MOVIE REVIEW: "The Day After Tomorrow" (2004)

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A schoolteacher buddy of mine recently told me that one of the other teachers in his school was going to show this flick to her science class. I said "That's ridiculous, there's nothing but bad science in this movie, even Environmentalists complain about how awful it is!" He said she didn't care, and asked me to put together a list of reasons why it was inappropriate so he could use it on the administration. That required me re-watching the movie, which I really didn't want to do, but I took the hit. "For Science!"

Alas he didn't use my stuff, and she showed the movie, and the average of scientific illiteracy in our great nation increased a bit. On top of which, I had to sit through a movie I don't like, with nothing to show for it.

I will now pass the pain on to you:

Where to begin? Well, Dennis Quaid is our greatest living bad movie resource. Sure, a lot has been made of Eugene Levy's seemingly endless string of bad movies, ranging pretty much unbroken from "Armed and Dangerous" (1986) all the way down to "New York Minute," which came out the same time this film did. While it may be true that Levy is the unquestioned High Lord Grand Poobah of suicidal career choices, he does pull out some great ones now and again ("A Mighty Wind") so he at least knows what a good movie is. And even at his worst, he could never have pulled off starring roles in two separate Hundred-Million-Dollar stinkers in one year, like Mr. Quaid did: The Alamo and The Day After Tomorrow. Randy Quaid's less talented (But also less-insane) kid brother is our generation's greatest 'Space Holder', by which I mean an actor who gets a part not because he's right for it, but because he can remember his lines and therefore can at least technically hold down the role until he's replaced by an actual star later on in the production.

Quaid 'Stars' as Jack Hall, a genius paleoclimatologist who discovers the world is going to end roughly three days before it actually does. As the protagonist of the movie a degree of audience identification is required of Mr. Hall — we're supposed to feel for him, or fear for him, or sympathize with him, or, well, respond to him in some way. We never do. We're never entirely sure what he's on about. He appears to be happily married to America's Menopausal Sweetheart, Sela Ward, but then again, maybe they're estranged? I'm not sure. They appear to live in different households in Washington DC, and I'm not sure if this is just because of the outrageous property values inside the beltway, or to avoid commuting time, or maybe they're divorced-but-still-in-love, or maybe, ...well hell, I don't know. All I really concluded about their family life is that they don't live together and Quaid can't take care of plants. In any event, Quaid and Ward are both attractive southernish folk who've made careers out of pretending to be Yankeeish, so you'd think they'd have that going for 'em, but, no, they've got absolutely zilch chemistry. Perhaps I'm making too much of this, but there really is something fundamentally wrong with the storytelling in a film where you can't even tell if your two leads are married, divorced, estranged, or one of 'em just keeps a city apartment because he travels a lot and keeps weird hours, a'la Mad Men. The rest of the movie is not much more coherent on any of the other plot points, either.

Examples? Scads, but let's stick to the science first:

The movie begins when the Larsen-B ice shelf breaks off and sails away into the Atlantic. This results in "an imbalance of salt and fresh water in the ocean" that causes a new ice age to arise in... ehm... I'm gonna say roughly a week. A week! Anyway, this global warming causes tornadoes to strike LA (why? No explanation is ever given.), canned-ham sized Hail to hit Tokyo (again, why? No explanation is ever given.), a 300-foot-tall tidal wave to strike New York City (why? I mean, Global Warming has nothing to do with Tsunami—those are strictly earthquake-related, and ain't got jack to do with the weather), the temperature in the North Atlantic to drop by like 15 degrees in a day or so (again, Why?), and the ultimate ecological bitch-slapper of 'em all, three large super hurricanes that descend from the north pole to wipe out North America, Europe, and Asia, one storm to a continent please. It's a seriously good week to be Brazilian, let me tell you.

