movie takes place, this can be easily accomplished by flying your helicopter into its vicinity and dropping a couple of sticks of dynamite into it’s middle.  This “equalizes the pressure” or some such nonsense and dissipates the tornado instantly.

Now, I’m pretty sure that flying our helicopter near a tornado is the sort of thing that they discourage you from doing in flying school, and that the cumulative impact of even a lot of dynamite on a tornado would be pretty negligible, but whatever.  This is Sharknado, and it’s supposed to be over-the-top and funny.  Unfortunately, it’s not really, except for in a few remarkable moments.  Instead, it’s generally just lame and a bit gross, in spite of its popularity.  And so this does not qualify as a good use of tornadoes; no it does not.

Now, of course there are I think five other Sharknado movies, but I never saw them.  I wasn’t interested in following this franchise once they knew what they were onto and had money.

Man of Steel (2013)

Directed by Zack Snyder

Hey, this came out in 2013 also!

Obviously, Man of Steel isn’t about tornadoes, but it does feature one in one critical point in the story.  Young Clark Kent is driving with his parents and having an argument with his adopted father, Jonathan, just before a they encounter a tornado which will take his father’s life.  It is one of the worst story beats I’ve ever seen in a movie, and is the moment in my first viewing of Man of Steel where the film fell off the rails.

The problems in the scene are manifold, but I shall try to articulate them:

  1. Jonathan dies because he goes back for the dog, clearly an ill-advised move for anyone in an emergency situation
  2. Jonathan dies because he goes back for the dog, rather than allowing his super-powered son to do so.
  3. Jonathan dies because he’s afraid that if Clark rescues him, he’ll be exposed as having super-powers, even though it’s probable that in the midst of a tornado, nobody would really notice some blur taking a stranger out of harm’s way.  In fact, they’d probably just interpret it as the guy dying in the tornado.
  4. Even if people did perceive that it was someone with super-powers who rescued Jonathan, they’d are unlikely to actually remember Clark’s face…given that they were all mostly focused on trying to not die.
  5. The movie’s whole treatment of the supposed lesson Clark is learning from his father in this moment is really strange.  He says to Lois later that he let his father die because he trusted him, that it wasn’t time for Clark to reveal himself to the world.  And he demonstrates this trust by never listening to his father’s advice again, as far was we can tell.  Yes, this is the only scene in the whole film, whether it takes before Jonathan’s death or after, in which Clark shows restraint or reluctance at using his powers to help someone.
  6. Really, as far as this set up is concerned, adult Clark should be filled with guilt and angst over any situation where he isn’t absolutely able to save everybody, which is certainly not what his father was trying to teach him, and not what the movie pretends he learned.
  7. The whole characterization of Jonathan Kent, and his role in Superman’s life, severely undermines the heart of the character and the heart of Superman himself, especially when combined with the lack of overt concern that he shows over the incredible destruction that is wrecked in the final act of the movie.  Yes, this point is based on prior exposure to Superman and prior expectations regarding the character, so you might not care, but it’s the only one of these arguments that has that foundation.

So…bad use of tornado in a film.  And especially so when it could have been awesome.  Imagine if we’d seen Clark having to let his father die because he was saving hundreds of other innocent people?  Yes, that’d be a completely different story beat, but one I’d have far preferred.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Directed, mostly, by Victor Fleming

The grand-daddy of all tornado films, although it was actually at least the third movie based on this story.  Again, the movie isn’t about tornadoes, but one plays a major role in the story, as young Kansas farmgirl Dorothy finds herself caught up in one and swept along into the magical land of Oz.  Or alternatively, she’s clunked on the head during a tornado and has a psychedelic dream about the land of Oz.  Either way, The Wizard of Oz is an enduring all-ages fantasy classic, which holds up thanks to inventive direction, iconic songs, and some really fun performances by Ray Bolger, Frank Marshall and others.

The tornado was created by an effects team led by one A. Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie.  They used a muslin stocking stretched over chicken wire.  It was attached to a crane, rotated by a motor, driven around a miniature set on the back of a car, and then rear-projected behind the principle actors.  The effect is dated, of course, but still charmingly convincing, and perfect for the film.  The whole movie holds up really well, and the tornado is probably the most iconic one in all of film history…as well as the only one that I’d call genuinely “good”.

Twister (1996)

Directed by Jan de Bont

Where The Wizard of Oz is the grand-daddy of tornado films, Twister is the king–a big budget, pop-culture, special effects-laded piece of popcorn popping piece of nonsense with an attractive cast, a generic plot, and a collection of safe emotional beats.  There is nothing in Twister that’s cinematically notable, but nothing terribly wrong either–except for general stupidity–quintessentially generic but still enjoyable (at least, it was back in the late 90’s when I last saw it).

The plot is about a young woman (Helen Hunt) who has been obsessed with stopping tornadoes ever since her father was killed by one before her eyes as a child.  Training herself to be an expert in her field, she dons a cape and cowl and wages a one-woman war on storms on the rooftop of Gotham as Batman…no, wait, sorry.  Rather she teams up with a band of quirky but forgettable characters to drive around after tornadoes so she can release a new technology into them that will help increase our understanding of how the storms work.  In this process, she reunites with her ex-husband (Bill Paxton), a former tornado-whisperer, and the two must confront their unresolved feelings for one another while trying to stop an evil corporately-sponsored weather researcher from stealing their technology and taking the credit for himself (because corporately-sponsored weather researchers are nasty that way).  Thanks to all this story contrivance, the two leads have a chance to rediscover their love for each other and renew their wedding vows…but only after they narrowly survive by chaining themselves to some pipes during a mega-tornado…

OK, it’s completely ridiculous, but no more so than say, Jurassic World or anything starring Dwayne Johnson.  And for what it’s worth, it was the biggest, most mainstream popular movie that was actually about tornadoes that we’ve ever had.

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