Local Apocalypse

Into the Storm, Twister, and the Problem of Nature as Adversary

Author Charles Freeman
Author Charles Freeman

It is typical of popular entertainment to seek out seemingly unconquerable foes for its heroes to endure. From big-budget disaster movies to cheap ‘reality’ shows on television, one of the most reliable of such foes is nature itself. Hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis have all taken their turns as movie antagonists, while the everyday threats of nature provide fodder for television entertainments from The Amazing Race and Survivor to more obscure titles like the Discovery Channel’s Man vs. Wild or any number of so-called ‘reality’ shows on the Weather Channel.

The idea of nature as adversary is not new. One can cite such works as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or novels by Jack London, or much economic theory since the 1800s that views nature as a foe from which our survival must be wrested. Philosophically, one can look to the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755 for many different responses to the destructive power of nature, perhaps most famously Rousseau’s call for a return to a more pastoral or bucolic lifestyle away from cities.

However, for the modern follower of Christ who seeks a more welcoming and embracing theology of nature and creation, this pop-culture phenomenon should not be brushed off lightly. The enduring appeal of this idea of nature as adversary, and popular willingness to feast upon it with little questioning or reflection, offers a subtle challenge to attempts to propose a theology of creation that situates humanity within the natural world rather than as its steward or enemy. Theologies of creation have not always dealt with natural disaster effectively.

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Theologies of creation have not always dealt with natural disaster effectively.
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For consideration here I will explore two movies that feature a particularly pernicious type of natural disaster: the tornado. This summer’s popcorn-muncher Into the Storm and 1996’s Twister both rely to some degree upon the nature-as-adversary model, with the added impact of a near-personification of tornadoes as “out to get” the film’s human protagonists. While neither film should be assumed to be totally meteorologically accurate, both tap into a level of popular understanding of tornadoes in order to create devastating adversaries for the heroes of the films.

Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, and their team chase an F5 tornado in Twister.
Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, and their team chase an F5 tornado in Twister.

One of the principal characters of Twister, storm chaser Jo (Helen Hunt), demonstrates the adversarial posture with great clarity; the film opens with a scene in which Jo, as a young child, witnesses her father being swept away by a tornado (later in the film we learn that the storm was an F5 on the Fujita scale, the most destructive level of tornado). This sets up Jo’s quest to develop a sensor system to penetrate and study tornadoes as a form of counterattack against the storms that introduced that trauma into her life. Multiple scenes in the film suggest a personal quality to Jo’s work, bordering on the obsessive, as if she were Ahab to the white whale of the storm.

Rather than stars such as Hunt and Bill Paxton, Into the Storm features recognizable but not truly famous actors (provoking reactions such as “Hey, that’s Thorin Oakenshield!” or “Isn’t she in The Walking Dead?”), leaving the viewer’s attention focused almost exclusively on the tornadoes themselves instead of the melodramatic plot. There are some problems with the movie’s portrayal of the storms and their effects, as described by meteorologist Dr. Jeff Masters of Weather Underground, though he does acknowledge that for the most part the tornadoes and damage are portrayed fairly accurately. Indeed, so strong is the focus on the tornadoes (or the special effects used to create them) that the characters may as well be in a video game, trying to survive and advance through distinct levels of ‘play’ as the storms grow more fierce and the settings more perilous – a particularly contemporary way to frame nature as a fierce and destructive adversary.

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While Twister makes no particular claims on climate change, Into the Storm acknowledges the issue while not explicitly mentioning it.
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Into the StormInto the Storm’s take on tornadoes as adversary is also informed by the ubiquitous presence of cameras; it isn’t enough to capture or survive the storm, you have to document it too. There is team leader documentarian Pete’s camera-rigged chase vehicle, the digital cameras wielded by other team members, the cellphones cluttering virtually every frame the movie, security cameras recording the storms’ destruction, and even cameras attached to the helmets of Donk and Reevis, two Johnny Knoxville wannabees engaging in their own beer-fueled tornado chase in search of YouTube fame. The very ubiquitousness of tornado filming might explain Into the Storm’s box-office weakness; aside from the maudlin plot, many of the scenes and images in the movie (right down to the armored chase vehicle) might well have been lifted from Tornado Rampage 2011, a documentary on the three-day outbreak that produced the infamous Tuscaloosa tornado and multiple other EF-5 storms.

Tornadoes make particularly suitable villains for these humanity vs. nature disaster movies because tornadoes can and do appear anywhere. While “Tornado Alley” is popularly found from Texas through Kansas (both Twister and Into the Storm are set in Oklahoma), highly destructive tornadoes have struck with greater frequency in Alabama and Mississippi in recent years, and in early September a damaging tornado struck Worcester, Massachusetts, site of an extremely destructive F4 tornado in 1953. Hurricanes are geographically limited, as are earthquakes; tornadoes are not.

