Over the years, living in the middle of the Great Plains, I've had the pleasure/misfortune of a close encounter with a tornado on nearly a dozen occasions. Big ones, small ones, a white-as-milk sidewinder, chewing up trees, tearing a roof off a barn, which went airborne, and roiled along, until the remnants were sucked up, consumed, shredded, and reduced to its basic component parts, and one instant where I watched transfixed as a half-dozen-or-so funnels snaked out of a wall-cloud only to dissipate and reform and smack together, almost drunkenly, to form a bigger funnel again and again and again. But, the closest encounter I've ever had with a twister was with one I never even saw.
Experts say an approaching tornado sounds like an oncoming freight train. Well, they're right. At least that's what I heard back in 1987, when I was awoken in the middle of the night by an unmistakable, pissed-off roar and the sounds of a house trying desperately to hold itself together. Rolling out of bed, I took a quick look out the window, into the backyard, and in the angry flashes of lightning, I saw our two apple trees thrashing around, as if trying to uproot themselves and head for cover. Stumbling into the hallway, more lightning showed my mother, exiting her own room at the opposite end. I listened as she tried the light switch that wouldn't respond. The power was already out. Without a word we both moved in the darkness toward the kitchen and the basement stairs. As we moved, I remember hearing the family pictures on the wall rattling hysterically, trying to dislodge themselves. The roar got louder, closer, and as it reached deafening levels, my ears popping with the changes in pressure, it became readily apparent there wouldn't be time to reach the basement. Then, as the house appeared on the verge of breaking apart, I heard my mother yell to get down, and she didn't have to tell me twice.
With Dorothy Gale as my witness, as I dug my fingers and toes into the carpet, our house heaved toward the sky, three times, that night, as the unseen menace crankily rumbled past. But the foundation held. Come the dawn, we found the evidence of how close we came to losing everything. For, not 100 yards down the road you could see the scar the twister cut though the cornfield, and the huge gap in the shelter-belt of trees, fat cottonwoods, snapped like dried twigs, where it bullied its way through. Across the road, the neighbors pivot was pretzel'd and on its side. Three miles to the north, a relative lost the majority of their outbuildings. On our end, a few shingles, and one picture frame. We were lucky. Damn lucky.
Which brings us to storm-chaser and filmmaker Sean Casey's new documentary, Tornado Alley, that brings you your very own close encounter with a twister. For those of you unfamiliar with The Discovery Channel's Storm Chasers, Casey is the one who doesn't squeal when he runs his homemade tank into oncoming storms, looking for his money shot, to actually film from inside the funnel cloud. More of a meteorological Hell Tanner, then, Casey's documentary splits time between this quest, where he mounts his battered TIV and sallies forth, and the efforts of a huge scientific team, under the handle VORTEX 2 (-- led by Don Burgess, Karen Kosiba and Josh Wurman), as they effort to gather massive amounts of data from these awesome storms, with a hope that such knowledge will allow a greater predictability, which would translate into earlier warnings, and, hopefully, more lives saved.
Narrated by Bill "There's no such thing as a Suck-Zone" Paxton, the film itself looks great on the giant IMAX screen, with some truly awe-inspiring shots that are greatly enhanced by the sound-system as the guttural thunder peels from one side of the theater to the other. The 3D works pretty good, too. No. There are no instances of debris flying at you, but the depth is incredible and a segment covering a massive hailstorm works brilliantly. And for those who think you've already seen everything on the Discovery show, I can happily report the majority of the film, to my eyes, is brand new or unused footage. Also of note, the filmmakers, while enthusiastic, bring a much more sober tone to this documentary, spending as much time on the aftermath as the chase itself. And if I have one beef with Storm Chasers, it is the adrenal-junkie bro'-chasers attitude of some as they merrily squeeeee there way from one weather disaster to the next. I mean, look ... I love thunderstorms as much as the next guy, and totally geek out when the thunder starts booming and the skies turn an unhealthy shade of green, but, c'mon, people are getting hurt or killed or losing everything they have. So, please, take it down a couple notches. 'kay. Thanks. End of rant.
It's run time is a brief 45 minutes, and, to be honest, the climax, where Casey finally gets his shot, fizzles out when it pales to the chaos of some close calls in earlier scenes. Still, whether your a weather junkie, a tornado veteran, of none of the above, rain or shine, Tornado Alley is an afternoon at the museum well spent that will, indeed, blow you away...
Tornado Alley (2011) Graphic Films :: Giant Screen Films / EP: Martin Jay Sadoff / P: Sean C. Casey, Don Kempf, Paul Novros / D: Sean C. Casey / W: Sean C. Casey, Paul Novros / C: Sean C. Casey, Peter Rubi / E: Sean C. Casey, Peter Rubi / M: Trevor Morris / S: Bill Paxton, Sean C. Casey, Marcus Gutierrez, Brandon Ivey