by Mel Valentin
The disaster movie genre has now progressed, if "progressed" is the right word, from the local ("The Poseidon Adventure," "The Towering Inferno") to the regional ("Earthquake") to the global ("Independence Day"). Switching from an alien invasion promising a non-biblical Armageddon in "Independence Day," to a catastrophic worldwide environmental disaster (initiated by man-made global warming) in "The Day After Tomorrow," director Roland Emmerich has crafted one of the better films in the genre, even with the occasional cheesy or hyperbolic moment (Emmerich staples).In The Day After Tomorrow, global warming has caused the polar ice caps to melt, which in turn has created a massive influx of freshwater into the world's oceans. The freshwater infusion results in lowered ocean water temperature, hailstorms, snowstorms, and eventually, a new ice age. Probable? Not likely, at least not in the brief timeframe envisioned in The Day After Tomorrow's (months become weeks, weeks become days). Plausible? Over time, perhaps, but more importantly, just plausible enough for audiences to (temporarily) suspend their disbelief, and lose themselves in a simple (and simplistic) survivalist tale.
"Cheesy fun + a environmental message to warm liberal hearts."
The Day After Tomorrow delivers spectacle with CGI-landscapes and (more or less) realistically depicted set pieces. Playing to the current strengths of CGI, Emmerich doesn't animate humans or animals (with the exception of one sequence late in the film). Instead CGI is used to portray shifting and threatening weather patterns, storms, tornadoes, the aftermath, and the approaching ice age. Any big-budget disaster movie succeeds or fails with its set pieces, and The Day After Tomorrow doesn't disappoint: the opening scene features an ice shelf calving off the coast of Antarctica; later, a series of tornadoes descend on Los Angeles; later still, a giant tidal wave sweeps through Manhattan, trapping a small group of survivors in the New York Public Library as the "big freeze" approaches from the north. From there, the narrative place slows, and the set pieces are replaced by human drama, following various groups of survivors attempting to escape the freezing weather by migrating South with an ironic touch: Americans overrunning the U.S./Mexico border and crossing the Rio Grande. Canada (and Canadians), alas, doesn't even get a mention (presumably Canada's northern location dooms all its inhabitants to icy deaths).
The Day After Tomorrow centers on Sam Hall (Dennis Quaid), a paleo-climatologist, as he attempts to work his way back North from a now frozen over Washington, D.C. to his son (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Manhattan, who's trying to keep himself and his friends alive long enough for his father to rescue them. The intense, short scenes in the first hour, which introduce primary and secondary characters (and sometimes tertiary characters), setting, and different levels of antagonism, from the disbelieving administration in Washington D.C. to the forces of nature, are all underscored by a sense of immediacy and urgency. Not surprisingly, after the tidal wave set piece at the mid-point of the film, The Day After Tomorrow begins to drag. The early, intense scenes eventually give way to soporific and clichéd character moments in the second half, showing Emmerich at his worst.
Performance wise, Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead roles, to the supporting roles, Sela Ward as Quaid's estranged wife tending to a young cancer patient (yes, we're in soap opera territory here), and Ian Holm, as a fellow scientist isolated in a Scottish research station, all do remarkably well, given the limitations of the material (some of the dialogue is on occasion painfully "on-the-nose," and Emmerich's strengths as a filmmaker show themselves in the elaborate set pieces, and not in the emotionally grounded character moments).
For better or for worse, Emmerich and his co-screenwriter Jeffrey Nachmanoff inject mild political satire into The Day After Tomorrow. The U.S. president, Blake (Perry King), is clearly modeled on the current occupant of the White House; he's telegenic, but short on smarts or decisiveness. In fact, he's controlled by the vice-president, Becker (Kenneth Walsh). The U.S. vice-president is the closest the film comes to a human antagonist: he's ideologically driven and blind to real-world events, responding slowly to the unfolding environmental disaster. He's also saddled with a thinly disguised (if risible) speech at the end of the film that clearly targets the current administration's (failed) environmental policies. Still, how often does a big-budget disaster film reflect a liberal political agenda, even one as blatantly obvious as the one in The Day After Tomorrow's?Emmerich also proves himself a liberal, secular humanist, reaffirming an apparently unshakeable belief in community and cooperation. No one in "The Day After Tomorrow" acts out of greed, venality, or cruelty (with the exception of the U.S. vice-president, of course). Truthful? Not likely, but that's where the words "escapism" and "entertainment" come in. Emmerich wants to believe in humanity's inherent altruism and compassion. Even more importantly, the audience does too. Overall, for the narrative pace, drive, and efficiency of the first hour (equaled only briefly in the second hour, at the climax), the near flawless CGI set pieces, and the credible performances from the cast, "The Day After Tomorrow" deserves a strong, if qualified, recommendation.
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originally posted: 05/27/05 23:02:33