In June 1969, 5-year-old Jo Thornton (Alexa Vega), her parents, and the family dog Toby seek shelter in a storm cellar from a powerful F5 tornado. This tornado is so strong that the storm cellar door is ripped off, and Jo’s father (Richard Lineback) is pulled into the storm to his death. Jo, her mother (Rusty Schwimmer), and Toby survive. Twenty-seven years later in present day 1996 in Oklahoma, 32-year-old Jo (Helen Hunt), now a meteorologist, is reunited with her estranged husband, Bill “The Extreme” Harding (Bill Paxton), a former weather researcher and storm chaser, who has since become a weather reporter. He is planning to marry sex therapist Melissa Reeves (Jami Gertz). They need Jo’s signature on the divorce papers and have tracked her down during an active bout of stormy weather. Jo has built four identical tornado research devices called DOROTHY, based on Bill’s designs. The device is designed to release hundreds of sensors into the center of a tornado to study its structure from the inside, with the purpose of creating a more advanced storm warning system. Bill and Melissa join Jo and her team of storm chasers, and the team encounters Dr. Jonas Miller (Cary Elwes), a smug, corporate-funded meteorologist and storm chaser. When Bill discovers that Jonas has created a device based on DOROTHY, called DOT-3, he vows to help Jo deploy DOROTHY before Miller can claim credit for the idea. During the first tornado, Jo’s truck and DOROTHY I are both destroyed (the truck is picked up and lands upside-down). They continue storm chasing in Bill’s truck, with Melissa in the back seat. They find a second tornado, a confirmed F2, and head off on a back road when the twister shifts its track. They soon find themselves driving through heavy rain, and instead collide with a cluster of two violent waterspouts, one of which splits, spinning them around on the highway until the waterspouts dissipate. They’re fine, but Melissa becomes hysterical from the ordeal, and Bill has to calm her down. The team visits Jo’s Aunt Meg in Wakita, Oklahoma, for food and rest. Whilst Jo is busy showering, Bill tells Melissa about his relationship with Jo and reflects on the day Jo’s father died. They soon learn that an F3 tornado has formed near some hills, but they have trouble finding it. Jo drives ahead of the team to intercept the oncoming tornado, but a telephone pole falls on the back of Bill’s truck and knocks DOROTHY II out onto the road, scattering its mini sensors all over the road. As Jo jumps out to gather the dozens of mini sensors, the tornado lifts and touches down closer. Bill pulls Jo into the truck and moves to safety. The two confront each other over their marriage and Jo’s obsession with stopping tornadoes, due to being devastated about her father’s death. The following night, an F4 tornado devastates a drive-in cinema during the showing of the 1980 horror film The Shining, forcing everyone to take shelter in a pit in a car repair shop warehouse. By this time Melissa has been traumatized by the experiences and recognizes the unresolved feelings between Bill and Jo. In desperation for her own safety, she peacefully breaks off the engagement with Bill. The tornado continues on to Wakita, devastating the town and injuring Meg while destroying her house. Bill and Jo rescue Meg and her dog from the collapsing house. Meg’s injuries are not serious, but she is taken to the hospital for safety while her dog stays with the group. The team then hears that an even stronger storm, an F5, is forming 25 miles south of their position. Inspecting Meg’s wind chime sculptures, Jo realizes that the most likely method to successfully deploy DOROTHY’s sensors into a tornado would be to add additional body surface to catch the wind. As they reach the F5, the team adds aluminum from soda cans to work as wind flaps, but the deployment of DOROTHY III is a failure (DOROTHY III is T-boned by a tree branch). Meanwhile, Jonas attempts to deploy DOT-3 and in the process he ignores Bill’s warnings to turn around. Moments later, a piece of metal comes flying through Jonas’s truck windshield, impaling his driver Eddie (Zach Grenier). Their truck is caught by the tornado and thrown into the ground, and they’re killed in the resulting explosion. Jo and Bill set out on their own and are able to deploy the last DOROTHY successfully, using Bill’s truck as an anchor. From miles away, the research team sees immediate results on their computers from the sensors. Bill and Jo’s celebration is cut short, however, as the tornado shifts course toward them. They take shelter in a pump house where they anchor themselves to the pump plumbing with leather straps. The tornado destroys the pump house and Jo and Bill find themselves in the vortex of the super-massive funnel, securely floating inverted in air. After the F5 dissipates, Jo and Bill find themselves alone on the floor of the former shed. They decide to run their own lab and rekindle their marriage.
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