Storm (1999)

Today I'll be reviewing a made-for-TV movie from 1999, one of the multitude of quickly-produced and barely-marketed small screen films, usually starring some B- list actors looking for work and featuring the bottom of the bucket in special effects, that tend to be forgotten within days after they appear at three in the morning on your local NBC affiliate, replacing that infomercial on vegetable slicers. Storm is clearly one of those movies, but was good enough (or bad enough) to keep my attention to the closing credits, which is harder to do than you might imagine.

This film comes to me via the dollar elcheepo bin at Wal-Mart, where the skinny DVD box was titled Storm Tracker, but the in-movie title card just read Storm. This sort of thing is fairly common with these public domain releases, but it still irks me that they can't even get the damn title right. Also, the DVD box art shows a gaggle of Harrier jumpjets (which aren't in the movie, which further pisses me off because I like Harrier jumpjets) and a C-130 Hercules exploding (even though that plane isn't in our movie, either), which makes me wonder if anyone at the distribution company even bothered to watch the movie.

Anyway, let's make it happen...

Our movie open on August 23, 1992, as a piddly little tropical storm named Andrew is churning along peacefully in the Atlantic Ocean. We see a US Air Force weather plane approaching the storm, common practice in hurricane season when real-time data is of vital importance to the plywood department of Home Depots across the southeast. This plane, however, is different from the normal benign flights as it's not here to take wind and water data, but to conduct a super-secret experiment. The plane (a Fairchild C-123 Provider cargo hauler in a mix of new footage, stock footage, computer graphics, and model work) launches an instrument probe inside a modified Tomahawk cruise missile. The probe is deployed within the relatively-calm air of the eye of the storm, hanging stationary on the end of a weather balloon.

The storm chaser plane.

The probe pops open and begins to create some sort of "ion effect", causing the temperature of the tropical storm to increase dramatically, which boosts the wind- speed enough to make it a huge hurricane. The test is to see if this new technology can increase or decrease a storm's strength at will--weather manipulation on a grand, and humanity-quaking, scale.

The probe in operation.

Things go wrong quickly, however, as they tend to do when you mess with Mother Nature. The probe goes haywire, the command controls fail, the plane is hit by lightning and explodes, and the once harmless Tropical Storm Andrew becomes the frightening-awesome Category 5 Hurricane Andrew. Miami is not going to like this one at all. Neat trick, by the way, basing your movie around a real-life natural disaster, very Clive Cussler-like.

Oh, that's not going to end well.

Behind the opening credits we get scenes from that famous 1992 hurricane, as it stomped across the peninsula like the finger of God. Stock footage is the sugary sweet candy that has always tempted cheapass movie directors. Back in the day film studios had libraries full of stock footage clips that could be raided, but today we have the internet and bit torrent, which allows even the most talentless hack director to spice up his crappy movie with stock footage from much better movies. These clips are often public domain, thus free for the taking, but you often see smaller productions taking the chance to steal copyrighted clips, hoping to fly under the legal radar. I ramble on because Storm is chock full of stock footage, both in this opening sequence and later towards the climax. It looks like most of it came from the Weather Channel or maybe CNN, which is vastly cheaper than filming it yourself.

Somebody is losing royalties here.

On now to the "present day", to the campus of the University of Miami. Here we meet our film's Hero, a dashing meteorology professor named Doctor Ron Young, one in a long line of seemingly-dorky academic scholars who end up being action heroes in lame disaster movies. Ron is played by 34-year old Luke Perry, earning a little spending cash while on mid-season break from his insanely popular role of Dylan on Beverly Hills 90210 (admit it, you watched it).

Ron, looking like cousin Ira from Mad About You.

Ron is giving a lecture on hurricanes to a full room of vaguely disinterested college kids. He's got these satellite photos showing weird "hot spots" that have popped up in recent hurricanes across the globe in the last few years. He has no theories, but suggests that it's in need of research. This is a bit of foreshadowing, though it zips past quickly.

Ron has a very small stick.

Remember in Raiders of the Lost Ark when a co-ed gets all googly-eyed for Professor Jones while in class? Well, they "recreate" that scene almost verbatim with this little Patricia Heaton-lookalike.

