Like Volcano, The Day After Tomorrow deals with a freak natural weather or planetary event. It has also been called “honest fiction” as an Environmental Apocalypse Thriller. The movie came out ten years before the Polar Vortex hit the Americas and Europe, and 11 straight months record hot months.
According to The New York Times review:
”The Day After Tomorrow,” a two-hour $125 million disaster — excuse me, I mean disaster movie — that opens nationwide tomorrow, proposes an apocalypse that covers the Northern Hemisphere in a sheet of ice and snow. Hailstones resembling crystal paperweights pummel Tokyo, and furious tornadoes tear through Los Angeles, ”erasing,” as one quick-witted weatherman notes, ”the Hollywood sign” (and also smashing the Capitol Records building). A wall of water courses up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, followed by a Russian containership, and then the whole thing freezes as a new ice age arrives.
The cause of this disaster, which unfolds over a few unlucky and very stressful days, is global warming. The hero is a scientist named Jack Hall, played by Dennis Quaid with a haunted look, a perpetually clenched jaw and visible discomfort at having to say movie-scientist things like ”I think we’ve hit a critical desalinization point.” A colleague murmurs thoughtfully, ”That would explain the extreme weather.” Well yes, come to think of it, I suppose it would.
Some environmental groups using the release of ”The Day After Tomorrow” to raise awareness of global warming say in their publicity materials that the accuracy of the movie’s science is beside the point. The conditions could take hundreds of years to develop, and it is the prerogative of movies to heighten, condense and extrapolate. But if the film is meant to prod anxieties about ecological catastrophe and to encourage political action in response, it seems unlikely to succeed. Not because the events it depicts seem implausible, but because they seem like no big deal.
”The Day After Tomorrow,” directed by Roland Emmerich (”The Patriot,” ”Independence Day”) traces its roots to the melodramatic calamity freak-outs of the early 1970’s: films like ”The Towering Inferno,” ”The Poseidon Adventure” and ”Earthquake.” The picture is most entertaining when it acknowledges the swaggering cheesiness of this tradition. Mr. Quaid, as the level-headed man of reason to whom nobody will listen until it’s too late, walks credibly in the footsteps of Steve McQueen, Gene Hackman and Charlton Heston. It’s not his best work, but if someone has to do the job, it might as well be him.
Jack, whose research provides the best available model for the sudden, gigantic storms that cover Europe, North America and Siberia, must contend not only with the intransigence of Washington bigwigs, but also with the disappearance of his son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is in Manhattan on a school trip. Sam and some of his buddies (including Emily Rossum, who played Sean Penn’s murdered daughter in ”Mystic River”) are holed up in the New York Public Library, burning its priceless holdings to keep warm as the ice age sets in.
Jack, after barking out dire warnings and I-told-you-so’s to the vice president, sets off to rescue his son. Meanwhile some scientists in Scotland (including Adrian Lester and Ian Holm) philosophize about human destiny as they slowly freeze to death. Back in Washington Jack’s former wife (Sela Ward) tends to a young cancer patient.
While the human drama plays out in quiet, predictable set pieces, the large-scale disaster is rendered through elephantine, and occasionally imaginative special effects. What is odd is how much of it seems to be played for laughs. Nothing cuts the tension of global destruction like a joke, I guess, though it is possible that the frequent guffaws at the screening I attended were evoked unintentionally. But I suspect they were not.
Even as he invites us to contemplate a topic of unimaginable gravity, Mr. Emmerich (who wrote the script with Jerry Nachmanoff) tries to keep the mood light. Mr. Gyllenhaal has a way of infusing even his most desperate lines with a hint of knowing sarcasm, and some early scenes of wreckage — especially the leveling of Hollywood, curiously enough — are played almost like slapstick.
There are also a few interesting glimmers of satire. Some are a bit obvious, like the villainous figure of the vice president (Kenneth Welsh), who shrugs off environmental concerns and who is clearly smarter and more powerful than the callow, out-of-it commander in chief. The sight of hordes of Americans wading across the Rio Grande into Mexico, on the other hand, has a piquant quality.
The ending of ”The Day After Tomorrow” reminds you that the aim of disaster movies is not so much to raise alarm as to dispense comfort. In this one everybody (except the vice president), behaves remarkably well, even when overcome with panic. There is hardly a moment of venality, irrationality or selfishness, and at the end we are soothed by the smiling faces of survivors and the recitation of lessons learned.
As the theme song from ”The Poseidon Adventure” promised, ”There’s got to be a morning after.” Or as Susan Sontag put it, more cogently if less catchily, science fiction disaster films allow us to ”participate in the fantasy of living through one’s own death and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself.” When she wrote those words, in the 1960’s, that fantasy had a morbid, anxious edge. But in ”The Day After Tomorrow” those dark shadows have been scrubbed away, and the glacierization of half of the world’s inhabited land is contemplated with barely a hint of horror. In fact, it looks kind of cool.