It’s not the fault of the filmmakers, but The Day After Tomorrow has been hyped on an unfair basis. In the weeks just prior to its release, Al Gore and other environmentally concerned politicians (and groups) have been suggesting that the film is a call to arms against President Bush and others who don’t put more emphasis on preventing global warming. Because of their public support of the movie and their insistence that it could really happen, I was expecting a chill-you-to-the-bone warning about the potential disastrousness of being eco-unhealthy. I anticipated a picture that was to global warming what The China Syndrome was to nuclear power. The truth is that Gore and others, while sincere, are trying to make a political statement out of what is essentially a disaster flick, albeit one with a provocative premise. Anyone going into The Day After Tomorrow should know that it’s not so much a polemic as a summer popcorn movie that uses a topical theme as a means for creating some big special effects action sequences. In other words, go for the fun, not for the message.
The premise of the movie – which was directed and co-written by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) – is that the North Atlantic Gulf Stream is altered by polar ice cap melting. What this means is that the Northern Hemisphere starts the process of a climate shift. The first step in this process is a series of weather anomalies, including massive tornados that wipe out downtown Los Angeles. Then stage two begins. The melted ice caps produce an excess flow of water that floods Manhattan. Finally, an artic cold sets in and freezes all the excess water. New York is literally frozen, and a new Ice Age has officially begun.
Our hero is Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid), a climatologist who predicts what is going to happen after receiving some crucial information from Professor Terry Rapson (Ian Holm), a Scottish meteorologist who monitors the Gulf Stream. Hall tries to warn the Vice President (Kenneth Welsh) of the impending climate shift, but the politician blows him off. Until Hall’s predictions start coming true, that is. Then Hall gets an audience in front of the President (Perry King) himself.
On a more personal level, Jack has been so busy pursuing his career that he’s been somewhat neglectful of his teenage son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal). Jack’s wife Lucy (Sela Ward) chides him over this fact. Right before the weather events start happening, Sam hops a plane to New York to participate in an academic competition. He has joined the team only to get close to Laura (Emmy Rossum). When the flood starts happening, Sam manages a call to his father. Jack tells him to stay inside and take precautions for warmth. Sam, Laura, and a few others hole up inside the public library and wait. Jack then sets out to keep a promise he makes to Sam; he promises to come for his son. Since the Northern Hemisphere is, by this point, covered in snow and ice, Jack must grab all his arctic weather gear and make a perilous journey from DC to Manhattan. Helping him are his team, consisting of Frank (Jay O. Sanders) and Jason (Dash Mihok).
Here’s the thing about The Day After Tomorrow: it doesn’t make a lot of sense if you think about it too much. For example, Jack promises Sam that he will come find him in snowy New York. Uh huh, and then what? Considering that a substantial part of the Earth’s atmosphere has changed radically, it’s not like Jack can make it all better just by showing up. And what about the other ten or eleven people Sam is with? What’s going to happen to them? This part of the plot wasn’t really thought out very well, and in fact the movie has to devise a somewhat coincidental series of events to get everyone out of peril.
There are quite a few moments of downright silliness as well. In one scene, Sam is chased through an off-course freight ship by a pack of wolves that have escaped from the city zoo. What this has to do with global warming is beyond me.
As I said earlier though, The Day After Tomorrow isn’t a “serious” film; it’s a disaster movie – and a pretty good one at that despite some silliness and lapses in logic. Anyone looking for logic in a disaster movie is barking up the wrong tree anyway. Independence Day wasn’t exactly a fountain of logic and neither were Twister or Deep Impact. Audiences go to these movies to experience a “what if” phenomenon. They go to imagine a horrible (but probably remote) possibility from the safety of a theater seat. They also go for big action scenes of things being destroyed. On these levels, the movie works pretty well.
There are several exciting weather sequences: the tornadoes in L.A., a hailstorm, and the flooding and freezing of New York. Of course we all know that CGI can be used to create awesome images, but I’m glad that this movie didn’t overdo it. For the most part, you can actually kind of believe in what you’re seeing. Could a tidal wave wash over New York like that? Yeah, it probably could if the polar ice caps melted. Emmerich shows us the destruction without ever going so far that it seems really implausible. There’s at least a seeming basis in reality here. That flooding of Manhattan was, for me, the most terrifying part because when you realize the area is an island, you also realize that there’d be nowhere for people to go.
The effects scenes score as they should for a big summer blockbuster-wannabe, but there are also interesting characters well played by a strong cast. Particularly good is Dennis Quaid, who avoids the usual macho “I know exactly what to do” attitude most disaster movie heroes have. Instead, he brings a genuine sense of fear. Jack Hall is afraid of what he sees, afraid of what it all means. That simple notion makes the movie draw you in to the human element much more than you might expect from a typical entry in this genre, where destruction is usually the star. (Jake Gyllenhall is very good too, showing how Sam has some of his father’s characteristics.) A lot of times, the people in disaster movies are just cookie-cutter products. Not here. The actors do a lot to make you care about them. This, more than anything else, is what recommends the movie. It’s not just about a natural disaster; it’s about the human reaction to it. The special effects sequences are what pull you in, whereas the survival themes are what hold you there.
Although I think Gore and other pundits are over-politicizing the film, there’s no denying that The Day After Tomorrow makes you wonder how prepared we really are for possible eco-disasters. I don’t think there’s nearly enough substance in the movie to frighten audiences or spur them into gales of protest against environmental injustice. It’s too lightweight to cause the kind of movement some environmentalists are hoping for. However, The Day After Tomorrow does make for a disposably entertaining two hour game of “What Would I Do If…” that I think is worth playing.
( out of four)
The Day After Tomorrow is rated PG-13 for intense situations of peril. The running time is 2 hours and 4 minutes.
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