Ok, Ron has a research associate named Brian who he is working with on some project. Brian is played by Marc McClure, who was Jimmy Olsen in all those Chris Reeves Superman movies from the 1980s. Here he's a bit of a free-love counter-culture hippy, kind of like if Jimmy Buffet was your professor (which, admittedly, would be fucking awesome).


Ron and Brian have designed a ground-breaking invention called a "vorticity generator", with which they believe they can "pull" a storm in any direction they want to. The idea is that the machine, which is small enough to be towed behind a light plane on a line, creates a "low pressure trough" which the storm will naturally follow like a bowling ball down a gutter. We see the first test of this, with Ron flying a little Cessna into a raging gale as Brian pounds the keyboard. The test is a success, the storm is pulled along, and they both celebrate.

Reeling out the probe from the plane, see how it generates that spiffy electrical vortex? And, no, I don't have any idea what that means, so save your emails.

Love that old school laptop!

However, their buzz is killed quickly, and Ron and Brian end up having the worst day ever. Their unauthorized, too-close-to-restricted airspace flight has brought down the unholy wrath of the Federal Aviation Administration. Ron loses his pilot's license on the spot. Worse still, his boss at the U of Miami has had it with Ron's "reckless stunts" and pulls his research grant. Now unemployed, they are in a pickle.

FAA goon comes out in the rain to tear up his pilot's license right then and there, which I really don't think is how the process works, I'm sure there's some paperwork involved. [Editor Pam: I believe there normally is, but I suspect when you move storms around with your airplane, the FAA skips some steps. I'm not sure, though, my flight instructor forgot to tell me this.]

There is nothing wrong with two grown men hugging in the rain.

Salvation comes in the form of a man named Tom Holt, who is head of security for "Zephyr Weather Dynamics", a Los Angeles-based government-contracted company that works with the weather. Tom comes to see Ron, saying that his bosses have read his doctoral dissertation on storm manipulation and want to hire him and blank-check fund his research. Since Ron is currently unemployed, he takes the job without blinking. His research partner Brian can't go (family responsibilities, ie nagging wife), so Ron goes alone. Out to sunny southern California now for the rest of our film (though the first 17 minutes were surely filmed there anyway).

Tom, the dude from LA.

Hugging again. I'm not making any value judgments here, I promise.

The first person Ron meets in LA is the head of the program, a USAF General (it seems half the staff of Zephyr are active-duty Air Force personnel and the rest civilian contractors). General James Roberts is played by 59-year old Martin Sheen, who quite frankly had been in a horrid slump since 1993's Gettysburg. As this stinker was being released on late-nite television, however, Sheen had just landed the role of the President on a brand new television series called The West Wing (wonder how that worked out for him...).

The General, looking a bit puffy here.

Ron and the General talk about storms and such, the General is quite well informed on Ron's experiments and is keenly interested in seeing them succeed. The General seems legit here, a truly concerned man who wants to fund and support the kind of research that might "make a difference in the world". But, in every movie ever made, the words of the evil military/industrial complex are always duplicitous and we are sure that the General has something sinister up his sleeve. The General takes Ron down to the lab where he shows off the "ion generator", which is that probe from the prologue that they were using to boost storms.

The ion generator probe in all its shiny metallic glory. Ron isn't told of its purpose, though.

Zephyr has its own airfield onsite, with a fleet of C-123 weather planes.

Next, Ron meets the genius who designed the probe, a Doctor Daniel Platt. Platt is an intense man, despite his love of pastel polo shirts, and alternates between being a deeply conflicted moralist and a stark raving mad idealist. While a civilian, he's clearly second in command behind the General.

Doctor Platt there in the middle.

Ron then is sent out to the tarmac to meet a test pilot named Major Goodman, who will be flying the plane with Ron's experiment onboard. We have some forced, and wincingly painful, comedy when Ron discovers that the pilot is actually a woman (gasp!). His shock at seeing that a female (a cute one to boot) is capable of flying a plane (or doing anything other than make a sandwich or tie on a leather corset) is played for laughs, but it really makes you want to smack him hard.

Major Tonia Goodman, channeling Tasha Yar, who herself is channeling a young Hillary Clinton, who often looks like Rebecca de Mornay, the thought of which just killed off twenty years of sexual fantasies for me.

Hey, Ron, do you know that women make better fighter pilots than men? Ask Israel or Russia.

