The Day After Tomorrow
2004Director: Roland Emmerich
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal
he Day After Tomorrow is a movie that is impossible to take seriously, which is its greatest strength. There’s some evidence that the filmmakers had idealistic notions of putting forth a pro-environment political message, or wanted to say something meaningful about father-son relationships, but it’s best if the viewer just realizes he or she is watching an overblown disaster movie and adjust their expectations accordingly. The reward for doing so will be to experience a surprisingly enjoyable summertime romp with kickass special effects that recalls Holllywood’s glory days of releasing disaster epics like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. That’s right, I used the term “glory days” in reference to The Poseidon Adventure—clearly, the 2004 summer movie season is thus far ratcheting expectations down as quickly as possible.
OK, I suppose it’s possible to take The Day After Tomorrow seriously, but it’s certainly not recommended. This is a film in which the planet Earth experiences a sudden, dramatic climate shift on par with the last Ice Age, and it catches the entire scientific community completely unawares. Why do we keep these guys around, anyway? The fact that the entire Northern Hemisphere is obliterated with absolutely no prior warning from the men and women in white coats leads me to wonder if advanced degrees are no longer worth the paper they’re written on. This plot development reminded me of Chris Rock’s routine about how doctors shouldn’t be so highly paid because “they ain’t cured shit in a long time.”
Not pictured: the Wicked Witch of the East.
Actually, there is one man who foresees the disaster—the dude from Innerspace. That’s right, Dennis Quaid, playing a paleoclimatologist, is here to save the day. There’s always one guy in these kinds of movies who sees the truth and desperately tries to warn the rest of the dumb cretins who seem to make up the entire political and scientific establishment and apparently never left behind those halcyon days of eating paste in kindergarten. This is a classic disaster movie trope because it allows the popcorn-guzzling audience to feel intellectually superior to society’s elites, if only for a couple of hours (“why can’t you see the truth, you STUPID Ph.D?!?!”). In The Day After Tomorrow, Quaid’s character actually goes toe-to-toe with the Vice President of the United States, who mocks Quaid’s predictions of a coming climatological disaster despite the fact that Los Angeles has just been utterly destroyed by massive tornadoes. I suspect this is because the Veep watches Fox News, which clearly paid through the nose for product placement due to the frequency with which its logo shows up in this film. Knowing Fox, Bill O’Reilly probably downplayed the destruction of LA, pooh-poohing the claims of doomsday environmentalists and blaming the entire thing on Jesse Jackson.
Anyway, as massive tidal waves crash over New York, hail storms fall on Tokyo, and the entire nation of Scotland gets completely destroyed by a blizzard, a small band of lovable high school students, led by Jake Gyllenhaal, struggles to survive by huddling up in the New York public library. Gyllenhaal plays Quaid’s son, and the two apparently have a frosty (ha ha!) relationship. Quaid’s scientist, you see, spends a lot of time away from his family researching whatever paleoclimatologists research on all four corners of the globe. Quaid’s wife (Sela Ward) at one point admonishes him for once missing a family vacation in order to finish working on his doctorate in Alaska. This conversation struck me as odd timing, given that Quaid was in the process of using his scientific knowledge to save the world. A little gratitude might be in order, lady.
You can probably guess how this film develops. Millions of people are killed, half the world is essentially destroyed, etc, but the important thing is that Quaid and Gyllenhaal have an emotional breakthrough. The Day After Tomorrow even features the presence of an eight-year old cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy while Quaid’s wife, a doctor, reads to him in the hospital. Will the kid get that desperately needed ambulance transportation in the middle of a blizzard? Does R. Kelly have a bladder control problem?
"I wish a nice Mommy and Daddy would come take us away from this mean old orphanage."
Strangely enough, all the silliness (and there’s a LOT of it) contributes to the movie rather than distracts from it. It serves as a constant (if unintentional, to be sure) reminder that this is a popcorn flick of ridiculously outsized dimensions and an almost painfully earnest heart. It tries so hard to be scientific—The Day After Tomorrow is the kind of movie in which the word “troposphere” is thrown around in hushed, urgent terms. And as it is a Roland Emmerich film, it cannot stop itself from attempting to offer some kind of moral lesson. In Independence Day, we learned that humanity can overcome all of its racial, ethnic, and national conflicts if Earth is invaded by ten-foot tall telepathic aliens bent on destroying the world. A small likelihood, sure, but comforting nonetheless. In The Patriot we learned that, um, patriotism is good, as is fatherhood. And in The Day After Tomorrow, we learn that if we keep using aerosols recklessly, the entire northern half of the United States and all of Canada will be destroyed, possibly as soon as next week. And they say the message movie is dead.
This is a classic example of an audience having to accept a film on its own terms in order to get anything out of it. It’s the kind of movie where humanity survives cataclysm, everybody hugs at the end, and we all learn to Protect Our Planet. In the meantime, we get some cool-ass waves and snow storms that represent the best CGI has to offer. My favorite scene: at one point, Gyllenhaal and company are out foraging for medicine when they realize a precipitous drop in temperature is about to descend upon them. Thinking fast, they race back indoors as the world begins freezing solid around them, leading to a sequence in which our heroes essentially outrace the weather. I don’t know about you, but from time to time I have to see such things in my movies, if only to remind me that suspension of disbelief truly is a magical thing.
By: Jay Millikan
Published on: 2004-06-04