If former vice president Al Gore gives a movie a rave review, is that a good thing or a bad thing at the box office? That is what Hollywood wants to know.
The potential summer blockbuster "The Day After Tomorrow" (opening, actually, tomorrow) is about the adventures of a little planet we call Earth that suddenly finds itself experiencing extreme meteorological distress due to humankind's prodigious discharge of greenhouse gases.
And now a coalition of environmental organizations, Ben & Jerry's, serious scientists, Hollywood gadflies, a Kennedy, a Gore and several anti-Bush organizations has gotten together to promote the movie, ride its coattails and do some bashing of the administration's position on global warming.
Directed by master of disaster Roland Emmerich (the German who blew up the White House in "Independence Day" and also did a "Godzilla" remake), the movie does for global warming what Emmerich did for space aliens and a giant lizard: make it scary (and oddly fun).
The pop-corny scenario is this: a couple of centuries of excessive emissions of carbon dioxide (the stuff that comes out of tailpipes and smokestacks) has finally warmed the globe enough to shut down the thermo-saline North Atlantic Ocean Current, which acts as a kind of heat distribution modifier. Holy guacamole. In a matter of days (scientists say it would actually take decades, if it happened at all), the weather gets really weird.
Jumbo tornadoes flatten Los Angeles. Hailstorms attack Tokyo. And the planet does not warm, but instantly freezes -- as if God's own Sub-Zero refrigerator decided to make us all ice cubes. Gargantuan tsunamis roll over Manhattan, covering Gotham in frost. (The consensus among climate scientists is that global warming will be, uhh, warm. But in computer modeling scenarios, there could be regions that experience a bit of cooling, such as Northern Europe and Greenland, if the Atlantic Ocean current shut down.)
Gore, who says he read the screenplay while the movie was in production and saw a screening this week, admits -- as everyone does -- that the movie is mostly science fiction, but grounded in some science facts. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts the planet will warm by 2.7 to 10.5 degrees over this century.
"It opens the opportunity for debate," Gore said in a recent telephone news conference. "A national conversation." Or, in the words of Peter Frumhoff, director of the global environment program for the Union of Concerned Scientists, which is also getting in on the action via its Web site (and who will be part of the commentary accompanying the DVD version of the movie in a few months), "a teachable moment."
As the film opens in mall multiplexes this weekend, the liberal activists from MoveOn.org promise that thousands of volunteers will be on hand to leaflet theatergoers with information about the impending "climate crisis."
The MoveOn campaign, endorsed by Gore, is heaping blame where it thinks blame is due. In its materials, the group charges: "More than anyone else, one man stands in the way of real progress toward stopping global warming: President George W. Bush. At every turn, President Bush has sided with his friends and big campaign contributors in the oil, coal and automobile industries."
And in his remarks, Gore charged, "The Bush-Cheney adminstration has worked very hard to create the false impression that the scientific community is unsure whether this is a serious problem or not."
"We don't do movie reviews," a White House official said last night, adding that "this is a political season and everybody has their right to an opinion." In the past, the administration has defended its record on global warming by saying it supports research on climate change and promotes voluntary reductions in greenhouse gases.
It is notable that "The Day After Tomorrow" features a character, Vice President Becker (played by Kenneth Welsh), who bears a reasonable likeness to Dick Cheney, and who in the movie pooh-poohs global warming in a scene set at an international climate treaty conference in New Delhi.
Michael Molitor, a geochemist formerly at the University of California's Scripps Institution of Oceanography, served as a paid adviser for the film. He says he helped with the scientific underpinnings of the movie and also highlighted for the filmmakers what he characterized as the Bush administration's contention that the cost of addressing future warming is not yet worth the price.
Molitor and some other scientists, including the climatologist Daniel Schrag of Harvard University, have said the movie is a golden chance to put global warming before a worldwide audience of millions. "It is going to do more for the issue of climate change than anything I've done in my whole life," says Molitor, who has testified before Congress and led scientific delegations to the talks on the Kyoto climate treaty, which sought worldwide agreement for nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The treaty was supported by former president Bill Clinton and Gore, but the Bush administration has refused to sign it.
Peter Schurman, executive director of MoveOn.org, says 20th Century Fox (which has been very happy with the enviro-buzz) is spending $50 million or more to market the $125 million film. His group claims that it's "a movie President Bush doesn't want you to see."
Other environmental advocacy groups, though, would be happy if you did. For example, the Natural Resources Defense Council has teamed up with Ben & Jerry's ice cream to direct moviegoers to a Web site (GetTheRealScoop.org) to tell them them about global warming and get them to urge Congress to pass the Climate Stewardship Act, sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), which seeks to set limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
Hollywood activist Laurie David, wife of comedian and HBO star Larry David, who spoke at a "town hall meeting" with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in New York before the film's premiere there Monday, says the movie has "this great subversive message . . . about what happens when you don't pay attention."
Meanwhile, earlier this week, climate scientists convened at the Cato Institute in Washington to bash the film as preposterous.
How preposterous? The libertarian think tank points out that the movie is inspired by "The Coming Global Superstorm," a thriller by two leading UFO theorists: Whitley Strieber, who claims he was abducted by aliens, and Art Bell, a conspiracy-mongering radio host who used to broadcast from the Nevada desert.
"If Al Gore and the producers of the movie are relying on UFO and alien worshipers, then they're in trouble," Cato spokesman Richard Pollock says.
Says Cato senior fellow Patrick J. Michaels, professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia: "Not only is the movie absurd, I think the former vice president is stuck in the science of the past on this issue."
Staff writer Richard Leiby contributed to this report.