Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Day After Tomorrow

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW

4/10

USA 2004 : Roland EMMERICH : 124 mins

Climate-expert Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) pieces together evidence that global warming may be about to usher in a new ice age. His research is widely dismissed until extremely dramatic weather-phenomena start wreaking havoc across the globe. Los Angeles is devastated by massive tornadoes, while New York is deluged by a colossal tidal-wave that leaves only handfuls of survivors – including Jack’s teenage son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), who shelters in the city’s main public library. As a catastrophic freeze-up grips most of the northern hemisphere and Americans flee south to warmer climes, Jack sets out from Washington DC to walk north on a seemingly impossible rescue-mission…

Strictly speaking, The Day After Tomorrow should really be called ‘The Day Before Yesterday’: the prologue features real-life events (collapse of Larson B ice-shelf; Delhi climate talks) which took place in 2002, and everything else unfolds (with ludicrous rapidity) within the next couple of months. But as the title implies, the film is supposedly set in the imminent future, depicting terrifying events which might just come true.

But after a promisingly plausible beginning, director Emmerich rapidly spirals off into the anything-goes territory of the Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster where believability is sacrificed in favour of eye-popping special effects. While the issue it supposedly “explores” is all too pressing and real, The Day After Tomorrow is really no more of a “wake-up call” than Emmerich’s previous big-budget millennial orgies of (Manhattan-centric) destruction, 1996’s smash-hit Independence Day and 2000’s belly-flop Godzilla.

We, and he, have simply been down this apocalyptic road far too often – The Day After Tomorrow essentially cobbles together elements of Twister, Armageddon and (most of all) Deep Impact and, like those films, only really flares to life during its dialogue-free set-pieces. As Los Angeles and New York “get it”, we marvel at how much CGI technology can be bought for $150m these days – in what amounts to two full hours of that TV staple, ‘bad-weather porn,’ these are the “money shots” in more ways than one.

But everything else is strictly and depressingly by-the-numbers: flat dialogue, clunky bits-missing editing, predictable plotting, lazy characterisation, blaring muzak, family-values guff (“I made my son a promise – I’m gonna keep it!”), and shameless sentimentality, in the subplot involves a cancer-stricken, Peter Pan-reading young moppet (Luke Letourneay). Ever the quintessential Hollywood pro, Quaid retains his dignity in a thankless ‘lead’ role constantly upstaged by the special effects – which run from convincing (the Manhattan tsunami) to the ropey (a pack of all-too-visibly-CGI wolves).

Mopey Gyllenhaal, however, looks much less happy with his lot – not for the first time, he does little to justify his status among Hollywood’s up-and-coming twentysomethings. And Ian Holm’s plot-mechanism British scientist Terry Rapson is saddled with chunks of exposition designed to blind the viewer with (nonsensical) science (an early bad sign: a computer diagram shows the ‘normal’ Gulf Stream running north to south?!)

Frustratingly, there are flashes of wit and intelligence in the mostly mechanical and po-faced script (by Emmerich and Jeffrey Nachmanoff) which suggest the existence of a sharper, more satirical movie buried deep among the rewrites. American citizens fleeing across the border into a still-temperate Mexico are welcomed as “refugees”; in flooded Manhattan, a homeless man shows a mollycoddled brat how to keep warm and find food – in a cash-strapped public-library which has replaced an employee-cafeteria with an M&M-filled vending-machine. There’s also an amusing debate about book-burning, with two caricature-liberal types debating the merits of Nietzsche – later, no less an artefact than a Gutenberg Bible makes a cameo appearance.

But this is really a dumb, lumbering behemoth of a blockbuster – and it’s hard to accept being lectured about global-warming by 20th Century Fox, a division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. If Fox and Murdoch really wanted to spark a global debate, they’d could surely have come up with something closer to 1962’s chillingly effective nuclear-age-nightmare The Day the Earth Caught Fire, which managed to be serious, thought-provoking and scary while working as a character-driven suspense thriller with an audaciously ambiguous finale.

The Day After Tomorrow, however, contrives to pluck a single happy ending out of the annihilation of countless millions, one that makes the whole planet-wrecking business seem designed chiefly to forge a closer dialogue between a workaholic parent and a disaffected teen. And, needless to say, the cataclysms are only reported by News Corp’s organs Fox News and Sky News. While hiding behind a paper-thin mask of eco-concern, Murdoch and his Fox minions are instead stoking up our fears, driven by the same blind profit-seeking motives that brought us all to this sorry state in the first place.

21st May, 2004
(seen 19th May : UCI Silverlink, North Tyneside : press show)

by Neil Young