Disaster movies have to be given some slack in the realism department.
Consider the sterling example of the 1969 classic for the geographically challenged, Krakatoa: East of Java, where no one involved noticed that Krakatoa was, in fact, west of Java. At least the makers of The Day After Tomorrow are aware that New York City is north of Washington, D.C. That they seem to think it would be possible to hike from one to the other in about two days through a blizzard that can — at its worst — turn you into something like freeze-dried coffee faster than you can say “woolly mammoth” is another matter.
In essence, this is a movie where you get what you pay for — millions of dollars worth of magnificent, computer-generated scenes of mass destruction; a nickel’s worth of bad dialogue; and about two cents’ worth of satire. We can get the last out of the way pretty fast, since it’s limited to a venal vice president (Kenneth Welsh, Miracle) who looks suspiciously like a certain Mr. Cheney, and to the admittedly amusing spectacle of Americans illegally crossing the Rio Grande to get into Mexico.
There are also a few nods to ecological concerns in the film, but let’s be honest here: Director Roland Emmerich is really only interested in staging bigger and better scenes of destruction. He has an entire filmography to back him up, and supposedly counts The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and Earthquake as his favorite movies. He’s Irwin Allen with a battery of 21st-century effects technicians. Everything Emmerich learned about filmmaking he picked up from 3-D movies where objects hurtle toward the viewer. And when he isn’t pelting audiences in the face with wayward city buses, walls of water and hail the size of Mini-Coopers, he’s spewing forth cliches, cardboard characters and unintentionally hilarious dialogue. (Maybe The Day After Tomorrow is not as funny as The Core, but it’s not for want of trying.)
We’re talking about a movie in which “paleo-climatologist” Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) is trudging his way through the snow from D.C. to Manhattan to rescue his son (just what Dad plans on doing once he gets there is never addressed), and when one of his sidekicks keels over in the frozen vastness, he casually walks over and asks the unconscious man, “Are you OK?” In other words, the only thing deep here are the snowdrifts and the bulls**t.
The script is an excuse for the effects, which is no surprise, since the disaster movie is rarely about anything else. However, there was some vague hope that The Day After Tomorrow might actually offer a little something more, if only because it eschewed the normally obligatory big-name cast in favor of one made up of merely recognizable names not known for filling theaters. It’s as if Emmerich were making Independence Day with the supporting players as stars — and that, perhaps, is the new wave in disaster movies. Have we reached a point where the draw is strictly the effects work and who’s in a film doesn’t matter? Possibly.
And possibly, the next step is a movie that is all scenes of destruction and hundreds of extras being bludgeoned, buried, drowned, frozen, incinerated or eaten by wolves without recourse to any pesky screenplay. That might actually be preferable to a screenplay as clunky as this one, with its loose interpretation of science; its doses of ineffectual, saccharine sentiment; and its painfully obvious set-ups.
Global warming is a hot topic, but there’s precious little to indicate any degree of commitment to it here. The filmmakers are more than happy to take all the free publicity of the government’s refusal to comment on the film — not because that PR will help illuminate the topic, but simply because it’s apt to make you part with a few bucks at the box office. Emmerich and Co. want you to sympathize with the central characters, but the best they can do is dredge up the neglectful husband/father, the estranged son (Jake Gyllenhaal), a beguiling doggie and a little-boy cancer patient.
Realizing that weather is basically an undefeatable bad guy, they want some dramatic tension, so they laboriously set up some wolves escaping from the Central Park Zoo, just so the hungry critters can show up a few reels later to imperil the cast. (Why do only wolves escape? A pack of bloodthirsty wallabies would have added some real spice to the concept.)
OK, individual sequences in the film (including the wolf attack) do work on a simplistic suspense level. And, yep, the special effects are impressive. They were also impressive in Troy, though they left me there as they leave me here — with a profound sense of “so what?”
Way back in 1933, RKO produced a movie called Deluge, with virtually the same plot and an advertising tagline — “Earth is doomed! Only a few will survive!” — that would suit The Day After Tomorrow just swell. That earlier film exists today only in a dubbed Italian print with retranslated English subtitles; yet even in that form, it has lessons Emmerich could profit from. It doesn’t bother with trying to explain why the weather has changed; it just gets on with the story — and tells it in a little over half the time. Moreover, Deluge serves as an object lesson, since it also loses steam once it starts dealing with the survivors. You might think that in 71 years, someone could have figured a way around that, but it sure wasn’t Emmerich.
I give the actors credit for not bursting out laughing at the requirements of the script. Even Dennis Quaid only occasionally adopts that deer-in-the-headlights look he used throughout The Alamo. Quite the most frightening thing about The Day After Tomorrow is the admission by Jake Gyllenhaal that some of his dialogue was rewritten because he refused to say the lines in the script, which he considered too stupid and unrealistic. I shudder to realize that what he does say on the screen is an improvement.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke