The Day After Tomorrow Review
By Joe Lozito
When Nature Brawls
When you think back on 70s disaster movies, what do you remember? Typically it's (in order) the special effects, the cast, and the one character that makes the ultimate sacrifice so that others may survive. The best example is probably 1972's "The Poseidon Adventure": the ship flipping over, the guy falling from the "floor" to the ceiling; Gene Hackman and Shelley Winters chewing the scenery. That was good stuff. Most of the copycat films of the time ("Towering Inferno", "Earthquake", "Airports 1 through 1980") followed the same formula with varying degrees of success until eventually they suffered their own extinction. Perhaps that was for the best, but if anyone were going to resurrect that genre, it might as well be Roland Emmerich, one of the minds behind "Independence Day" and, to a more unfortunate extent, "Godzilla".
In "The Day After Tomorrow", Mr. Emmerich, writing alongside relative-newcomer Jeffery Nachmanoff instead of previous partner Dean Devlin, throws suspension of disbelief to the wind. And it's an icy wind. The plot involves global warming but, as an astute U.N. Official asks minutes into the movie, "if you're talking about global warming, why is it so cold?" Turns out, it has something to do with the shifting of the North Atlantic current. As is required of this genre, the explanations fly by too fast for any real scrutiny, and that's for the best. What we really want to see is the devastation. And boy is there devastation. Los Angeles and New York bear the brunt of it as they are ripped apart by tornados and floods, respectively.
As you would expect, the plot is almost an afterthought. All the usual moments are in place, including the requisite government official who doesn't believe the scientists. In this case, it's a Cheney-esque Vice President (Kenneth Walsh) who is written even more poorly than President Bill Pullman's cabinet members in "Independence Day" (the destruction is so outlandish in the film that it's hard to imagine anyone pigheaded enough to argue with the scientific explanation).
There are also the usual characters to "care" about, even though most scenes don't last longer than two minutes: the teenagers in love (Jake Gyllenhaal and Emmy Rossum), the father (Dennis Quaid) fighting to get to his estranged son, the dog, and yes, even a cancer patient. At one point there are even wolves thrown in for good measure. The cast is largely up to the challenge, particularly Mr. Quaid (becoming more and more the actor we thought Harrison Ford would become in his older years), Mr. Gyllenhaal (who is developing Johnny Depp's ability to make every line-reading interesting) and Ian Holm, bringing British-infused gravitas to the role of a doomed scientist.
Though there's a bit too much proselytizing towards the end, I appreciate that Mr. Emmerich didn't pull any punches with the film's conclusion. There would be no point to tack on a "happy" ending in which the sun comes out and melts all the ice and thaws everyone out. However, after 9/11, the question is whether the public needs a disaster movie, especially one that shows New York getting flooded and flash-frozen. As a New Yorker, the answer is not as simple as I thought. Take a look around BigPictureBigSound
and you'll see that I have no problem with mindless entertainment. And I was looking forward to the special effects in "DAT". While the effects certainly deliver, the demolition of New York was a bit difficult to take. Not from an exploitative standpoint, but I just wanted to say "pick on some other city for once, will ya?" Of course, what would be the point; an American disaster movie can't not destroy New York. It's a symbol of too much that is American and, in a way, human. And like the ending of the film, despite the devastation, I think it is a symbol of hope. I was as surprised as anyone else that "DAT" actually got me thinking about larger issues. When was the last time a Hollywood movie did that?