Mother Nature has finally had it up to here in The Day After Tomorrow, responding to the earth's gradually rising temperatures by enshrouding the Northern Hemisphere in ice. The disaster film to end all disaster films, at least until the next one, The Day After Tomorrow throws everything it's got at us -- rain, snow, hail, tornadoes, hurricanes. There's even Dennis Quaid, as sky-is-falling paleoclimatologist Jack Hall, announcing to a roomful of people who seem to understand what he's talking about, "I think we've hit a critical desalinization point." Well, we've certainly hit something -- the bottom of the barrel, perhaps. Directed by Roland Emmerich, who did a lot of damage in Independence Day and Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow gleefully imagines the end of the world, zeroing in on New York because, in Emmerich's words, "it's such a symbol of Western civilization." Excuse me, but isn't that what Osama bin Laden said?
I know, I know, it's only a movie, and not a particularly good one, despite enough computer-generated mayhem to keep the Weather Channel on the air through the next Ice Age. But for Emmerich, it's more than a movie. It's a $125 million wake-up call about global warming, one that environmental activists have responded to by slamming the Bush administration's policies or lack thereof. Emmerich throws them another bone by making the movie's chief villain a U.S. vice president who happens to look and sound a lot like Dick Cheney. As for the president, he's a nice-looking nonentity who, when the weather starts to pick up, turns to the veep and says, "What do you think we should do?" Rarely has a mainstream movie with blockbuster pretensions taken such an obvious potshot at a sitting president, and it's been fun watching Twentieth Century Fox both shun controversy and try to use it to drum up publicity.
Emmerich's heart may be in the right place (not all that far from his wallet, I might point out), but his brain seems to have gone on vacation. Then again, who could wrap his brain around a mega project like The Day After Tomorrow, which Quaid has described as "every disaster movie rolled into one"? The thing's just too damn big, too Godzilla-like, wreaking havoc wherever it goes. No sooner have we recovered from being pelted with grapefruit-sized hail in Tokyo than we're plopped down in Los Angeles amidst a forest of cyclones that, among other things, erase the HOLLYWOOD sign. (Like a terrorist, Emmerich goes for landmarks.) Then it's off to New York City, which sustains a tidal wave, a blizzard and a flash-freeze thing that the folks at Bird's Eye are going to want to know about. The tidal wave would have totally smashed the Big Apple, "but you have to be a little sensitive after 9/11," Emmerich recently told The New Yorker.
Besides, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) is holed up in the New York Public Library, burning books to stay warm. We wouldn't want our representative 18-to-35-year-old biting the dust, would we? In the time-honored disaster-film tradition, The Day After Tomorrow focuses on individual stories in order to keep our minds off mass death. Sam is Jack's son, and the plot finally boils down to Jack's attempt to rescue Sam, Jack not always having "been there" for Sam in the past. "I will come to you," Jack tells Sam, but maybe he instead should have quoted Bogart's line in Casablanca: "The problems of two people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." I guess we're supposed to draw inspiration from the fact that, although millions if not billions of people have lost their lives, there's still a father who will search high and low for his son, at least until Hell's Kitchen freezes over.
Disaster films traffic in schadenfreude -- the pleasure of experiencing someone else's pain. And Emmerich tries to sweeten the deal by adding dollops of humor. When the southern half of the United States is told to evacuate, for example, everybody heads for the Mexican border, crossing the Rio Grande like so many wetbacks -- a nice joke at el gringo's expense. But, perhaps because the movie's grounded in global warming as opposed to, say, an attack by a giant lizard, it's not as much fun. And there's no real sense of urgency since there's not much anybody can do. "Let's nuke the bastards," Bill Pullman's president said in Independence Day, reaffirming our country's stance vis-Ã-vis illegal aliens. The Day After Tomorrow could use a little more brio, but that would cut into its value as a public service announcement, the message being that, however profitable, it's not nice to fool with Mother Nature.