Day After Tomorrow, The (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Roland Emmerich must dislike New York City. After all, this is the third time he has destroyed it. The Day After Tomorrow, an ode to an apocalyptic endgame of global warming, is an old-fashioned disaster film with modern-day special effects. It's cheesy and over-the-top, but the disaster sequences are well crafted and some of the formulaic action sequences generate tension. The Day After Tomorrow stands a rung above Independence Day (which self-destructed in its final third) and significantly more than that above the turgid Godzilla remake.

The film's premise - global warming leading to a radical climate shift and a new ice age - has caused scientists worldwide to flinch. Emmerich takes established facts and blows them out of proportion, and it’s the exaggeration that has caused the consternation in the scientific community. (Incidentally, the Weather Channel apparently didn't have a problem with this, since their logo is plastered all over the place.) But who expects realism from a movie like this, anyway? The central disaster is just an excuse for the impressive effects work and the paper-thin character development. If it focuses some attention upon a real problem - global warming - then how can that be bad?

Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) is a climatologist who has come to the conclusion that the world is fast approaching a new ice age. He estimates that the event will occur in 50 to 100 years - until he hooks up with British scientist Terry Rapson (Ian Holm), whose measurements of plummeting ocean temperatures in the North Atlantic advance and accelerate the time table significantly. Vice President Becker (Kenneth Walsh) ignores Jack's warnings, leaving the country without a plan of defense when disaster happens.

The 30 minute segment of The Day After Tomorrow that depicts the planet's weather gone wild represents the film's most compelling section. Tornados rip through Los Angeles, even taking apart the "Hollywood" sign. Blizzards and hurricanes batter the Northern hemisphere. And New York City is flooded then frozen, leaving skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty as modern ice sculptures. The tornadoes look as good (or better) than those in Twister, and the ravaging of Manhattan is believable, although it's not nearly as engaging a guilty pleasure as it would have been before 9/11/01. If you've seen the trailer, you know what to expect, but the full feature offers a lot more of the same.

Jack's son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), is trapped in New York with his potential girlfriend, Laura (Emmy Rossum), and a group of refugees. They are holed up in the library, or at least that's what Sam tells Jack when he makes a last phone call. After kissing his wife, Lucy (Sela Ward), goodbye, Jack, accompanied by a couple of buddies, heads out into the unfriendly weather in search of Sam. It's a seemingly impossible trek that will involve a walk from Philadelphia to Manhattan in bitter, blinding conditions.

Some of what The Day After Tomorrow has to offer is exciting. Some is just plain stupid - like Sam's tussle with a pack of wolves (on board a ship in the middle of Manhattan), Lucy's act of self-sacrifice for a cancer patient, and the President's pep talk (that sounds like it was lifted from Independence Day). Still, a lot of the silliness is expected in this kind of motion picture, and the moments of elevated adrenaline (many of which occur during Jack's harrowing journey) and impressive visuals serve as a counterbalance. Plus, there's even a little irony thrown in for good measure when the Mexican government seals the border to keep U.S. refugees from fleeing south.

The Day After Tomorrow has the good sense not to have man attempt to overcome nature's wrath (the point of such films like Armageddon and The Core). Instead, it's a given that there's nothing we can do, so the emphasis is on survival. The knowledge that victory is impossible makes for a more compelling story, since the goal becomes intensely personal: staying alive. Of course, despite the "bad science," the pro-environment message shines through. Like Super Size Me, consider it a cautionary tale. Nevertheless, Emmerich's point with The Day After Tomorrow isn't to play politics or make speeches, but to entertain. And, in the cataclysmic way he has become known for, he does so. The Day After Tomorrow is filled with bad dialogue, stock peril situations, and sketchy character development, but it's a big enough spectacle that those things don't derail the film's capacity to be enjoyed. Pass the popcorn and the cheese.

Day After Tomorrow, The (United States, 2004)

Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: 2004-05-28
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1