Sociologist Gordon Fellman, in Rambo and the Dalai Lama: The Compulsion to Win and Its Threat to Human Survival, acknowledges the tendency to view nature as adversary and the destructive power of nature:

Because it can destroy humans and their endeavors, experiencing nature as adversary makes some sense. But we can treat the force of nature with respect, and people can select settlement sites, grow food, and fish seas in ways that honor the intricate realities of nature and our relationship with it. [1]

Man-v-Wild-S4Certainly for many other natural disasters this holds true; we can avoid building directly on coastlines in hurricane-prone areas, and avoid or take extraordinary precautions in known earthquake zones. (Whether or not societies have actually done this is another question altogether.) But the ubiquity of tornadoes defies even this common-sense prescription. It seems unlikely that Oklahoma or Kansas will be depopulated to avoid tornado damage, and even that would be futile, as citizens of Tuscaloosa and Worcester can attest. How do we curb our competitive impulses and enter into a relationship of mutual creatureliness with nature in the face of such an implacable foe?

While Twister makes no particular claims on climate change, Into the Storm acknowledges the issue while not explicitly mentioning it. Allison, the meteorologist on the storm-chasing team, suggests the extreme storms the team is chasing are an emerging new reality; when another team member calls the event a ‘freak occurrence’, she replies “…Not anymore, not after Katrina, not after Joplin…. What used to be a once-in-a-lifetime storm seems to be happening once a year now.” How then do we live in the face of nearly yearly local apocalypses, storms producing catastrophic destruction over and over, in town after town?

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People informed by TwisterInto the Storm, or other disaster flicks cannot be convinced or impressed by a creation theology that fails to acknowledge that many parts of that creation look a lot like adversaries.
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Super Natural ChristiansMargaret Swedish, in Living Beyond the “End of the World”: A Spirituality of Hope, [2] makes just such an attempt to tackle an ethic of living in the face of disaster. However, the disasters she addresses – Hurricane Katrina, Mississippi River flooding, the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 – operate differently than tornadoes. They are more predictable (with the exception of the earthquake/tsunami), and their destructiveness can be more readily attributed to encroaching human development: building along hurricane-prone coastlines, or in areas subject to regular wildfires, is perhaps/practically asking for trouble. While Swedish rightly points to the natural and even necessary processes that produce such disasters, she does not address the particular randomness and still-unpredictable nature of tornadoes.

Sallie McFague, in Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature, ambitiously sketches out a comprehensive and thorough reconsideration of Christian theology of nature and creation. McFague’s new vision of nature steers away from nature as object and instead posits a genuine and transformative love for nature, the love of one creature for another. The idea of nature not as object but subject, or a multiplicity of subjects, is appealing and theologically compelling, to be sure. With nothing more destructive than a wood tick coming under McFague’s gaze, though, it is hard to square the destructiveness of our pop-culture storms (not to mention their real-life counterparts) with such sentences as:

We will not know them as objects for the purpose of controlling or using them, but as subjects for the purpose of understanding them better both for their benefit and our own. [3]

My point here is not to diminish or dismiss the work of theologians seeking to reorient our posture toward God’s creation. It is needful and even beautiful work. Such work is not complete, however, if it does not find ways to acknowledge the awesome and yet terrifying potential destructiveness of that creation, even its most random and idiosyncratic manifestations. People informed by Twister, Into the Storm, or other disaster flicks (or the Weather Channel and Discovery Channel, for that matter) cannot be convinced or impressed by a creation theology that fails to acknowledge that many parts of that creation look a lot like adversaries. This is the challenge: how to acknowledge such destructive and unpredictable storms and yet strive towards a theology that promotes a right relationship with a broken planet?

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[1] Gordon Fellman, Rambo and the Dalai Lama: The Compulsion to Win and Its Threat to Human Survival (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 130.
[2] Margaret Swedish, Living Beyond the “End of the World”: A Spirituality of Hope (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2008), 1-20.
[3] Sallie McFague, Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 111.

AUTHOR BIO: Charles Freeman is a 2014 M.Div. graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary. Previously he was a college professor at several universities, most recently the University of Kansas in Lawrence, at the opposite end of the state from Greensburg, site of the infamous 2007 tornado. As a child the first thing he wanted to grow up to be was a meteorologist (not a weatherman; he knew the difference). For now he and his wife live in Chesterfield County, Virginia.

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