Now, Roland Emmerich, who made this movie and Independence Day, is German, so he may not know—like everyone who's raised in New Orleans does—that hurricanes do not go from the north pole towards the equator. Instead, the form just above the equator, and head north west. Indeed, hurricanes need a minimum of 80 degree whether to form. Furthermore, the eye of a hurricane is not frigidly cold. All scientific qualms are shrugged off by two lines of dialog, "That can't happen!"
"But it is!"

Ok, fine, whatever. I didn't go to this movie to test my memory of my earth science class. It's a disaster movie, after all: I went to see cool stuff get destroyed in pretty ways. And yet even in this, the movie is something of a disappointment. Now, I'll grant that, yes, there's a lot of cool destructive stuff in this movie, but it's curiously spaced out. The best comparison is Independence Day, Emmerich's other It's The End Of The World As We Know It, And I Feel Like Punching Michael Stipe movie; Both LA and NYC are destroyed in operatic fashion, the US Government is forced to flee, Western Civilization Ends, and several billion people die immediately, with undoubtedly another billion or so to die in the next month after the disaster from the disruption of food and power distribution, medical supplies, etc. Both movies are essentially variations on a theme: Judgment Day where God relents for whatever reaso, thus allowing a remnant of humanity to survive 'midst the rubble.

The difference between the movies is that ID4 makes no pretence of being anything other than a rousing fun ride from start to finish, whereas Day After Tomorrow has this tacked on pretension about being "An Important Movie." In the scenes when it's all trashing national landmarks, it's cool, but then it slows down to "Important Movie" mode, and, well, you just keep praying that another billion people would die in some suitably cinematic manner for our entertainment, rather than watch Dennis Quaid mug for the camera some more about the consequences our continued ecological irresponsibility will demand of our children. ID4 blew up America's largest cities right at the end of the first act, and then the movie was a slow simmer up to the last reel, when all heck broke loose again, and if you were getting kinda bored with the goings on, well, they threw in the Nuking of Houston right in the middle there, just to hold your interest.

In this movie, all the cool destructive stuff happens early on, and then we just sort of wander around in the rubble for the next 90 minutes or so. As a thrilling conclusion, things just sort of stop going to hell. They don't get better, mind you—this is a message picture—but at least they stop getting worse.

What makes the 'message' stuff so odd is that it's just sorta tacked on. The Vice President is evil, then, suddenly, in the end of the movie, he's good, and repenting of his evil SUV-driving ways on the Weather Channel. We see ID4-styled gridlock in Manhattan, and instead of Harvey Firestein kvetching to his shrink on his cellphone, we get to see a bum kvetching to his dog about people polluting the air by still running their cars in gridlock. Ok. We see some pointless posturing between Quaid/Hall and the Vice President about fiscal solvency vs. Ecological Sustainability, but this comes to nothing, really, and all the lines are in clichés that really wouldn't look out of place on a bumper sticker.

There's a bit of fooferaw about how 'if you'd listened to me earlier, we could have avoided some of this' which I don't begrudge because you always have that in a movie when your protagonist is "The One Man Who Knows What's Going On", but it's rather ham-fisted here, since Hall only gave the white house like two days warning of the disaster, and there just ain't no way you could evacuate the entire northern tier in just a couple of days, to say nothing of the entire nation of Canada. This movie doesn't really have a villain, per se, so in the absence of a real heavy, the Vice President nicely volunteered to fill that role. Actually, I'm being glib—there is a villain in the movie: Mother Nature.

This is essentially one of those 'wrath of God' movies like the Ten Commandments or any of those old Bible Epics where God rains down fire and destruction on Evil People. In this movie we substitute Mother Nature for God, and let me tell ya, brother, Mother Nature is a b!tch! I got no problem with this, it's a proven structure that works. Where the movie fails is that it fails to fully embrace and exploit this structure. If God/Gaia is gonna punish mankind for it's sins, fine, so be it, but then you really need to have some big, over-the-top scene-chewing actors out there. It's true you can't fight God, but you can run lines with Him in a movie, and to pull that off, you need a Charlton Heston, or a Yul Brenner, or even a Mel Gibson on a good day. You need something a little bigger and more gripping than Dennis Quaid, a man who once played Jerry Lee Lewis in a movie. Badly. It would also help to have a human villain to focus our anger on.

