The Day After Tomorrow

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

The Day After Tomorrow first published by Movie Gazette, 26 Feb, 2004

In director Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996), a boffin eventually defeats the space aliens that have wrought explosive havoc all over America (and incidentally the rest of the world) – without provocation. In Godzilla (1998), a boffin eventually defeats the giant iguana that has rampaged through New York City’s highrise – but the fact that the lizard’s mutation was a product of exposure to Pacific nuclear testing hinted that humankind was just reaping what it (or at least what the French) had sown. And now in The Day After Tomorrow, there is yet more disaster and destruction on a truly massive scale all over America (and incidentally the rest of the world), only this time the enemy is global warming, the starring scientist is unable to do anything to defeat it, and the blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of Western consumerism and blinkered US governance. In other words, Emmerich’s delight in sublime catastrophe may be consistent to the point of repetitiveness, but at least the director is evolving and maturing politically.

A sequence of extreme weather conditions (snow in New Delhi, bucket-sized hailstones in Tokyo, spectacular tornadoes in downtown LA) leads palaeoclimatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) to realise that a new ice age is coming. His son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes trapped in New York’s Public Library when a tidal wave strikes the city, and is forced to fight rapidly dropping temperatures – and a pack of hungry wolves escaped from the zoo – while Jack and two colleagues attempt the perilous journey from Washington to find him.

The Day After Tomorrow has everything you expect from a disaster movie: personal dramas set against apocalyptic mayhem; lots of scenes set in control rooms (with no-one in control); recognisable public monuments being torn apart/flooded/buried under snow/snapfrozen; and episodes so preposterously daft that you just have to love them, as when Jack feels the need to explain the relationship between the North Atlantic current and the world’s climate to a room full of meteorological experts, or when Sam and his friends outrun a towering wall of water (and later, even more absurdly, a fast-moving cold snap). Silliest of all is the realisation that Jack has undertaken his journey not to save the good burghers of New York, nor even just to save his own son, but rather simply to prove that he can for once keep an appointment – making the final scenes of this film hilariously anticlimactic, as our hero is left with literally nothing to do except grin.

While Emmerich is really only going over visual effects already well covered by films like Deep Impact, Twister or even Meteor, he comes into his own in battering his viewers with total sensory overload to convey the sheer, overwhelming scale of the devastation. The bass rumble which accompanies the wave rolling through New York is quite simply the most ear-splitting sound ever heard in a cinema, and if the film’s cataclysmic, but occasionally ropey, CGI fails to humble you, the soundtrack might just succeed.

It is for its politics, however, that this film is most audacious, as it represents a direct attack on the refusal of the current US administration to reduce greenhouse emissions. Even if it is somewhat simplistic, The Day After Tomorrow may have more impact on Bush’s stance on the environment than any serious science could, as it terrifies its American viewers into doing something that the British have always enjoyed: talking about the weather.

strap: Roland Emmerich’s absurd, epic disaster movie conceals Bush-baiting ecological concerns beneath bombastic sound and fury

Anton Bitel