I once saw a Quebecois movie made in the early 80s. It was called La
Guerre du Feu (Quest for Fire). It had a similar plotting problem to
this movie: how do you compress hominid evolution over thousands of
years into two hours or less? A lot of my friends, who had a
professional interest in the subject as anthropologists, were down on
it for being inaccurate. It's alright to have fire discovered suddenly,
but the nuclear family? In any case, the idea of the last as a human
universal is a western myth.
I rejected their analysis on the grounds that it was unfair to judge a movie by the best current knowledge. Rather it should be judged in relation to previous examples of the genre and, in the case of Quest for Fire, that was caveman movies like One Million Years BC starring Raquel Welch. By that standard, this movie was a great leap forward intelligent, realistic and humane, even if its anthropology was, well, dodgy. It just had a plotting problem and so does The Day After Tomorrow.
How do you represent the coming of the next ice age as a human interest drama? Well, it has to take place in a couple of days. Who cares if this is implausible? Griffith invented close-up and panorama to represent the individual in society. The panoramas in this movie are breathtaking -- it simply couldn't have been made five years ago -- and the plot has to take liberties to put people in them. It opens with a spectacular tracking shot of the melting polar icecaps and, if a piece the size of Rhode Island breaks off while we watch, it is more dramatic than implausible for some American scientists to fall down the crack. Panorama and close-up.
The human interest is vintage Hollywood kitsch, featuring the nuclear family, of course in its broken, reunited and adolescent forms. The movie's political line is quite subversive and well-realized, with a Cheney look-alike as Vice-President and Americans streaming South across the Rio Grande for refuge in the Third World. I also liked the cod symbolism of western civilization going down the tubes while doughty survivors hid in the New York public library and burned the books to keep warm. An original Gutenberg bible was rescued by helicopter... But the harsh reality of having to forget SAT scores and explore other career possibilities in a frozen world was at least acknowledged
Another plotting problem reminded me of The Pianist. The first half of the movie is taken up with the sheer momentum and drama of the Disaster, but the second half resolves into a chase whose successful outcome is known in advance, since this is a Hollywood movie. Emmerich succeeded better than the Polanski in this respect and he has now replaced Robert Zemeckis as my favourite director. I thought this was the best disaster movie ever and a great advance on Quest for Fire as a thrilling commentary on the process of human evolution or should that be devolution? It had integrity because it knew itself and was not ashamed.
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