The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

reviewed by
Jonathan F. Richards

IN THE DARK/Jonathan Richards

Written and directed by Roland Emmerich

With Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal
Rated PG-13, 124 minutes

There is a sublime moment near the end of Russ Meyer's 1970 camp classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls when a character, paralyzed from the waist down since an unfortunate fall from a lighting grid onto the stage of the Tonight Show, is traumatized into a miraculous recovery by a scene of Manson-like carnage. Dumped from his wheelchair amidst the mutilated bodies and severed limbs of his friends, he suddenly gasps "I can feel my toes!"

The screenplay for that movie was by none other than Roger Ebert, now the elder statesman of American film criticism. And it illustrates one of the immortal truths of the cinema: a movie doesn't have to be great art to show its audience a good time.

So when, in the final moments of writer/director Roland Emmerich's end-of-the-world disaster epic The Day After Tomorrow, astronauts stare down at the traumatized earth from their space capsule and enthuse "The air has never looked so clear!", we know that despite the billions of dead and the ice that has gripped nearly half the planet, everything is going to be all right.

Up until then, though, things have been pretty rough. The polar ice cap has started melting out from under paleoclimatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) and his crew. Jack goes to New Delhi for an international conference on the environment, and presents his theory that global warming could cause a new Ice Age in another thousand years or so if we don't shape up (he explains the apparent contradiction.) The American Vice President (Kenneth Welsh), who looks refreshingly like Dick Cheney, is in attendance, and sneers at Jack's theory, sniffing "Our economy is every bit as fragile as the environment."

As it turns out, Jack is only off by a thousand years. Calamity is as close as the day after tomorrow, and before you can say Kyoto, outbreaks of nasty weather are wreaking havoc all over the Northern Hemisphere. It's like the Weather Channel crossed with the Sci-Fi Channel. The best are the twisters that annihilate Los Angeles, not even sparing the Hollywood sign. It's the sort of thing that you'd think would get the attention of even the most benighted politician, but when Jack (who seems to be the only scientist on the face of the earth who has a clue what's going on) appeals to the VP to do something, he gets the old brush-off again

It isn't nice to treat Mother Nature like a fool. Soon New York City is getting rains that seem excessive even for New York City. The few citizens with a bookish bent take refuge in the Public Library at 42nd street as the flood waters rise. Among them is Jack's son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), in town with his high school's academic decathlon team. He manages to reach his dad by phone, and Jack tells him to stay put and keep warm, because a killer cold snap is on its way. "I'm coming for you," Jack promises.

The special effects in this movie are truly spectacular. As the storm churns up the Atlantic, a tsunami gathers behind the Statue of Liberty and crashes into midtown, sending people running ahead of it through the streets. A Russian tanker drifts up Fifth Avenue and runs aground in front of the library (and there is a basic rule of writing that says if you introduce a Russian tanker floating up Fifth Avenue in Act II, you've got to make use of it in Act III.)

The rain turns to snow. The temperature drops a few hundred degrees. Manhattan becomes a big skating rink. The Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty turn to ice sculptures. In the Library, they keep warm by burning books. They could've started with the furniture, but books are more symbolic. Back in Washington, Jack tells the President (Perry King, acting like Bush and looking like Gore) he'll have to write off everyone north of Kansas, and evacuate the rest of the U.S. population south. Mexico closes its borders, and illegal American immigrants abandon their SUVs and BMWs and wade across the Rio Grande. The Vice President allows as how maybe he's been short-sighted. Jack heads for New York on snowshoes, muttering "I made my son a promise, I'm going to keep it," hoping to atone for all those soccer games he missed while Sam was growing up.

     Then things start to get silly.  

Emmerich hopes this will get people talking about the potential for environmental disaster. It will also get them talking about the howlers in the screenplay. The movie pushes every button it can think of, from a little cancer patient to a homeless guy with a dog. It overflows with messages, including a contrite speech from the Veep, and Jack's observation that mankind's chances for survival "all depend on whether we're able to learn from our mistakes." But what the heck, it's grand entertainment. So grand and so silly it has environmental scientists worried that people will laugh off the real threat of global warming. At the same time it has the Conservative global warming-deniers fulminating about irresponsible tree-hugging propaganda. Al Gore put it in perspective recently. "There are two sets of fiction to deal with here," he said. "One is this movie, the other is the Bush administration's presentation of global warming."

     Of the two, the movie is more fun.
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