DISASTER MOVIE: The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

The Day After Tomorrow (USA, 2004)
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Emmy Rossum, Ian Holm

This is the 500th film I have reviewed since joining Rotten Tomatoes in 2009. You can find all my rating and reviews, both pre- and post-blogs, here: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/user/752852/

Films about climate change seem to invariably fall into two basic, very distinct groups. One group is overtly and deliberately sombre, seeking at its most extreme to browbeat and shame its audience into taking action, calling on people to prevent future catastrophes as penance for their past transgressions. An Inconvenient Truth and its derivatives tend to preach to the converted, depressing or alienating casual viewers and falling short of cinematic standards on both a visual and narrative level.
The other, more commercially successful group tends to trade on public hysteria, extrapolating fears about carbon emissions and melting ice caps to such a point where any attempt at scientific credibility becomes nigh-on impossible. Such films may get the public talking about climate change more, but they are driven to act on the basis of false expectations and ultimately such works damage the wider debate. The Day After Tomorrow is the ne plus ultra of this latter group, being perfectly entertaining as an throwaway blockbuster but having nothing of any real substance to offer.
Such an indictment is not entirely surprising when we consider the people behind The Day After Tomorrow. The film is loosely based on extracts from The Coming Global Superstorm, an extremely speculative work whose theories about destroyed ancient civilisations treads dangerously close to the work of Erich von Däniken. Whitley Striber, the book's co-author, has a well-documented (and misplaced) interest in the paranormal, and the inspiration for the book - an unsolicited lecture with a man whom Striber calls "the Master of the Key" - should lead us to question how much faith we can put in the central premise.
Outside of doubts raised by the presence of Striber, we also have Roland Emmerich's record to consider. Before Michael Bay came along and stole his crown, Emmerich was seen as the embodiment of the big, dumb blockbuster; he is someone who knows how to shoot destruction in an appealing manner, but his films are either disinterested in complex ideas or explore them in a deeply unfulfilling way. There's no denying the visceral appeal of Independence Day, and John Landis has praised his films as the ultimate in guilty pleasures (and there is some truth in that claim). But if you ever stop and think about any of Emmerich's work, you quickly find yourself baffled by how little any of his films makes sense.
Purely from a scientific standpoint, The Day After Tomorrow's depiction of drastic climate change is utterly farcical. Even if we accept arguments about the Gulf Stream disappearing and an accompanying fall in temperatures, indications are that changes would happen an awfully lot slower than is depicted here. While the film never presents itself as a documentary, it asks us to invest a certain amount of trust in the scientific phenomena it is presenting to us. But because it goes so far out of its way to destroy so quickly every aspect of civilisation that we hold dear, we soon move into the realms of distant hypothesis and then right on into all-too-obvious fiction.
Of course, the argument could be made that people don't elect to see these kinds of films for the scientific accuracy - they would either pick a film like An Inconvenient Truth or get the information elsewhere. But it does not automatically follow that the disaster movie, or the action genre as a whole, has to be empty-headed and without ambition. The best examples in the genre, like The Poseidon Adventure or the original version of The Day The Earth Stood Still, match their extraordinary spectacle with thought-provoking ideas about the human condition and the world in which we live.
It is possible to get a deeper, more allegorical meaning out of disaster films, whether it's a warning about Man's hubris, our over-reliance on a particular technology or the incompetence of modern government. It is possible, in the hands of a good director and screenwriter, for such themes to be conveyed in an entertaining manner in the midst of eye-popping spectacle. Here, on the other hand, Emmerich just picks a series of atrocities and then tries to show them happening in great detail, rather than unpacking what they could represent. There is some character development, but what there is is purely internal - it's tied to the characters in these specific circumstances, rather than making a more general point about our relationship with the natural world.
Additionally, the film suffers from the same problem of many disaster films: it only focusses on the impact of events on people in the developed world. It may sound like political correctness gone mad, but there is no reason why a film about a global catastrophe should only concentrate on the impact it will have on Americans. The scenes in New Delhi early on are just an excuse to trot out rcial stereotypes, and Ian Holm's likeable British character is largely there for decoration.The decision to centre the action alost solely around Americans is as ludicrous as the presumption that American audiences won't sit through a film with subtitles. Not only does this decision cause the filmmakers to treat their audience like children, but it trivialises the extent of the disaster and lessens its dramatic impact.
With all that being said, there is much in The Day After Tomorrow that is enjoyable in a disposable fashion. The special effects may not have the physicality of any of Irwin Allen's productions, but they are nonetheless very effective. Seeing New York City engulfed in snow and ice is evocative, especially given the multitude of films in which snow in such a city is seen as romantic or charming. The scenes involving flooding are also very well-done, being more The Poseidon Adventure than Titanic.
The acid test of any disaster film, notwithstanding its thematic intentions, is whether there are believable characters to whom we can relate in the midst of all the carnage happening on screen. Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds had its flaws, but the central relationship between Tom Cruise and the children kept us going even, holding together even as the story around them flagged. At the other end of the scale, Bay's Transformers films are completely disinterested in characters: the man are vehicles for violence and the women are as much objects as the Autobots.
For all his other shortcomings as a director, Emmerich does manage to come down somewhere in the middle here. He's never going to win any awards for his screenwriting; he writes like an outsider looking in at a version of America which only exists in films. But the characters are more likeable than those in Godzilla, and there is much less of the hackneyed gung-ho military figures which dogged both that and Independence Day.
In the end, the main thing which carries The Day After Tomorrow is the performances, whether they're working with the script or in spite of it. Dennis Quaid's film choices since the 1980s have been very hit-and-miss, but he's a good fit here in the frustrated father figure role. Jake Gyllenhaal isn't as gripping or convincing here as he was in Donnie Darko four years prior, but he's still enjoyable company. And while Holm's character is almost completely surplus to requirement, he brings a sense of stoicism and pathos in the way that only a classically trained British actor can do.
The Day After Tomorrow is a enjoyably disposable blockbuster which provides entertainment in spite of its scientific idiocy. It is among the better films that Emmerich has foisted upon the public, possessing some memorable set-pieces and just enough characterisation to see us through. As an examination of the threat of climate change, it's hyperbolic and utterly ridiculous, but as a disaster movie, it's decent enough to give it at least some of your valuable time.


NEXT REVIEW: Lake Placid (1999)