1996 gave us Twister; in 2004, we got The Day After Tomorrow; then came 2009 and Ice Twisters; and this all finally culminated in 2011 with Brinicle: Finger of Death. Suffice it to say that, apparently, columns of deadly, swirling ice flying through the air at Mach I-hate-you-all are not entirely unexplored in cinema.
Ice Twisters examines, through a gritty, completely realistic no-holds-barred lens, what truly happens when science runs rampant over the landscape (hint: tornadoes of frozen air form. Or something like that). Joanne (Camille Sullivan, Intelligence; Best in Show) and her research partner Damon (Alex Zahara, 2012; The 13th Warrior), along with their assistants, are experimenting with drones that can create clouds and then seed those clouds with silver iodide, causing rain, when strange and deadly weather starts forming and dissipating randomly in the area. One of these storms happens to appear right over the store where Charlie (Mark Moses, Desperate Housewives; Platoon) is having a book signing. Coincidentally, Charlie is also the former teacher and research mentor for Joanne, and when she and Damon show up at the scene of the freak storm, Charlie realizes one of their experiments went wrong and strong-arms them into letting him help find a solution. Meanwhile, Eric (Kaj-Erik Eriksen, Disaster Zone: Volcano in New York; The Commish) and Ashley (Luisa D’Oliveira, 50/50; The Break-Up Artist), two journalism students on their way to interview Charlie for a class project, film footage of the freak storms to use instead.
Top left – Joanne; top right – Damon and Joanne; middle left – Charlie; middle right – Eric; bottom – Ashley
The first thing that should be said about this movie is that the CGI did not stand out as obviously bad. Given the prevalence of scenes with CGI tornadoes, the fact that the CGI did not stand out as strikingly awful is absolutely worthy of mention. I can’t say that they were the best computerized storms I’ve seen, but definitely a step up from much of the schlock found in SyFy Originals. Along these lines, the acting in this movie was solid, definitely higher caliber than usually found. The writing was unremarkable, but accomplished its job of telling the story. This movie managed to avoid the deadly combination found in many SyFy films of sub-par writing paired with poor acting, a mix that always results in painful movies and pained viewers; and for that, it stood out, though it should also be said that there were a couple of spots where I feel as though the writers backed off from good opportunities, weakening the final product. So, for example, while I thought the buildup in the first two-thirds or three-quarters of the movie was well done, it seemed to me that the climax was too passive and stale, detracting somewhat from the quality that had come before.
Not terrible CGI! I’m speechless!
None of this, of course, should suggest that this movie was flawless, or as flawless as a SyFy Original can be, because while it overall did better with many of the usual pitfalls in these movies, it actually suffered, at least to my mind, on the cliché front.
For a start, yet again, and again, and again, they bring up the idea of science versus common sense. As mentioned above, Charlie used to be a researcher, but he left the world of “science fact for science fiction”, as Damon puts it, because he believed that the work being done by scientists was being corrupted and co-opted by shady government types. (Coincidentally, the work being done by Joanne and Damon gets co-opted by a shady government type.) So first there’s the conspiracy cliché, the idea that the government wants to take research that’s ostensibly beneficial and turn it into a weapon; and there’s the scientists have done enough harm and should just stop now cliché, often formulated as it is here, with the hero of the movie having once been a researcher, but who is now out of the field because he or she was disgusted by the ethical and moral laxity of the funding sources or of their fellow researchers. Then, after some apocalyptic or near-apocalyptic event, they get dragged back in, all the while carrying themselves with an I-warned-you smugness.
“I KNEW this would happen!”
But all of this posits a science devoid of ethics or morals. Not only do most scientists themselves have morals, but many also vocally advocate those morals to their peers. Ethically or morally ambiguous research gets performed, of course; and to a certain extent, such work must be done in order to advance certain fields (stem cell research comes to mind as an example). But often, once hints of such work being done reach the field at large, ethical debates pretty quickly begin, and by and large, scientists hold each other in check. Moreover, given the wider spectrum of people involved, projects with government funding tend to be even less controversial (again, look at the cuts to stem cell research funding imposed in the early 2000s). Now, obviously, there absolutely is morally questionable research being performed under the auspices of government funding. But in all of those cases, I would be shocked if fewer than ten people were knowledgeable of what was happening. Bottom line, the idea that one aggressive mid-level bureaucrat can provide substantial funding to unethical scientific research without being found out over a period of several years strains credulity. And along comes Charlie, constantly reminding Joanne and Damon that that’s exactly the reason he got out of research, so that he wouldn’t produce results to be misused.
“It’s alright. Ten years ago, all this would have been MY fault, not yours.”
The other main cliché that permeated the movie was the idea that the hero always knows exactly what to do. When the random storms begin forming, the research team who had invested three years of work are at a loss to explain the cause; Charlie, on the other hand, looks at the information for all of five or ten minutes, after being out of the field for an unknown amount of time, and realizes exactly what’s happening. Not only that, but once he’s deduced what’s causing the storms, he soon devises a plan to stop them. No matter the challenges they face in the movie, Charlie always seems able to propose a solution seemingly effortlessly.
Except for this guy. He’s just figurative toast
So what, exactly, does happen in this movie?
