Despite two thumbs up from Al Gore and John McCain, The Day After Tomorrow is not about to win any converts to the environmental cause. As promised, Roland Emmerich’s global-warming blockbuster imagines a world in the death grip of some spectacularly lousy weather: Hailstones flatten Tokyo; twisters rip apart Los Angeles; a giant wave engulfs New York, which is then frozen solid, along with most of the Northern Hemisphere, all because the melting ice caps have pushed the Gulf Stream to what unheeded climatologist hero Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) sternly calls “critical desalinization point.” But disaster movies, even as they dream up cataclysmic scenarios to punish mankind’s hubris and indulgence, flatter our survivalist instincts; they show us the very worst only to assure us that it’s not so bad. In that spirit, The Day After Tomorrow envisions the new Ice Age as nothing that can’t be overcome with pluck, fatherly love, and a pair of snowshoes.
Needless to say, the movie fails as a cautionary tale. But it fulfills its summer air-conditioning duties with flippant ease, and its enjoyably cloddish attempts at political relevance add a fascinating layer of incongruity. It’s somewhat surreal to witness an eco-liberal consciousness-raiser executed in Emmerich’s quasi-fascistic style—and on Rupert Murdoch’s dime to boot. The last two election years, the German-born Emmerich brought us Independence Day, a gung-ho celebration of presidential will in the face of extraterrestrial armageddon, and The Patriot, a gung-ho celebration of Mel Gibson kicking British ass. The Day After Tomorrow would appear, simply, to be another noisy expression of the director’s patriotic duty—a defiant stand from the king of blowing shit up, who’ll be damned if the terrorists keep him from visiting expensive F/X destruction upon the world’s major cities.
But unlike the disaster movies that predated 9-11 and the stolen election of 2000 (vague millennial nightmares that battled weather and aliens in the baddie vacuum of the post–Cold War lull), The Day After Tomorrow gleefully assigns its villain a human face—a mulish, nefarious, bald, bespectacled vice president. This evil Dick (impersonated by Kenneth Welsh) is introduced mocking the Kyoto accord at a U.N. conference; the president (Perry King), first seen stumbling into the Oval Office with a quizzical squint, instantly defers to the veep: “What do you think we should do?” The movie’s hysterical worst-case developments—the funniest and sharpest of which has hordes of freezing Americans illegally crossing the Rio Grande—are monitored on Fox News affiliates across the country. In a particularly nutty wish-fulfillment fantasy, Emmerich has his Cheney surrogate, in a live address from a refugee camp in Mexico, apologize for his hostile anti-green skepticism and humbly thank the entire “third world” for hosting evacuated Americans. (As if conceding that Fox would draw the line at televising so humiliating an episode, the film hilariously broadcasts this mea culpa on the Weather Channel.)
But while the movie’s topical jabs have a sneering, Verhoeven-lite quality (you keep expecting Emmerich to splice in Independence Day‘s money shot of the White House being incinerated), the human-interest stuff reeks, not least because Emmerich and co-writer Jeffrey Nachmanoff have no discernible interest in humans. It’s one thing to force-feed viewers disaster-movie cheez-puffs like “Are you saying these things are interconnected?” and “Not months—weeks!!” but another to subject us to an insipid teen courtship (“I’m using my body heat to warm you”) while people’s limbs are turning to icicles and snapping off. Unfortunately, the second half focuses on the redemptive quest of Quaid’s character, an absentee dad who must prove his devotion by journeying from D.C. to New York, first driving through a zero-visibility blizzard, then walking the length of the snow-encrusted New Jersey Turnpike. His son (Jake Gyllenhaal) is meanwhile stranded in the New York Public Library with a cute girl (Emmy Rossum) and assorted geeks, who are handy for combing reference manuals for septicemia treatments. The lead actors, who somehow register as a credible father-and-son pairing despite not being granted a single credible line between them, deliver contrasting master classes on surviving a Roland Emmerich movie: Quaid inhabits his steely rationalist with a commitment that borders on nobility; the ever darko Gyllenhaal skulks through the movie wearing his bulletproof armor of wary, wounded angst.
As the first full-fledged post–9-11 disaster epic, The Day After Tomorrow shows, by the profligate standards of the genre, a certain squeamish discretion. Save for the eye-catching insta-freeze effect, deaths are largely kept offscreen. The movie reserves its breeziest blast of destruction for L.A., accorded its most comprehensive thumping since Earthquake (albeit in predictable fashion, with the Capitol Records building reduced to a shell and the Hollywood sign toppling like dominoes). Everything, of course, is blatantly computerized, and the digi-fakeness, in the New York segments, seems willful (a comforting acknowledgment that this is not quite Manhattan but clearly Canada + CGI). Skyscrapers freeze, but none are knocked over. Survivors are found and rescued. There’s an almost elegiac quality to the main attraction—a torrent of sea water coursing through Manhattan arteries. It’s hard not to think of the scene as Emmerich’s symbolic declaration that the floodgates are open once more. Let the healing begin, and with it, a new cycle of therapeutic disaster movies.