At his swank company-paid apartment, Ron talks with Brian on the phone. Brian is not happy with being left behind, though his complaints are good-natured. He digs Brian for becoming a "California boy" and asks him if he's seen his ex Andrea, who moved to Los Angeles right after they broke up to get a reporter job. As fate would have it, Ron turns on the TV to see Andrea reporting live from a bikini contest down at the beach! Ron offers mortal insult to Casablanca by muttering "of all the TVs in all the world, why'd she have to pop up on mine?". But, really, shouldn't he have guessed, that's what she left Florida to do, right?

I swear this is what my Asian Civ professor looked like. In class.

Andrea on the telly, looking all hot with her Rachel Green haircut.

And now we have a "training montage" set to a stirring instrumental number, as we see sound-less clips of Ron working on computers, Ron working on the probe, Ron talking with people, that sort of stuff to show us that he's fully into his job. Actually, a little too into his job, it seems, as we see him get chewed out by Doctor Platt for "pushing the envelope". Ron keeps asking questions about the true nature of this project and why everyone is so hyper-sensitive about security. The security head Tom is not happy with Ron's curious civilian attitude but the General tells him Ron is "a good kid".

Ron uses a protractor to plot his course across the Atlantic to discover the Indian spice islands.

They make this big deal about how Ron has a "car phone", which shows how rich and "Californian" he is (for 1999). Of course, now every 7-year old kid has a cellphone.

Doctor Platt is a perfectionist who doesn't accept mistakes. And he looks like Harry Belafonte.

Having a little down time, and probably jonesing for some booty, Ron goes to the local KLAZ television station to see his old flame Andrea. Andrea is played by 32 -year old Renee Estevez, who happens to be Martin Sheen's (the General) daughter (what, you never heard of her? Neither have I, though now she's taken over the title of "most disappointing Sheen kid" from Joe). Ron is clearly looking to reconnect with Andrea, but she's currently boinking the vacuous (but fabulously coiffed) news anchor, so he's out of luck.

Andrea gives Ron one of those "you fucking bastard, why did you have to come back into my life now with your sexy sideburns and inordinately high forehead, just when I had finally gotten over you?" looks.

Andrea and her meatstick boyfriend.

Ok, on to the first test flight of Ron's hurricane-dragging machine. A tropical storm is brewing over the Pacific and the team's C-123 takes off to run the experiment on it. The first test is a success, Ron is able to pull the storm's path where he wants it, just like he did back in Florida with Brian. But when the Air Force guys aboard try and make a hurricane out of the tropical storm with the probe's ion generator, they lose control. Ron freaks out, he has no idea what is going on, wasn't even aware that they even had the ability to increase the storm's power until this very moment! Why didn't they let Ron know about this? Need to know, top secret eyes only? Seems pointless to keep him out of the loop as he's the lead scientist on the most important part of the experiment. Anyway, they shut down the test, reduce the hurricane back to a tropical storm and call it a day.

During this pre-flight pep talk the General says "Get up there and kick that storm's (bleep)", with the last word edited out. I realized here that my copy of this film must have been censored by a fanatical Mormon, as even a word as innocuous as "ass" had to be removed to protect my virginal ears. Odd, though, that they didn't dub over something like "tail" or "hiney" instead of just cutting it out and leaving a dead space.

The ALCM delivers the probe into the storm's eye.

Some of the many passable-ish computer screen graphics we see in this movie.

Back on the ground, Ron and Doctor Platt and the General get into it over the exact nature of the ion generator. The General flat out tells Ron that it's been designed solely for military uses, which Ron should have really figured out by now. The General wants to be able to "engage hurricanes" and send them at enemy targets, inflicting Hiroshima-level destruction on some offending enemy coastal city without the nasty side effects of six-armed mutant-spawning radioactive fallout. He claims that America HAS to corner the market on this ability before "some power-hungry dictator or cold-blooded terrorist" gets it first and messes with our place as the world's sole remaining superpower (for now, watch China). Ron is suitably appalled at this, though he seems to be totally ignoring the fact that the General is, in essence, completely right. This is a nasty, brutish world, and there are any number of nations/religions/militaries/World of Warcraft forum groups out there who would gladly use whatever is at their disposal to ravage the Jesus-fearing, pizza-eating, Red State heartland of our fair nation. [Editor Pam: It would make for some interesting wars, though, if each side had the capability to send hurricanes at each other. The resulting devastation and its aftereffects might be even worse than Hiroshima. Can they really aim a storm so precisely as to hit only one city, then decrease it before it causes unwanted damage? I doubt it.]

God fucking bless America!

Later, Ron asks for more information from Major Goodman but is shot down (though there is some serious smoldering sexual tension between them). Ron then calls Brian back in Florida. Brian has determined that the "same heat signature" that was in Hurricane Andrew in 1992 has also showed up in Hurricanes George and Katherine since then, suggesting a disturbing pattern. He further relates the story of Hurricane Katherine's uncharactistically brutal swamping of "Amsterdam Island", which was a place that refused a US government request to base bombers there during the "Gulf War". Brian says that after the freak storm the USAF took the place over and it's now "a B-52 parking lot". The assumption, of course, is that the General and his team have been deliberately sending hurricanes to smack around unruly island nations.

Major Goodman's half-nekkid upper back is the sole porn in this entire movie, which is kinda sad.

Ron on the phone with Brian, his long distance bill must be staggering.

Ron is the curious sort, and he has many more questions than answers. Since no one on the project will tell him anything other than the rah-rah company line, he takes matters into his own hands and sneaks into Doctor Platt's office after-hours, bluffing his way past the criminally-lax security. After accessing Platt's computer desktop (using his kids' names as the password) he learns the next hurricane "test" will in fact send a massive storm directly into northern Mexico for some reason. The next day at work, Ron confronts Platt about this. Platt blows him off, saying that the storm is being sent to "Diablo Valley", the driest place on Earth to help the locals who are suffering from a drought. Sounds noble, but Ron suspects that he's lying.

I googled the hell out of this (for legitimate research purposes!) and there is no Boudoir nudie magazine. And check the back cover, it looks like a photo of some Cambodian rice farmers.

Is this suggesting that this is the real-life 28th Operational Weather Squadron?

Ron and Platt discuss the weather and what the lyrics of the Banana Boat Song actually mean.

That night Ron takes time off from saving humanity to score a date with the heretofore untouchable Major Goodman. After a night of Jose Cuervo and Applebee's take-out, he wakes up hungover and alone to the phone ringing. It's his old buddy Brian's distraught wife, it seems Brian was killed in a suspicious car accident near their home in Florida. Before he can think about this too much, the doorbell rings. It's the local LA cops and they want to question Ron about the fact that his car was involved in a fatal hit-and-run last night!

In an odd Top Gun parallel universe, the chick rides the bike and picks up the scientist.

Tequila is a bitch, and she just stole your Green Day CD and scribbled "Midget Dick" in sharpie on your wall.

Ron shakes off his hangover quickly and realizes that he's being framed (though he seems to forget about the death of his friend, which is never again mentioned in the movie). He fakes being sick, goes to the bathroom, and sneaks out the window. He's now firmly crossed over the line and is a wanted felon. He gets to a payphone and calls his old lover Andrea, asking her to come pick him up. In the car, Ron asks Andrea what she knows about the "political situation in Mexico". Andrea notes that Mexico is considering nationalizing their oil industry, which would bankrupt a lot of US oil companies and cause the President's sphincter to tighten noticeably. Ron then cryptically tells her to watch this tropical storm currently brewing off the coast Mexico, it's sure to be a "big story".

Ron is on the run.

Ron and Andrea chat in the car, I wonder if she knows she's aiding and abetting a felon?

That's a nice CLK.

Then, proving once again that women are stupid when it comes to love, Andrea just gives Ron her car, no questions asked. Ron takes it to Zephyr Dynamics and jumps over the fence in a secluded spot. Penetrating the wafer-thin perimeter security, he makes his way to the pilot locker rooms. There he confronts Major Goodman, sure that she had something to do with his being framed for that hit-and-run. The good major feigns innocence, but we can tell she's sneaky. Ron doesn't have time to ask anything more as he's jumped and beat down by Tom, the security chief, who along with looking good in a suit is also pretty good with his fists.

Ron adds unlawful entry and trespassing to his list of crimes.

Didn't teach you self- defense in meteorology school, eh, Ron?

Ok, Doctor Platt went in Ron's place on the flight for the latest test. Out over the Pacific, they are now building a hurricane and angling to send it to Mexico to smash things up real good like. Ah, but they lose control of it and it begins to shift south towards the open sea! But it's not an accident, as Platt has seen the error of his god-playing ways and turned Good Guy. He locks out ground control, overrides the doohickies, and twiddles with the widgets, determined to send the hurricane away from land. Down at the base, the General is going ballistic. He brings in Ron, who is in handcuffs (he has been held since being caught). Ron correctly says he or they can't do a thing to stop Platt from the ground.

A fairly impressive flat screen monitor shows the hurricane's initial path towards Mexico.

The General and his bouffant hair looks on impassively as thousands of tortilla salesmen and donkey show girls face impending doom.

The situation completely out of hand now, the General then picks up the phone and puts into effect "Special Order Zulu 29", which commands the Clone Troopers to kill all the Jedi knights (or maybe orders some dude on the airplane to "relieve Doctor Platt from duty", not sure which). A wicked gunfight erupts onboard the plane, resulting in poor Doctor Platt being killed, a nice clean-cut crewman being injured, the plane's hydraulics system damaged, and a mean old Lieutenant now in control of the probe.

The Lieutenant should know better than to discharge a firearm inside an airplane.

A stray bullet creates a leaking hydraulics line, which is never a good thing.

Ron then gets a rambling, incoherent lecture from the General about the nature of greed and national security. Martin Sheen gobbles up scenery like a hungry gator here, waving his arms around and pacing about the room while ranting on everything from gas prices to the constitution and from presidential politics to starvation in Bangladesh. It's a work of bravura oratory that of course fails to sway Ron over to "the cause".

Gordon Gekko would be proud.

Back aboard the plane, the injured clean-cut crewman sees a puddle of leaking hydraulic fluid and shows his displeasure by igniting it with a cigarette lighter! Why he chooses suicide here is totally beyond me, this guy hasn't had one single line all movie and was only in the background for a few scenes, but suddenly becomes Boromir with a zippo. Anyway, the plane goes ka-blooey.

Wasn't aware that hydraulic fluid was so combustible.

For some reason unsaid, the still-swinging probe is now locked on a new course, northwards towards Los Angeles! The mechanism of this probe, which is free- floating and unpowered, confuses me. How is it supposed to drag this massive hurricane anywhere when it has no way of moving itself? The first test of the thing way back in Florida used a plane to tow the probe along, taking the storm with it, but here there seems no way this is happening. Anyway, whatever. The General now needs Ron something fierce. Ron is willing to help to save LA, but to do so he has to go out there himself. Major Goodman and Ron will go up in another C-123 (they have a lot of them) to try and reacquire control of the probe. Tom the security man will also go along to make sure Ron doesn't do anything dumb.

I don't know what they are looking at, neither of them know what is going on either.

Smug bastard, only he can save Spagos, and the Laker Girls, and Seal Beach, and Jessica Simpson's house.

Back in Los Angeles, intrepid reporter Andrea is working the angle as news comes of the now-named Hurricane Elizabeth approaching. The hurricane has blossomed into a civilization-killing Category 5 and will be here in six hours. In the midst of this catastrophe we are inflicted with some of the most out-of-place Komedy bits you can imagine! There are jokes about Eddie Bauer, jokes about hair cream, gay jokes, Hollywood insider jokes, even jokes about fat people. Oiy! It's like the second unit director was a frustrated sit-com writer who was given far too much leeway.

A bubbly blonde bimbo, a jolly fat guy, and a gay Jewish guy walk into a bar...

We now get numerous scenes of people freaking out and running around. Mixed in with that are probably ten minutes of assorted stock footage of real-life storms, all stolen from news outlet archives and stitched together with cheesy graphics to make it look like Southern California. They even rip off that admittedly awesome scene in Deep Impact when the 500-foot wave comes looming up over the horizon (such an underrated movie).

Location shooting at its finest!

Meanwhile, Andrea is still on her quest to find the "big answers". She does some pre-google research on the General, pounding the phone lines to her "inside sources at the Pentagon". It seems the General made a name for himself back in Vietnam when he ran a top secret weather control program to make the Viet Cong's rice paddies even wetter than they already were. She also discovers that the General is officially retired! Ah, I see, he retired to run some sort of Top Secret Black Ops Weather Manipulation Program, probably funded by the spooky CIA, I'd say.

