Producers: Ryan Donnell Smith, Ryan Winterstern, Nathan Klingher and Allen Cheney Director: Herbert James Winterstern Screenplay: Herbert James Winterstern and Anna Elizabeth James Cast: Skeet Ulrich, Anne Heche, Daniel Dierner, Jordan Kristine Seamón, Anjul Nigam, Jack Eyman and Richard Gunn Distributor: Saban Films
Storm chasers have been variously portrayed in movies (often the same movies, in fact) as both heroic risk-takers and reckless thrill-seekers; examples range from the big-budget smash “Twister” (1996) to the found-footage effects extravaganza “Into the Storm” (2014), both of which tried to cover the wide range of human responses in the face of natural disaster—though not, it must be added, in very complex terms. The same observation applies to Herbert James Winterstern’s feature directorial debut, which endeavors to cover much of the same territory as those pictures, though on a much smaller budget.
On the one hand there’s Bill Brody (Richard Gunn), a committed tracker who, along with his scientifically-minded wife Quinn (Anne Heche) and partner Roy Cameron (Skeet Ulrich), is devoted to research on dangerous but awesome weather phenomena (as well as the thrill of the chase)—a passion he passes along to his young son William (played as a child by Jack Eyman) in the idyllic, sun-drenched prologue of “Supercell.” Flash ahead ten years and Bill has died in the pursuit of his dreams, as it were. Teen William (Daniel Dierner) is obsessed with the notion of taking up his work, especially after his father’s old journal arrives mysteriously in the mail, although Quinn, still grieving her husband’s loss, has abandoned the storm-chasing game and is determined to protect William from getting involved in it.
She can’t, of course. After an altercation at school, where he comes under suspicion for keeping a storm-tracking invention of his mother in his locker, William runs away to find his “Uncle” Roy, intending to join him in continuing his father’s work. But Roy is now the sniveling employee of Zane Rogers (Alec Baldwin), a loudmouth jerk who runs a tour service that takes danger-seeking yahoos, like a wealthy entrepreneur played by Anjul Nigam, as close as possible to bad storms in tornado alley for a price, of course. Roy persuades Zane to allow William to come along on their latest journey, which will take them into the heart of a supercell, a storm with the potential of spawning the most severe weather phenomena. Meanwhile Quinn and Harper (Jordan Kristine Seamón), a classmate with a crush on William, are trying to track him down before he lands himself in the middle of a natural disaster.
Winterstern, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anna Elizabeth James, knows that he can’t compete with Jan de Bont or Steven Quale, the respective directors of “Twister” and “Storm,” in terms of visual effects, and so really doesn’t try. He contents himself with visuals of threatening clouds and lightning, mediocre green-screen shots, a scene of baseball-sized hail pounding a van, and some wind machine-driven squall sequences (in one of which William, stuck in a parking lot, manages to protect himself by hunkering down, rather implausibly, in an old-fashioned glass telephone booth). Cinematographer Andrew Jeric gives them all a dour, murky look, and though editor R.J. Daniel Hanna has some trouble keeping the action clear, Corey Wallace’s score gives them some oomph. On has to acknowledge, though, that within the budgetary limitations, effects supervisor John R, McConnell and his team do a decent job.
Instead Winterstern focuses on what passes for the interpersonal dynamics, which would be fine but for a couple of factors. One is the performance of Dierner, so impassive and dull that it’s impossible to muster up much concern about whether William will survive, let alone learn anything from his coming-of-age experience. (Seamón is only marginally more animated.) The other is the thin material given to the veterans supporting him. Heche, in one of her last appearances on screen, certainly conveys how distraught Quinn is, but little more, while Ulrich goes overboard with Roy’s skittishness. Baldwin contributes an exercise in scenery-chewing and shouting that’s kind of fun in an over-the-top fashion, and you know full well that Zane will suffer a fate that’s an on-land equivalent of the one Robert Shaw’s Quint did in “Jaws.” In that respect the movie doesn’t disappoint.
Otherwise, however, “Supercell” is far from super, even though it generates a lot of dramatic hot air.