It’s not like we needed another reason to hate al-Qaeda, but it turns out they’re also responsible for the post-9/11 decline of the American disaster movie. The last big Hollywood film featuring widespread cataclysmic destruction was Armageddon, and I think we’re all better off not straining ourselves to remember details about that. It’s too bad, because the disaster movie has always been a form of cinematic comfort food. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, since what you’re enjoying amounts to the mass annihilation of millions of people, but when studios are making disaster movies, you somehow feel like everything’s back to normal. There’s a sense that, “I just watched an entire city get blasted from the face of the earth, but I know when I leave the theater I’ll be able to meet my friends at the bar for a drink and recount all the gnarly action to them.”
Since 2001, the only films to feature imploding skyscrapers and widespread urban panic have starred a giant radioactive dinosaur or flying turtle. Now, for better or worse, Roland Emmerich has brought back the destruction production with “The Day After Tomorrow,” an admittedly far-fetched look at a world suffering from a drastic climate shift.
Emmerich has a lot to answer for. Most people probably appreciated the gratuitous carnage of “Independence Day,” even if the horrendous dialogue and maddeningly simplistic ending had most of them rolling their eyes so severely they were staring at their own retinas. 1998’s Godzilla was even worse, for not only was it a logic-defying mish-mash of a dozen better films, but it actually managed to repulse fans of the Godzilla franchise: people who could usually find something redeemable in films featuring men walking around in baggy rubber suits. No mean feat. Needless to say, the knives were out for “The Day After Tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow” uses global warming as the instigator of onscreen cataclysm, the first movie to do so since 1995’s “Waterworld” (the expectations, like the world’s oceans, just keep rising, don’t they?). We learn that the continued melting of the polar ice caps has caused the North Atlantic current to drop dramatically in temperature, leading to a rapidly escalating series of natural disasters that will culminate in the dawn of a new Ice Age. Dr. Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) is the Lone Visionary Who Saw it All Coming, not that there’s anything left anyone can do about it once the sleet hits the fan. As tornadoes and typhoons lay waste to the globe, Jack is more concerned with his son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) – stranded in New York City with his would-be girlfriend (Emmy Rossum) – and his wife Lucy (Sela Ward), a doctor in Washington, D.C. The northern states quickly become uninhabitable, forcing Jack to hike from D.C. to NYC to get Sam.
The good news is, it’s no Godzilla. Fine, that doesn’t mean much, but it’s also a better realized disaster film than “ID4” or the putrescent Armageddon. Emmerich eschews the star-studded casting of “Independence Day,” which frees the audience from that particular distraction. And if his dialogue hasn’t progressed very much, or if his characterizations still consist mostly of self-sacrificing heroes and the women who love them, at least there are enough subplots being juggled around that we don’t really notice.
The really good news is that the disaster money shots are some of the finest ever filmed. Irwin Allen never had CGI (not that it would’ve helped “The Swarm”), and the two centerpiece scenes (the destruction of Los Angeles and the flooding of New York City) are the stuff Allen’s nocturnal emission-ridden dreams were probably made of. Unfortunately, once the monster tsunami has its way with the Big Apple, that’s essentially it for the spectacle. There’s a “Cliffhanger”-inspired moment, and a few scenes of people fleeing the rapidly descending Ice Age that would be dramatic if they weren’t so implausible, but the film’s second half is given over mostly to Jack’s quest to rescue Sam from the New York Public Library and a pointless story arc involving Lucy and a preteen brain surgery patient.
A nicely aged Dennis Quaid capably pulls double duty as the concerned scientist/desperate father. I’m not one to go around prescribing cocaine abuse to those who want to land meatier roles in their 40s and 50s, but Quaid’s weathered countenance works just fine here. Gyllenhaal, who carries the other half of the film’s dramatic heft, has a tougher time of it. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a high school kid subjected to the stresses of potential global extinction to maybe freak out a little bit, but Gyllenhaal is too wooden, too uncaring.
And if you’re coming into the theater with any knowledge of meteorology, thermodynamics, physics, or engineering, just leave those diplomas at the door, thanks. “The Day After Tomorrow” is pseudoscience-fiction on a grand scale. You’ll thrill to phrases like, “It’s sucking in supercooled air from the upper troposphere,” just as you’ll marvel at the ability of a Wendy’s burger grill to stave off the rapid onset of sub-Arctic temperatures. Don’t think, it’ll only hurt the movie.
Finally, there are those who will see “The Day After Tomorrow” as left wing propaganda, timed to help spirit John Kerry into the White House. We call these people idiots. Sure, there’s a nice dollop of wishful leftism at the very end, when a formerly skeptical White House muckety-muck repents the error of his SUV-driving ways, but Emmerich himself admits to skewing the timing and the science of his film to better increase the entertainment value. For the most part, he’s successful, but assuming “Tomorrow” is going to convince people to vote Democrat (or Green) is like thinking “Mars Attacks” would have us all rushing out to buy Slim Whitman LPs.
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