I’m a sucker for disaster movies. The appeal of them is that they make me wonder, how would I handle such a dire situation? What would I do? Then, I get to play armchair quarterback and criticize all the mistakes the characters make in the movie. If I had to narrow it down, my favorite disaster movies are from the 1990s where every year it seemed like there were dueling efforts from rival studios – Independence Day (1996) vs. Mars Attacks! (1996), Volcano (1997) competed against Dante’s Peak (1997), and Armageddon (1998) went up against Deep Impact (1998). During this decade and beyond, Roland Emmerich was the reigning king of disaster movies with the aforementioned ID4 and Godzilla (1998). I’d wager he has killed more people in his movies than almost any other mainstream filmmaker.
My favorite movie of his is The Day After Tomorrow (2004), which wasn’t released in the ‘90s but feels like a holdover from that decade. Not since Armageddon has a film taken such a complete leave of its scientific senses. By that point, he had already blown up the White House and stomped all over New York City. What was left? How about a modern ice age that engulfs the northern hemisphere all over the world? At the time, people laughed it off as yet another far-fetched disaster movie from Emmerich but over the years, as our weather has gotten more erratic and the polar ice caps are melting, it is looking less and less like science fiction and more like something that could actually happen only much slower than what is depicted in the movie. Maybe he was onto something.
Emmerich doesn’t waste any time. Four minutes in and already people are in peril as climatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) saves a colleague from being swallowed up by a seismic event as the Larsen Ice Shelf in the Antarctica breaks off and then risks his own life to retrieve some core samples. He is one of those savvy scientist protagonists that really knows what’s going on but can’t get the powers that be to take his theories seriously and so he’s shutdown at a United Nations conference about the alarming increase in global warming, or abrupt climate shift.
Of course, none of the politicians give him the time of day but we know that he’ll soon be vindicated when all hell breaks loose. I mean, it is snowing in New Delhi fer crissakes! Before long, grapefruit-sized hail pelts citizens in Japan as the movie’s body count begins. Soon afterwards, four tornadoes wreak havoc in Los Angeles erasing the Hollywood sign. Finally, the mother of all tsunamis pummels New York City.
The rest of the movie sees Emmerich juggling several storylines: Jack and his two assistants making their way across the eastern seaboard now buried in snow and ice. Jack’s wife Lucy (Sela Ward) is taking care of a terminal patient. Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), their son, and his friends are trapped in New York City having taken refuge in the New York Public Library. The most engaging storyline is Jack’s perilous journey, which has a grim action/adventure vibe as they navigate the dangers of the harsh environment that shows the extent of the new ice age they are experiencing.
Dennis Quaid brings his patented everyman charm to the role of Jack. I always liked him, from early roles in Breaking Away (1979) and Dreamscape (1984), to later work in Traffic (2000) and Far From Heaven (2002). He turns in good work as Sam’s estranged father who is too busy trying to warn influential politicians about climate change than being a good father. The actor gets the most out of small, character moments like the scene where Jack drives Sam to the airport. It effectively establishes their relationship and lets us know that he’s a good guy but needs to get his priorities straight, which, conveniently enough, this massive global disaster will allow him to do. Quaid is good at delivering dramatic dialogue like, “I think we are on the verge of a major climate shift,” and really sells it with utter conviction, and cliché lines like, “If we don’t act now it’s going to be too late,” and actually make it sound important, which is exactly what you want from your leading man.
Like Quaid, Jack Gyllenhaal works hard to deliver a performance clearly superior to the material he’s given. The actor uses his big, expressive eyes and youthful appearance to maximum effect, playing an inexperienced young man forced to grow up really fast. Soon, Sam is following in his father’s footsteps as he ventures outside to find medicine for one of fellow students and romantic crush Laura (played by fresh-faced ingénue Emmy Rossum). It leads him to a Russian cargo ship that was swept inland on the massive tsunami and froze itself close to the library. However, it isn’t that easy and he has to contend with a pack of wolves that escaped from the zoo, which Emmerich mines for every ounce of tension.
Veteran character actor Ian Holm gets to intone the movie’s initial warning that something bad is going to happen thus validating Jack’s theory. Sela Ward does a nice job of conveying selfless empathy towards her patient, doing her best to cut through Emmerich’s audio/visual emotional manipulation by keeping it real with a grounded performance.
Nitpicking a brainless big budget movie like this is a lesson in futility but there are some things that just take you right out of the movie because they are so glaringly obvious. First jump in logic: Jake Gyllenhaal is supposed to be a 17-year old high school student?! Too bad in real life he was 24-years-old. Maybe he’s following in the footsteps of Luke Perry in Beverly Hills 90210? Second jump in logic: the L.A. basin by nature is not realistically conducive to tornadoes because of its geography. But then the first warning sign should have been Perry King cast as the President of the United States. I guess Morgan Freeman or Bill Pullman were not available.
Also, we are supposed to believe that a beautiful young woman like Laura would pass up a good-looking guy like Sam in favor of some smug jock from a rival school? He’s probably rich but still. Thankfully, there are occasional glimmers of wit like when a Culture Club song plays at the post-academic tournament reception causing Sam to remark, “This place is so retro it might actually be cool if it were on purpose.” Gyllenhaal delivers this line with perfect comic timing and deadpan delivery. In a nice throwaway gag, Sam’s nametag reads, “Yoda.”
Admittedly, there are some impressive visuals on display here as Emmerich gets to play in an expensive CGI sandbox, unleashing tornadoes in L.A., giving us a money shot of four separate twisters wreaking havoc and in a lame fuck you to the industry as one takes out the Hollywood sign. This is just a warm-up for an impressively staged set piece when a massive tsunami slams into and floods New York City with Sam and his friends narrowly escaping its wrath, finding refuge in the New York Public Library. It’s quite a sight to see massive amounts of water engulfing the streets, tossing city buses like tinker toys. It also gives Sam a moment to heroically save Laura when she stupidly goes back to a taxi for some lady’s passport (really?!). For someone so book smart she has zero common sense. The moment exists so that Laura can see what a great guy Sam is and then we get a scene where the smug preppie is humanized as he tells Sam to tell Laura how he feels. Aw, how nice.
Emmerich is also quite adept at creating an eerie mood with an ominous shot of hundreds of birds fleeing across the New York sky or having an abandoned Russian freighter float ominously down the streets of New York. However, after the CGI-created natural disasters subside, the film settles into a ploddingly predictable adventure movie with the cast of talented actors doing the best they can with a weak script in dire need of doctoring.
The Day After Tomorrow is a predictable mixed tape of Twister (1996), Deep Impact (1998), and The Perfect Storm (2000). If you can get past the gaping plot holes and jumps in logic then you might enjoy this throwback to disaster movies from a bygone era – think Irwin Allen in the 1970s but only if he had CGI at his disposal. While its message of global warming is timely and even more relevant now, the obvious way it force feeds it to the audience is insulting to anyone with a shred of intelligence. It seems to suggest that the moral of its story is if you want to avoid a natural disaster, go to a library.