What happens when you gather an assortment of adrenaline junkies and tired stereotypes in the middle of Oklahoma during a tornado apocalypse? Death, destruction, and science to be sure, but also a full 113 minute film about the worst carpool ever, featuring a few paper cuts and science-y bluster! You know, realism.
We open in Oklahoma, 1969, where young Jo and her unnamed parents are hiding in their storm shelter from an F5 tornado as it growls outside like some modern interpretation of the big bad wolf. Her father is sucked up into the tumultuous vortex and young Jo promises to nurture a massive death-wish until she avenges him by eliminating tornadoes — er, increasing the average warning time to, say, 20 minutes.
Note: Jo’s father is literally the only person who will die on screen this whole time, so you might as well cry now, if you’re feeling it.
Flash forward to the present (by which I mean 1996). In the middle of nowhere, a ragtag gang of wise-cracking humanitarian storm chasers (including Philip Seymour Hoffman as the cheerful pothead Dusty and Alan Ruck as the superfluous navigator) are fixing up their Doppler radars and otherwise having a grand ol’ time horsing around. Enter Bill (Bill Paxton) and his new fiancée Melissa (Jami Gertz), dropping by to ambush a grown-up Jo (Helen Hunt) with a friendly divorce paper signing.
Bill is all about business, as he has become boring and domesticated since he left the storm chasing business to become an uptight TV weatherman in the city. Jo, meanwhile, is flighty, scattered and exudes a tomboy spunk, and we can all immediately tell the second-most important thing to her after tornado chasing is hookin’ back up with Bill! Needless to say, Bill and Jo’s constant flirtation bothers fiancée Melissa, but she’s a psychiatrist and therefore a complete wimp who gives him room to grow and space to connect with his feelings.
They stick around the camp long enough to explain how they all want to improve tornado warning times using DOROTHY: a giant trashcan full of tiny and expensive sensors designed to be sucked up into then monitor a tornado. It’s Bill’s invention and a very original design for the only non-Ph.D in the gang. Soon, however, there’s a tornado warning and they all rush to a truck stop where they find Jonas (Cary Elwes), a veritable Judas of the storm chasing world who has totally sold out his values to follow the somehow numerous and lucrative meteorological corporate sponsorships. “He’s in it for the money, not the science” as Bill says. What a stooge! Oh, and he always steals Bill’s ideas as he has no talent or brains to call his own, just money for improving tornado knowledge! (His fleet of black minivans is totally ballin’, however.)
Note: It’s amazing how all of these characters are supposedly from Oklahoma, yet the only two with noticeable accents are Melissa and Jonas. Read however you’d like into this observation.
Fully back in the storm chasing game, Bill whispers to some cumulus clouds and gets actionable intelligence that a tornado is totally going down across the county. They kick off and find not one but two tornadoes and nearly die twice — in a ditch and on a bridge, respectively. Fortunately the storm god smiles down on Bill, or possibly just pities him; I can’t really tell which, because he’s both the best and the stupidest meteorologist ever.