By Rob Blackwelder
"The Day After Tomorrow" isn't quite the disaster of a disaster flick I thought it would be.
Don't get me wrong -- it's bad in a way only $150-million movies with awe-inspiring special effects can be bad. It's riddled with nonsensical pseudo-science, saddled with supposedly brainy characters (climatologists, high-school science whizzes) who nonetheless haven't a scrap of common sense, and stuffed with stock characters designed for the kind of instant sympathy (or instant comic relief) that doesn't require actually giving them a personality.
But for popcorn munching and smart-remarking during a bargain matinee, it's a bad movie worth the price of admission.
A summer action flick about out-of-control climate change (go figure), the nonsensically-titled blockbuster gets its thrills from adding a little fantasy (instant ice age!) to the premise loosely based in a supportable scientific theory that, because of the particular flow of certain ocean currents, global warming could conversely lead to a deep freeze in the northern hemisphere.
Grasping at plot straws with the notion of such events happening in a matter of days, in "The Day After Tomorrow" Los Angeles is laid waste by monster tornados, Tokyo is pummeled by brick-sized hail, and Manhattan is drown in a 50-foot ocean swell (the initial wave is chest-deep on the Statue of Liberty) that is so spectacularly rendered, all I can say is "wow."
But while this disaster is supposed to be taking place on a worldwide scale, after destroying a few landmarks in Hollywood, the action focuses exclusively on two cities on the U.S. eastern seaboard (but at least it stays focused).
In Washington, D.C., government officials, led by a bull-headed vice president who looks and thinks a lot like Dick Cheney, refuse to look out the window or listen to the wild theories of climatologist Dennis Quaid, who literally sees the storm clouds gathering and is predicting doom, doom, DOOM! Meanwhile, in New York, Quaid's son, high-schooler Jake Gyllenhaal ("October Sky," "Donnie Darko"), and Jake's cutie-pie love interest Emma Rossum ("Mystic River") hole up in the top floors of the public library with a handful of other survivors as the city is flooded and then frozen in rapid succession.
Accustomed to dumbing down out-sized blockbusters, writer-director Roland Emmerich ("Independence Day," the 1998 "Godzilla," "The Patriot") invents a 100-degrees-below-zero instant-freeze weather effect so his characters have something to run away from, claiming that as long as you get indoors and light a small fire (with books at the library, even though the place is littered with wooden furniture), you'll be just fine. Although just for good measure he also throws in some escaped timber wolves from the Central Park Zoo.
But it isn't the absurdity of the instant-freeze new ice age that gets the movie in trouble -- it's the stories Emmerich builds around this message-heavy theme and the unintentional laughs they generate.
"Sam, just tell her how you feel," advises a friend as Gyllenhaal's character pines for the girl.
"I'm using my body heat to warm you," says the girl soon thereafter, while rubbing up against Gyllenhaal when he's been soaked in a glacial rush of flood water.
"I've walked that far before in the snow!" insists Quaid when he decides to -- get this -- snowshoe through the storm from Washington to Manhattan to save his son, even though there's not a single thing Dad can do once he gets there.
Dedicated actors that they are, Gyllenhaal and Quaid fully throw themselves into their characters, and it's interest in these two men that keeps the picture's human element alive. But they're still playing second fiddle to special effects.
Emmerich uses his story to get some pointed laughs out of the United States being in deep doo-doo, for example showing a news report that Mexico has closed its borders to immigrants. But "The Day After Tomorrow" is unlikely to get anyone thinking about the implications of greenhouse gasses and arrogant American foreign policy, and the film is simply too plagued with plot gaffes (why isn't the Southern Hemisphere effected?) to take it seriously anyway.
But it is fun, in a drive-in movie sort of way. Emmerich knows how to put on a good fireworks display, and as long as you're prepared to be laughing at the movie, not with the movie, there's no reason not to go and have a good time.
Genre: Sci fi/Fantasy
Run time: 124 mins
In Theaters: Friday 28th May 2004
Box Office USA: $186.6M
Box Office Worldwide: $542.8M
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Production compaines: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation., Centropolis Entertainment, Lions Gate Films, Mark Gordon Productions
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 45%
Fresh: 95 Rotten: 117
IMDB: 6.4 / 10
Director: Roland Emmerich
Starring: Dennis Quaid as Jack Hall, Jake Gyllenhaal as Sam Hall, Emmy Rossum as Laura Chapman, Dash Mihok as Jason Evans, Jay O. Sanders as Frank Harris, Sela Ward as Dr. Lucy Hall, Austin Nichols as J.D., Arjay Smith as Brian Parks, Tamlyn Tomita as Janet Tokada, Sasha Roiz as Parker, Ian Holm as Terry Rapson, Nassim Sharara as Saudi Delegate, Carl Alacchi as Venezuelan Delegate, Kenneth Welsh as Vice President Becker, Michel 'Gish' Abou-Samah as Saudi Translator, Kenneth Moskow as Bob, Glenn Plummer as Luther, Adrian Lester as Simon, Nestor Serrano as Gomez, John Maclaren as Veteran Scientist, Richard Zeman as Flight Director, Perry King as President Blake, Mimi Kuzyk as Secretary of State, Vitali Makarov as Yuri, Russian Astronaut, Russell Yuen as Hideki, Japanese Astronaut
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