Yes, I know, Ecological Deterioration is a Global Problem, but how hard would it have been to have some Mogul cause the Larsen-B Ice Shelf to melt by oil drilling in the Arctic or what have you? Not very hard. So what we're left with, in the absence of any specific villainy, is a "Wrath of God" movie where God punishes humanity for sins that evidently happened off-screen and before the movie started. Thus, we see humanity going about it's normal daily life, when Gaia just up and whups our collective asses and kills roughly half of us, evidently without provocation.

Yes, yes, I know about ecological problems, you know about them, everyone in the audience knew about them. I'm sure that's why they didn't bother to mention 'em. My point is that without a set villain, or at least a list of grievances, when the biosphere decides to kill everyone, it *becomes* the villain. The focus of the movie is, I assume, "We should stop raping the Earth," but the way it's told, it comes across more as a case of, "The Earth is a homicidal maniac that we probably should have been doing a better job of placating, but as we screwed that up, let's just defeat the crazy old shrew!" Probably that's not what Emmerich was going for, but there you have it.

Anyway, back to the movie itself: We have essentially three plots, and a number of thinly-devised subplots. The main plot is about how the former Mr. Meg Ryan (Dennis Quaid) tries to convince the powers that be that the weather gods are gonna kill us all.

The second plot is about Quaid's movie son, Sam Hall (Jake Gyllenhall) who's trapped in Manhattan as the city freezes over. This is by far the most entertaining part of the movie, as Jake is a quiet, but fairly scrappy kid, and seeing him and his friends survive amidst adversity is great fun, and far more rewarding than watching the former Mr. P.J. Soles (Dennis Quaid) stare bleary-eyed into the camera. Yes, the young love elements of this plot are tedious and useless, but come on, isn't all young love tedious and useless? Frankly, I would rather suffer through Jake Gyllenhall doing an extended breakdanceing sequence than watch any of the Third Plot to this movie.

The third plot is an entirely useless trifle about Quaid's movie wife (I'm just going to assume they're married, it's easier that way) risking her life to save a little boy with cancer, while simultaneously neglecting her family and not lifting a finger to help the hundred million or so Americans who die during the course of the flick. I honestly can't understand why this is in the movie, other than padding it out to two hours, as it serves no dramatic purpose, and has nothing to do with anything else that goes on. Look, I think Sela Ward is hot, too, especially for a woman of her age, and I realize you don't wanna plunk her down in a movie like this and only give her three lines in the whole flick, but someone needs to tell Mr. Emmerich to take a page out of the John Sayles Filmbook: 'When a character is no longer relevant to the plot, either kill them off or simply stop showing them.' Ms. Ward's scenes in this movie pretty much all smack of, 'let's give her something to do, because she already cashed the check.'

Meanwhile, back in the main plot, after Dennis Quaid (The Man Who Divorced PJ Soles In Order To Almost, But Not Quite, Marry Lea Thompson) has convinced the powers that be that the weather gods are gonna kill us all, which leaves him with pretty much nothing to do. Thus he abandons the main plot, and goes off to join the second plot. No, I'm not kidding! In the absence of a main plot, and a lack of gratuitous nuking of Texan cities, the second hour of this film sort of plods.

There's also some nice scenes featuring Ian Holm in Scotland, and the bit where he and his peers decide to drink themselves to death, knowing they can't hold it off for long, is quietly touching. Much as I like merely looking at Sela Ward, I would have much preferred more scenes of Ian freezing to death to her pointless meanders with the sick kid. There's also a nice quiet scene where an atheist saves a Gutenberg bible, which is so thoughtful it seems to belong to a different movie altogether.

