The Day After Tomorrow
review by Gregory Avery, 4 June 2004

The apocalyptic thriller The Day After Tomorrow opens with a genuinely majestic traveling shot that follows bits and pieces, large and small, of an ice flow back to its source, an ice shelf on the Antarctic continent where three dots that turn out to be a team of men can be observed. Are these the scientists who will be instrumental in saving the human race in the story that is to come? Wait a minute: they're DRILLING. Uh, oh....

But, wait again: one of them is Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid), a climatologist who, with his two colleagues, is taking core samples are part of findings that he will present at an international conference in New Delhi, showing that the polar ice caps have deteriorated to the point where a global warming trend could start and create major changes in the planet's weather. There is some talk about another ice age, some time off, maybe in a hundred years, maybe a thousand. You don't want to start a panic over these things. When Jack steps outside to meet a colleague, Terry Rapson (the indispensable Ian Holm), there is a light snowfall already in progress in New Delhi, and Japan is about to get pelted by chunks of ice falling from the sky. Then the skies darken over Los Angeles....

Previously, the director Roland Emmerich, working with Dean Devlin, brought us Independence Day and a (disastrous) 1998 remake of Godzilla, films which used the sight of mass annihilation and massive destruction in such a way as to stoke the audience and give them something to get-off on, again and again. The Day After Tomorrow takes a (plausible) set up outlining what would happen if the planet was struck by a catastrophic climate change, then goes one step further, showing what would happen if the occurrence took place not over a matter of aeons but over a matter of weeks, even days, from the manifestation of multiple tornados to pressure changes which cause temperatures to plummet in such a way as to flash-freeze everything, just like the mammoth on display at the Natural History Museum in New York City that Jack Hall's son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), takes a gander at before disaster strikes.

Anyone who spent any of their formative years in the Seventies will be reminded, whether they like it or not, of the ghosts of disaster movies past. You know what's going to happen to two characters who exchange dialogue like, "Shouldn't you be monitoring the weather?" "This is L.A. What weather?" Jack's wife, Lucy (Sela Ward), is a pediatrician who must tend after a child who cannot be moved without the aid of an ambulance, a reminder of when Linda Blair grinned-and-beared-it as a medical patient through most of  Airport 1975. However, Day After Tomorrow moves gracefully through its multiple plotlines involving Jack, Lucy, and Sam (Gyllenhaal again distinguishes himself, showing how he can slip-across, as if by sideways, a performance that proves ultimately solid and affecting), who, with two friends, is attending an academic decathlon in New York City just before the city is struck by a freak tsunami. There's one beautiful shot of flocks of birds streaming through the skies, and the subsequent images showing Manhattan being swept through and submerged by tidal waters induce in one due amounts of awe and terror.

By comparison with the movies Emmerich made earlier, Day After Tomorrow has one subtle but distinct difference: some parts of the film may come across as hokey to members of the audience (and they may be right), but there's nothing hokey about the expression on Dennis Quaid's face when he says that he made a promise to help his son, and he intends to be true to his word (Quaid, with his performances in Frequency, The Rookie, and Far from Heaven, has turned into one of our best actors around, right now); or in the way Ian Holm's character says, hauntingly, to Quaid, "Save as many as you can." At times the camera turns to give us landscapes that have been swallowed up by atomized debris or whited-out, and the film suddenly fills up and becomes suffused with a mournful sense of melancholy that's hard to shake-off or ignore. The picture may ostensibly be about snow and ice and gales, but what it ends up being about is interconnection, and the refusal of people to relinquish their sense of humanity and compassion in the face of cataclysm. Given the changes that have occurred in our social and political landscape between now and when the Godzilla remake traipsed out, I think this was entirely the right decision to go with. Movies can function as a way to present us with a worse-case scenario, then show how people can rise to the level of the occasion and overcome it in the best way possible. The Day After Tomorrow may at heart remain a pulp adventure thriller, but it seeks to shake us up a little in a way that is legitimate, to reverse the depersonalization that has been going on in movies of late, and to recognize once more that cataclysm is something more than a lot of light and noise timpaniing off of a theater auditorium screen.

Directed by:
Roland Emmerich

Starring:
Dennis Quaid
Jake Gyllenhaal
Sela Ward
Emmy Rossum
Dash Mihok
Jay O. Sanders
Sheila McCarthy
Glenn Plummer
Tamlyn Tomita
Perry King
Kenneth Welsh
Ian Holm.

Written by:
Roland Emmerich
Jeffrey Nachmanoff

Rated:
PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may be
inappropriate for
children under 13.

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