Andrea's attempts to use the nascent internet's 1999 search engine functions are derailed when she stumbles upon the Usenet newsgroup alt.goth.flonk.necrophilia.poetry.

Back on the plane, they make it into the eye of the hurricane and circle the floating out-of-control probe (never mind the impossible difficulties in penetrating a Category 5 hurricane in a rickety 30-year old plane). Ron starts punching in codes on his computer, but is denied! Platt locked them out before he got killed and he can't get into the program to disable the probe. Ron says he can do it manually, but that means he has to get his hands physically on the probe. They hatch a crazyass plan to snag the probe-to-balloon cable with the leading edge of the wing, outboard of the starboard engine. The pilot Goodman isn't happy with the real prospect of the wing being sheared off, but agrees as it's the only chance they have to save Los Angeles (though a hurricane would improve the smog situation and maybe run all those homeless bums out of Marina del Ray).

Ron realizes they have no choice but to snag it.

And snag it they do, after slowing down to almost stall-speed.

Violating virtually every law of motion, momentum, gravity and the load-bearing structural integrity of the plane's wing, the major then banks the C-123 around in a tight curve, causing the probe to swing around towards the open cargo ramp. On this ramp, Ron stands, tethered to the hold, a parachute on his back. Ron manages to grab the free-floating probe and hold onto it long enough to open an access panel and type in the deactivation code (sure). Then, and this looks even more dumb on film than I can type it, Ron slips and falls out of the plane! He grabs onto the probe, holding on for dear life like he's Slim Pickens before climbing back aboard through sheer arm muscle strength and camera tricks.

Ron attempts to snag the probe using just his wits and a carabiner. Don't mind the fact that the probe is supposedly pumping out heat-generating ions at a certainly-lethal rate and he's about to hug it like he's Spock.

Ron dangles behind the plane on the probe, which has suddenly shrunk from being about 20 feet long in previous scenes to now being about 5 feet long.

Ron's troubles aren't over. Tom pulls a gun and orders Ron to send the hurricane back to Mexico (using the still-working storm-dragging function of the probe, which is still being towed along behind the plane, got it?). There's a fistfight then, with both dudes struggling for the gun right on the lip of the open cargo deck. Since he's Carter Burke from Aliens, Tom takes the plunge, sans parachute. Ron barely has a moment to breathe when Major Goodman also pulls a gun and orders him to do the same thing! Why the hate?!

Why can't a man lay on top of another man without people saying stuff?

Shadowing and lighting can really set a scene, eh?

Now, the major put the plane on autopilot so she could come back to the cargo hold with the gun, ok? Ron peeks ahead and sees that the probe, still twisting in the wind, has now swung around ahead of the plane and they are heading right for it! After tossing out a snarky one-liner, Ron runs and jumps out of the plane just seconds before it hits the probe and explodes in an improbably huge fireball of twisted metal. Damn, just like in Die Hard!

He had a parachute on, remember?

Ok, enough of this, it's late and I need to wrap this up so I can get some sleep. It turns out that the General was part of some "renegade wing of the CIA", operating out of the public eye and spending your taxpayer dollars on his crazy schemes. The General dies in a car accident before he can be called to testify at senate hearings and everything pretty much goes away. Ron and Andrea get back together and make cute babies.

[Editor Pam: Okay, I know I've brought up this point over and over in these reviews, but how do a few renegades command the massive amount of funding it would take for a research project of this magnitude? The money has to come from somewhere, and this much money leaves a very big trail. Even if somebody important decided that this kind of research was a good idea and provided funding, did nobody involved in getting the General the money think it might be a bad idea to let him send devastating hurricanes to anywhere he didn't happen to like? I mean, were the scientists working on the Manhattan Project allowed to test their bombs wherever they wanted?]

As the storm dies, the fine citizens of LA (including these mutants) come out to survey the damage and light up a smoke.

Remember when Dylan cheated on then-girlfriend Brenda with Brenda's best friend Kelly? Good times, good times.

The End!

Written in September 2008 by Nathan Decker.

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