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Day After Tomorrow, The (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 28 May 2004
This summer action movie has, surprisingly, stirred up a storm of protest, mostly from the right. There are complaints that this is propaganda for John Kerry, which must have come as a big surprise to Kerry. The producers would have had to know more than two years ago that Kerry would be a presidential candidate in order for it to be a campaign movie for him. It’s left-wing only in that it takes the threat of global warming very seriously—as do all industrialized nations in the world, whether their governments be left or right. All, that is, except the current U.S. administration.

However, the movie itself simply uses the idea of global warming, and recent theories about the potential suddenness of ice ages, as a thesis for special effects action sequences. It comes out foursquare against global warming—but who in heck could rationally be in favor of global warming? Don’t worry about the movie’s politics whether you agree with them or disagree. The movie is really just for entertainment, and achieves that goal unexpectedly well.

I say unexpected because most of director Roland Emmerich’s movies have been pretty bad, from “Joey” and “Moon 44,” which he made in his native Germany, on to his American projects: “Universal Soldier,” “Stargate” and “The Patriot.” His most entertaining movie to date was “Independence Day,” but that was a case of the premise overcoming the cornball plot and lousy dialog. “The Day After Tomorrow” has some lousy dialog, but not as much as in the usual Emmerich movie. There are cornball elements: a pitiful little boy with what seems to be cancer is dragged in; wolves—wolves!—stalk people in frozen Manhattan; the near-end of the world is a backdrop for a “Finding Nemo”-like tale of father and son reconciling. And much of the third act is tedious and uninvolving. The budget was lower than a lot of big-scale movies, probably to afford the extensive special effects.

And they are indeed worth paying for. The storm of tornadoes erasing Los Angeles is a shade florid, mostly in terms of color and lighting, but it’s satisfyingly realistic in showing the Hollywood sign and the Capitol Record building destroyed, along with cars and buses being flung through the air. But the most awesome special effects consist of the highly realistic deluge in New York. First, downtown Manhattan floods to about knee-high depth, then a giant tidal surge inundates the island, washing away cars, taxis, buses (does Emmerich hate buses?) and people. The water reaches something around the fourth or fifth floor; a Russian freighter drifts awesomely by the big library downtown while a group of survivors gaze on in horror. Then everything freezes. Karen Goulekas was the visual effects supervisor, directing the activities of a huge team that includes a large number of different companies. She’s done her job spectacularly well.
And yes, there are even people in the movie, too. Dennis Quaid, much better here than in “The Alamo,” is Jack Hall, a paleoclimatologist we first meet doing research in Antarctica. While Jack and his partner Frank (Jay O. Sanders, playing a good guy for a change) hole up in a tent, their younger associate, J.D. (Austin Nichols), drills for ice cores. A fissure miles long fractures just where he’s drilling—and for a second he thinks this enormous crack is his fault. (This is typical of the movie’s smart humor.)

Later, Jack attends a climatology convention in New Delhi; he tries to warn about the increasing global warming, but the U.S. Vice President (Kenneth Welsh) refuses to believe in this potentially catastrophic development. (Ever wonder why the U.S. is the only developed nation on the planet not to endorse the Kyoto Accords? No, don’t bother to explain this to me. That’s a rhetorical question.) Meanwhile outside, it has started to snow in New Delhi. Hawaii is battered by an enormous hurricane, while an equally immense typhoon strikes Australia. Hailstones the size of eggs pelt Japan. (Not all these events are shown in detail; the budget did have a limit.)

Jack is approached by Professor Rapson (Ian Holm), a famous climatologist, who suggest that Jack’s predictions of a major shift in the vast underwater current that flows from Greenland south to Cape Horn then east to the Pacific (where it loops back on itself and returns to the Atlantic) is beginning to change. When this change occurred in the past, the protection of this cold-then-warm current offered North America and Europe was eliminated, triggering an Ice Age. Paradoxically, the current trend in global warming could eliminate this current and plunge us back into an Ice Age. In the prehistoric past, Ice Ages began much more swiftly than most people believe: two to three years was all it took to change temperate climes to arctic frigidity.

Back home, we learn that Jack has all too often been an absentee father—his research took him around the globe—and his doctor wife (Sela Ward) warns him that his relationship with his son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) has been ruptured. Sam heads for New York with some friends from school, including Laura (Emmy Rossum), who he’s attracted to; they’re competing in a scholastic decathlon. Jack receives a late night phone call from Rapson: it looks like the great current has indeed changed, and is the cause of the disastrous weather conditions around the globe. But Jack still can’t convince the Vice President of this danger, not even when Los Angeles is hit by a veritable forest of tornadoes.

A space station witnesses three gigantic storm systems building in the northern hemisphere: the Ice Age has begun. First, though, the melted polar caps have raised the water level, leading to the Manhattan deluge. Only after that do those storm systems, like gigantic hurricanes over land, suck down frigid air from the troposphere. A flight of helicopters is frozen out of the air in Scotland; a man climbing out of one is frozen solid in his tracks.

The northern parts of North America have to be considered lost; everyone in the south is urged to head to Mexico, and the government plunges in to help, a day late and a dollar short. (There’s an amusing complication with the Mexico-America border.)

Meanwhile, in New York, Sam and his friends hole up in the public library, burning books to stay alive. One librarian protects a Gutenberg bible as represented of the beginning of enlightenment. Another, a bum, protects his very cute doggy. In New York, Mrs. Hall protects that cancer-stricken boy. Jack, J.D. and Frank set out across the now-snowy wastes between Washington and Manhattan; Frank hopes to rescue Sam.

The movie has a lot of energy, so much so that when in the third act the pace slows down, it’s especially disappointing. But the structure of the script (by Emmerich and newcomer Jeffrey Nachmanoff, from Emmerich’s story) virtually demands this. It’s typical disaster-movie plotting, and a reasonable way to get to the end of the movie. But things would have worked better had the disasters begun a little later, and the trek north been a bit shorter.

This is great eye candy, no doubt about it; the effects of the flooding of New York are eye-dropping in their realism and intensity. Yes, you see some of this in the TV trailers, but witnessing this catastrophe on the big screen is at once terrifying and somehow satisfying. It fulfills the usual purpose of such thrillers: showing us what would happen “if.” We can, in a sense, experience the worst-case scenario without having to live through it.

The movie is credibly layered with cutaways to the Weather Channel (the unsung hero of the movie) and to people reacting to the disasters with fear, confusion and troubled excitement. The characters are a bit stronger than in most such movies, but no one here needs to wonder where they’ll put their Oscar. The fact that the movie is based on relatively credible scientific theory puts it in the unusual position of being a “hard science fiction” tale, rare for movies. A real Ice Age wouldn’t develop in a matter of hours, as it does here, but it would develop much faster than most of us believe. As for global warming—something is causing the weather problems of the last few years, and it may well be that we are, as scientists warn, conducting a potentially catastrophic experiment with the planet itself. The Earth is much more fragile than we believed as we grew up, and we mere mortals do indeed have the power to cause ourselves terrible problems.

But still, this is not a propaganda movie; it’s a popcorn movie. And it’s a surprisingly good one.

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