Review: The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

For producers, the lure of disaster movies is understandable. They see dollar signs floating in front of their faces when they consider how much money some of the great disaster movies made. So why do so few disaster movies satisfy? Take The Day After Tomorrow, which the wife and I sat down and watched last night. Why is it that despite its impressive special effects and its overall decent acting it sucks so much?

The movie was timely, preceding the documentary An Inconvenient Truth by a full two years. The Day After Tomorrow suggests what might happen if we leave global warming unchecked. What could happen? Why another ice age, of course, and we are not talking about one that takes a few years to get going, but only needs a week to frost much of the top half of our planet.

Yeah, I had a hard time buying that too but apparently when enough glacial ice melts it changes the Gulf Stream, which makes certain spots in the Atlantic cooler than normal, which somehow causes a great atmospheric sucking sound. That would be massive amount of cool air pulled from the stratosphere. Soon the northern hemisphere is awash in super-sized arctic hurricanes. New York City is hit by a massive hurricane related storm surge, which quickly freezes over because the hurricane brings with it super cold air which seems to deep freeze everyone north of the Mason Dixon line.

Frankly, the CGI in the movie is very impressive. It must have taken a few supercomputers to digitize Manhattan and then apply all those fancy special effects that blow out windows on skyscrapers or send enormous a storm surge toward the New York City Public Library. Digitally lodging a Russian ship between skyscrapers must have been quite a trick too. The set for the New York City Public Library alone must have chewed up much of their budget.

Who is acting in this movie? We have a solid cast of actors including Dennis Quaid as Jack Hall, a NOAA meteorologist with a penchant for talking back to the Vice President of the United States. The VP, by the way, has more than a passing resemblance to (and attitude of) Dick Cheney. Jack Hall has a disturbingly bright son named Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is visiting New York City to compete is some sort of collegiate version of “It’s Academic”. (Is it only me, or does Jake Gyllenhaal look an awful lot like Tobey McGuire?) Sela Ward plays Jack’s wife Lucy, a physician, who has the unfortunate duty to tend to a young hairless Tiny Tim-like cancer patient at a hospital while a new ice age begins. Sam of course has a love interest, the extremely brown-eyed Laura (Emmy Rossum) who holes up with him (and others) at the New York City Public Library. Will they consummate their affections or is it just too cold for them to generate any heat? Do we care? No, not really.

The problem with this disaster flick, which is true of most of them, is that it depends on spectacle and formula in the hope that we will overlook plot holes bigger than those arctic hurricanes. I am no climatologist but I do not have to be to be skeptical that a sudden massive big freeze across the northern hemisphere is about as likely as my suddenly developing a sixth toe on my right foot. Moreover, it is hard not to laugh rather than feel horror when huge chunks of ice start pummeling pedestrians in Tokyo. Godzilla would be amused.

This movie is full of incidents that require an unreasonable suspension of disbelief. For example, Sam and Laura, on a plane ride to New York are caught up in some amazing turbulence. Baggage pops out of the overhead bins. What really got my attention was that you could hear thunder at 30,000 feet. I never have. There are a couple of ridiculous shots, like airliners flying into massive storm clouds. Hello? Is someone asleep in the cockpit? On every flight I have been on, pilots avoid storm cells. They fly around them.

Then there is the cockamamie subplot. As if dealing with a new Ice Age is not enough, what does the one scientist who knows the most about this phenomenon do? Naturally, he and a couple of his NOAA buddies risk everything and try to high tail it from Washington D.C. to New York City to rescue his son Sam who is very much an adult. You would think they might take a snowmobile, since the drifts are soon dozens of feet deep, but they take an SUV instead and when that goes out, it is time for the skis and snow sled. It must be a hundred degrees below zero out there but they are not intimidated. Anyhow, Jack said he was going to rescue his son and by god, he will do it no matter how insane it is.

I guess it helped that he spent time in the Antarctic retrieving ice cores. Naturally, the movie starts out there where we find Jack and his coworkers. Suddenly the Antarctic ice shelf they are on separates right next to them. Hundreds of miles of ice and naturally it splits between their living quarters and their research station. Um, yeah.

Moreover, what is with the international space station being the only orbiting satellite capable of conveying imagery of the weather from space? The last I heard we had hundreds of satellites up there snapping pictures of the earth but no one at NOAA can seem to figure out what is going on until the astronauts on the International Space Station tell them.

And how likely is it that millions of Americans, after a little grumbling, would find welcome in places like Mexico and that FEMA of all agencies would be equipped to take care of tens of millions of displaced Americans in places like Mexico? Do you think FEMA’s warehouses and people are trained for that sort of emergency? Do you think Americans will be all brotherly when survival itself is at stake? I would like to think so but I am sorry, no, not in today’s “you’ll get my gun when you pry it off my cold dead fingers” America. Perhaps this sort of myopia is due to the presence of Fox News in the movie. As we know, the folks running Fox News think America is back in the 1950s.

Then there is the formula. Of course, there has to be an evil Dick Cheney-like global warming skeptic and of course, the heroic scientist has to be vindicated in his calamitous predictions. As for the love interest between Sam and Laura, it is as predictable and saccharine as it is passé. And of course Mrs./Dr. Hall has to take care of a sick kid with cancer, yet somehow they must have found places for all the other infirmed in the hospital. The movie just would not have the same drama if she just went home and bundled up in her woolies. They amount to many cheap gimmicks to try to ratchet up the tension in the movie. Yet they feel so artificial that the whole movie, which is on a shaky ground anyhow, falls flat. Frankly, I could have cared less whether any of these characters survived and that includes the homeless man and his pet dog. Not to spoil this movie, which is utterly transparent but yes, somehow against all odds Jack does make it to New York City, huffing and puffing. He makes the journey from Philadelphia to New York on foot where he at last reunites with his son Sam.

So if you find your heart racing from all the excitement, this is likely your first disaster movie. Frankly, I thought The Wizard of Oz was much scarier. It is not quite a disaster spending time watching this movie. As I said, the special effects are awesome and the acting passable. What this movie really needed was a better script and a director more skilled than Roland Emmerich. It needed someone who could take these competent actors and actually make you care about them.

If you liked Twister (1996) you will probably like this movie, but Twister was actually a better movie. At least Twister had some cools lines like, “We’ve got cow!” There is no inspired dialog in this flick.

2.6 on my 4.0 scale. There is nothing that merits your attention except possibly the cool special effects.

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