The basic plot goes something like this – Joanne and her team test out a set of drones designed to create clouds, and then seed those clouds with silver iodide to make them rain. The next thing anyone knows, the temperature in a nearby town drops precipitously and a tornado comes out of nowhere, kills some people, destroys some stuff, and then vanishes. This happens a few more times before Joanne, Damon and Charlie return to the research field station and being analyzing the data. Charlie quickly explains that the only cause that makes any sense is the idea of “vertical weather”, as he puts it, wherein the upper layers of the atmosphere are getting sucked down into lower ones because the drones are drawing moisture to make the clouds. He realizes that the storms are forming in the upper atmosphere and then dropping through the layers to ground level, which explains the temperature drops. Further, the only way to stop the storms is to open up a hole in the ozone layer so that a satellite with solar panels can harness the Sun’s energy and fire a laser into this hole to heat the upper atmosphere so the storms cease to self-perpetuate.
Seems to me like a lot of sharks were jumped just in that paragraph, but let’s take a closer look and see what we find.
First, some basic atmospheric tidbits. Earth’s atmosphere comprises many different layers, with distinct boundaries between each, though the depth of each layer can vary with the location or time of day. The boundaries between layers more or less prevent two adjacent layers from mixing much. Also, a quick look at the formation of tornadoes – basically, the idea is that colder, denser air ends up above warmer, less dense air, and as the two try to change places, they swirl around each other, creating the tornado. (Yes, I know that that’s a pretty awful description, but it will do for purposes of the discussion here, and if you’re interested in more technical or fleshed-out descriptions, that Wikipedia article is a good place to begin.)
So let’s say, hypothetically, some crazy scientist launches drones into the top of the troposphere (the layer we all know and love and live in), just below the tropopause, where they begin to condense liquid nitrogen out of the air (how, I have no idea, given how cold that stuff is), causing water vapor to condense into clouds, creating a relatively intense, localized dry area in the atmosphere. According to Charlie, then, more moisture is drawn down from the upper atmosphere both to help make the clouds and to equalize the disparity. Here’s the thing, though – there’s not a whole lot of moisture above the tropopause (noctilucent clouds notwithstanding), so drawing it in shouldn’t really do much at all as far as upsetting balance goes. Interestingly, despite the general tendency for the tropopause to act as a barrier between the troposphere and the stratosphere, there are occasions when thunderstorms cross the tropopause; so not only does this barrier mark the end, more or less, of what will be useful for creating weather, but it also isn’t even impenetrable, if a storm is determined enough. Suffice it to say, my hunch is that, if an artificially dry area were created in the upper troposphere, not much would happen. Certainly, it is doubtful that moisture from the upper atmosphere would be sucked down, given how little of such moisture there is in the first place.
However, supposing that, for some reason, downdrafts of air from the upper atmosphere were to start dropping all over the place, it does seem to me that ice twisters would not be that unlikely a phenomenon. After all, until the stratosphere, average temperature of the air decreases as altitude increases – just climb a mountain, and you’ll get it. (Interestingly, in the stratosphere, as altitude increases, so does temperature.) Of course, given pressure differences at the different altitudes, cold air can stay happy and content above warm air, until a pressure front comes along and tears everything apart (otherwise known as “weather”). But regardless, the temperature in the upper atmosphere is much colder, on average, than the temperature closer to the surface of the earth. Thus, if, for some reason, cold air from there were to fall, as it sank, it would sink faster and faster as it became denser with pressure. This would also heat it up, but probably not quickly enough to make a big difference before it came crashing down on us. And if that air came from high enough up, say, the upper mesosphere, it could pretty easily freeze everything nearby pretty quickly, being as cold as 148°F below zero. I’m from Wisconsin, and even I would call that cold. So while the idea of the events leading to ice twister formation seem fairly ridiculous to me, theoretically, I guess they could form ignoring all the reasons they wouldn’t.
“I know I left my logic around here somewhere…”
What about their solution to the problem, shooting a space laser through an ozone hole (isn’t it remarkable how many problems Hollywood believes can be solved with space lasers?)? It’s hard to really talk about this, given the unknowns involved (mass of air, area of laser, intensity of laser, etc.); but I would guess that, while it might, theoretically, work, it would take a lot longer than the few seconds they show in the movie. Moreover, there’s no reason given at all as to why heating the atmosphere locally should work, though I suppose the idea is that, by heating the air, the down flow should stop as the air becomes even less dense that it was. But I’m not really sure, and my guess is that shooting a laser into the upper atmosphere to stop a self-perpetuating series of frigid killer storms would essentially prove useless.
To plug a hole with a laser, first create a hole… with a laser!
The solution to all our problems
Bottom line here, I would say that the basic premise is pretty ridiculous, though some of the consequences are plausible.
So that’s that. If you’re really into winter-themed disaster movies, I’d recommend The Day After Tomorrow before Ice Twisters; Day did it first, and Day did it better. But if you’re really into SyFy-themed disaster movies, you could certainly do worse.
And no one noticed the new star that was formed. The end
And finally, Shark Week is here! To celebrate, Jumping Sharks will be running one review per day (give or take), covering all of your favorite shark-centered monsterpieces. I’m talking Dinoshark; Sharks in Venice; and the infamous Sharktopus, among others. It’s gonna be a good week, so stay tuned!