A Perfect Storm of Cliches
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2004; Page WE33
LIKE COFFEE, some movies are meant to be sipped, not gulped. "The Day After Tomorrow" is not meant to be gulped, but rather dumped over your head, like a cooler full of Gatorade.
Refreshing? Yes, in that Big, Dumb Summer Fun way, but not exactly something whose subtle flavors you're meant to savor, or even analyze. Which kind of puts me in a bind, considering what I do for a living. A swollen agglomeration of disaster-movie cliches, brain-freezing special effects, cheesy dialogue along the lines of "Hold on! Are you suggesting all these things could be related?" and clumsy political commentary straight out of a "Saturday Night Live" skit, this global-warming adventure -- which postulates the sudden arrival of a new ice age -- is nonetheless bracing, in the manner of an ice cube down your shirt.
It's the Weather Channel on steroids.
True to the formula of the contemporary disaster flick, ""The Day After Tomorrow" wastes no time with such niceties as character development. People are introduced briefly -- such as heroic but unheeded "paleoclimatologist" Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid), who has been saying that the sky is falling for some time now, thanks to our cavalier disregard for the growing hole in the ozone layer -- and then the movie barrels right on past him, his compassionate doctor wife, Lucy (Sela Ward), and their genius son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal). After all, we've got to get to: Snow in New Delhi! Grapefruit-size hail in Tokyo! Tornadoes in Los Angeles! Critical desalinization of the North Atlantic Current!
You heard me. Supposedly, melting of the polar ice caps has led to an imbalance in the amounts of fresh and salt water in the ocean, causing abrupt, steep drops in water temperature and such atmospheric disturbances as huge hurricane-like storms powerful enough to suck down subarctic air from the troposphere. Warning: There's a lot of meteorological mumbo jumbo here, which I suggest you allow to just wash over you. Resistance, like comprehension, is futile.
But back to our story, already in progress. The main tension of the film, which jumps around the globe as Mother Nature tightens her icy grip on various noble but doomed supporting actors, arises from the fact that Jack is in Washington, D.C., where he has been trying to get an arrogant, Dick Cheney-like vice president (Kenneth Welsh) and his figurehead, George W. Bushesque boss (Perry King) to listen to him, while Sam is trapped in a snowed-under and icebound Manhattan, where he has holed up in the New York Public Library along with a bunch of other high-school science nerds in town for a whiz-kid competition and the few surviving New Yorkers Sam has managed to talk out of going out into the thousand-degrees-below-zero weather. Okay, so it's not that cold, but it's about to be.
Dad, of course, sets out to rescue his son from the Big Frozen Apple, first in what I can only assume is a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and then, when he runs into a house-size snowdrift outside Philly, by foot. Look, I never said the movie was plausible. Sam, meanwhile, is burning books to keep warm -- not the Gutenberg Bible, thank you very much -- and contending with wolves that have escaped from the Central Park Zoo and a love interest (Emmy Rossum) with a soon-to-be-septic gash in her leg. All in a day's work (more like a few week's actually), for the boy brainiac, who, you will be happy to hear, does not figure out how to reverse the effects of catastrophic climate change by detonating a nuclear bomb. Lucy stays behind in Washington to care for a sickly child, whom we don't have time to discuss.
Gotta move, move, move.
"The Day After Tomorrow" is nothing if not fast paced, which is a good thing when you consider that there's barely a minute to question all the plot holes. Where did Sam and company find all those powerful flashlights, for instance? And why do they burn books before all the wooden furniture?
There are moments of intentional humor, as when the prez turns to the veep and asks, "What do you think we should do?" During the screening I saw, there were also, unfortunately, moments of unintended laughter, as during the film's meant-to-be stirring climax.
Oh well. Still, the film's biggest joke comes when the vice president goes on national television to apologize for his advocacy of the rapacious depletion of the earth's natural resources at the expense of our children's future. Like that'll ever happen.
Not in my lifetime, pal.
THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (PG-13, 123 minutes) -- Contains death, destruction of personal property and one mild obscenity. Area theaters.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Emmy Rossum tries to rescue a taxi passenger before New York's Fifth Avenue is submerged in "The Day After Tomorrow."
(Twentieth Century Fox)