But, again, it is just a freakin' disaster film after all. Did they break stuff in pretty fashion? Yes, they did. The twisters in LA are suitably impressive, and the inexplicable tidal wave that KOs Manhattan is really sweet. I think the nicest detail is when the wave hits Liberty island, and you see each tree shown in stark relief as the wave pours through the small woods there. I can also, honestly say that this is the prettiest an inundated major eastern city has looked since George Pal's great Technicolor end-of-the-world flick, "When Worlds Collide" (1951). In that film, unlike in Emmerich's semi-apocalyptic flicks, the world really does end. (In fact, Herr Emmerich has clearly strip-mined a number of Pal's movies—including "War of the Worlds" (1953)—for material.)

The laws of physics seem to be things you can argue with, however. The Statue of Liberty—which is merely a hollow copper statue—somehow survives getting nailed by roughly a megaton of water. Likewise, the Tsunami to end all Tsunamis somehow fails to knock over a single skyscraper, and, evidently you can outrun a tidal wave on foot. Also a good thick oak door will hold out an ice age. And Hurricanes cause the world to freeze.

I wonder about lack of toppled buildings in New York. This was, after all, the first real disaster movie to come out since 9/11. Has our appetite for destruction changed? Possibly. In the past, disaster movies have been driven by our knowledge that 'it can't happen here.' Now it has, and I don't know if we're quite as charmed by the gee-gosh-wow aspects of the pretty, pretty carnage as we used to be. When you watch 3000 people die on national TV before you've even gotten to lunchtime, and you've spent several days desperately trying to reach friends in New York, only to be repeatedly told that all incoming calls to the city have been suspended, well, suddenly our vulnerability becomes a little too real, a little too apparent. If real fears are looming all around you, then do vicarious fears cease to have appeal? Is that the reason no building in Manhattan collapsed? Or was it simply laziness on the part of the Effects team?

On a vaguely tangentially related vein, I noticed that while roughly half of the northern hemisphere is destroyed in this film, there's a surprising lack of specific mentions of what's going on in other countries. There's a mention of high tides in Canada, and that's it for them. In essence, if you're Canadian, unless you were in vacation in Miami at the time of the movie, you're dead. The movie also mentions that Scotland is extinct. Germany isn't mentioned at all, nor, as I recall, is it mentioned in ID4. I got to wondering (As I was uninvolved in the goings on onscreen) if the attention given to a country in one of these movies suggests something about the interest of the citizens of said countries have in the giddy thrill of seeing everything they know and love laid waste, or if, perhaps, it was just a demographics things. "Box office receipts for Belgium don't add up to the receipts of half the state of Delaware, so we're leavin' em out of the picture."

I asked a German friend of mine, who informed me that he doubted the people of his country would be terribly entertained to see their country destroyed. Again. After which I politely apologized and excused myself. It has been a really bad hundred years or so for them.

The movie elicited a lot of hype in the day. Hopelessly corrupt ex-vice president Al Gore championed it to further his self-righteous yet hypocritical eco-political agenda, (Al subcontracts out land on his numerous tobacco plantations to house nuclear waste, for which he makes obscene amounts of money, and recently admitted that all that 'biofuel' stuff was crap) There is certainly an element of PC Thuggery in the movie - Mexico refuses to admit US refugees until the president agrees to forgive all Latin American debt — but I'm here to tell you that any environmentalist who hitches their star to this addlepated wagon is gonna be laughed out of the sierra club, the science is just that embarrassing. If this is Green Party propaganda, as some have maintained, well, it's obvious they don't have Goebels working for 'em. This is hardly "Triumph of the Will," this is a mishmash that would make Logan's Run look like high art by comparison.

If this film had a coherent agenda - other than simply making money off of rubes - then my opinion, having seen it, is that its something like a revival meeting: no one hears anything the didn't already believe, no one gets converted who didn't already believe, and no one who believes goes away feeling badly about themselves. Substitute Environmentalists for Baptists, and there you have it.

So. Despite its overwhelming badness, the first half of the film delivers what it promises: Untold pain, loss and suffering for our amusement. If you like that sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you'll like, but only the first half. The second half is a snore fest.


I would venture to say that this is *precisely* the kind of movie we'll be genetically predisposed to hate.