What a Disaster!
'The Day After Tomorrow' Sinks the Science In a Virtual Blizzard of Special Effects
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2004; Page C01
See, it's not an Al Gore movie.
It's not a MoveOn.org movie.
It's not a let's-roast-Bush movie.
Well, it's all those things if you want it to be, but basically, it's still a Roland Emmerich movie, which tells you all you need to know. The director of "Independence Day," "Godzilla" and "The Patriot" has certain attributes, all of which are given full vent in "The Day After Tomorrow."
He's crude, stupid, slick, cornball, predictable, laughable, relentless, trivial and, the sum of all these, ridiculous. He's never made a movie you could believe and he still hasn't.
I'll leave the science to those who can spell "science" without a mnemonic device ("I before e except after c except in 'science.' ") Considered purely as effects-driven filmed drama, "The Day After Tomorrow" checks in somewhere in the middle of one of Hollywood's most absurd and least lamented dead genres, the disaster pic of the '70s. It's a little better than "Earthquake" but not as good as "The Towering Inferno," because it doesn't star Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.
Its only new trick is, of course, the use of computer-generated imagery. Thus when we watch buildings shredding, disintegrating, atomizing, we're not watching toy towns being deconstructed by industrial-strength GE fans in slo-mo. The details are richer and more nuanced, the imagery far more -- but not entirely -- convincing. On a personal note, I'd like to add that building-shredding is infinitely more enjoyable when a big monster does it.
Emmerich has a much deeper visual imagination than a dramatic one. He can conjure up utterly beguiling visions, make you believe what you see is happening, affect you profoundly by the poignancy of the image -- that tidal wave of angry black water swelling over, then burying the Statue of Liberty, for one. Then of course he utterly shatters the illusion with a trite plot, banal dialogue, clunky sentimentality and, worst of all, a sort of narrative arbitrariness by which he's shunting his paper-thin characters this way and that to shoehorn in as many effects as possible.
Yet he either can't see or doesn't care about the staleness of the formulas he so ardently evokes. This film seems unusually Zen-pure in its mastery of basic movie cliche. Note how every character is shorn of dimension, texture, humanity and complexity, and machined toward programmatic Oneness of existence. Our heroes: A handsome concerned scientist (Dennis Quaid), his physician wife (Sela Ward) who takes care of dying children, their misunderstood genius son (Jake Gyllenhaal), a charming homeless man (Glenn Plummer) with a cute dog, a nerd (Arjay Smith), a preppie named J.D. (Austin Nichols), a pompous vice president (Cheney look-alike Kenneth Welsh), a loyal assistant (Jay O. Sanders), and a brilliant, beautiful Asian female scientist (Tamlyn Tomita). These seamless holograms are beamed bloodless into a mob of extras whose specialty is the ability to look alarmed. You've never seen so many furled brows, wide eyes, grim mouths and flared nostrils. It's like a Frodo Baggins look-alike contest.
As the movie has it, somehow global warming first melts the ice cap, unleashing a tidal wave, then -- here was the part I didn't quite get -- triggers a new ice age, overnight. But the point isn't to argue climatology, it's to justify special effects. Emmerich gets to flood New York (this after blowing it up in "Independence Day" and wrecking it in "Godzilla"), then flash-freeze it. So you get two entirely different scenarios of destruction for the price of one. You get to see the city trashed twice. And I haven't even mentioned the tornadoes that rip through Los Angeles or the ice chunks that fall on Japan or the cold wave that drops planes and choppers out of the sky like falling cicadas.
He loves to wreck stuff! You can feel the love of craft lavished on the big sequences; the scene of a cluster of cyclones hip-hopping over the L.A. landscape, buzz-sawing their way through the Hollywood sign, sending buses flippity-flopping down the expressway, is pretty astonishing, but for the sheer scale of destruction, nothing quite compares with that thunderous great wall of black water splishy-splashing Midtown. Somehow it stirs up primordial ancient-brain memories of the flood coming to cleanse the world of sin.
Well, that's another problem. Though the movie makes the nominally rational point that this is a worldwide disaster, it focuses on America, and it seems to take retributive joy in what it evokes. We're getting ours, it's saying. We thought we were so big, so special, so rich, so untouchable. And now -- heh-heh -- we're being punished. We deserved it. This is what you get for tail fins, Elvis, "American Idol" and all the other emblems of high-folk decadence so inflammatory to certain terminally indignant scolds.
The movie takes special comic joy in a reverse-immigration scenario, where gringos cross desperately into Mexico against the official importunings of the Mexican government. It loves the fact that the immediate consequence will be to reduce the United States to a Third World slum.
And you can finally say this about the notion that everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it: Well, Roland Emmerich has done something about it. Something stupid, but still . . . something.
The Day After Tomorrow (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for scenes of immense destruction.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Tornadoes rip through Los Angeles, one of the many special effects of global warming as depicted in Roland Emmerich's absurd, formulaic disaster movie.
(20th Century Fox Via Reuters)