The Hollywood sign mercilessly erased by an enormous tornado, the Statue of Liberty submerged by a gigantic tidal wave, the Empire State Building teetering perilously in a massive blizzard—apparently, the post-9/11 cinematic moratorium on destroying national landmarks for disposable summer kicks has lasted only two and a half years. That’s certainly the most powerful impression left by Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, though not the only one, since this stolid disaster flick also comes saddled with an election year political message about the current administration’s supposedly reckless mishandling of the environment. When a climatologist (Dennis Quaid) discovers that our indifference to greenhouse gases and global warming has ushered in a new Ice Age, the vice president devilishly scoffs at the news, the commander-in-chief looks indecisive, and the world revels in big bad capitalist America getting its comeuppance. In Emmerich’s green-friendly film, the root cause of mankind’s woes isn’t aliens, monsters, or robots—it’s man’s hubris and the resulting de-salinization of the Atlantic Ocean.
Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla), a pulp showman enamored by grand visions of CGI-crafted wastelands, is prone to indulge in expansive aerial shots of widespread metropolis destruction, and his and Jeffrey Nachmanoff’s screenplay delivers loads of simplistic human drama to match the one-dimensional cataclysmic action. As land-based hurricanes begin battering downtown Los Angeles, seismic shifts in sea currents (created by the melting polar ice caps) cause massive New York City flooding, and menacing cloud formations terrify policymakers and meteorologists, we’re presented with a few lean character-driven storylines designed to help us engage with the calamity on a personal level.
Washington D.C.-based Jack Hall (Quaid) vainly attempts to convince apathetic government officials of the impending crisis and then, once the storm crash-lands on U.S. shores, embarks on a daring trek across the frozen Eastern coast to rescue his estranged son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) from the Manhattan Public Library. Sam, of course, has his O.C.-style melodrama to contend with, since his rich kid adversary from the recent academic decathlon is flirting with his dream girl Laura (Emmy Rossum), while Sam’s mom (Sela Ward) sits bedside with a young cancer patient in a cloying side-story (further ruined by Harald Kloser’s prosaic score) meant to warm our frostbitten hearts.
What’s surprising about The Day After Tomorrow isn’t that it shamelessly employs its theme park ride Armageddon as a tragic backdrop for small-scale human triumph. Rather, the shock is that 20th Century Fox—the cinematic arm of conservative mogul Rupert Murdoch’s media empire—would agree to disseminate such clear-cut anti-administration propaganda and then label much of the film’s faux-TV broadcasts with Fox News logos. From its mockery of Bush (“What do you think we should do?” the president lamely asks the V.P. when informed of the impending storms) and the vice president (a gray-haired villain who cares more about the economy than Kyoto) to its slightly more subtle condemnation of rich white America in favor of the unwashed proletarian masses—highlighted by the cagey African-American hobo teaching the teenage WASP how to insulate himself with newspaper—the film proudly displays its staunch liberal heart.
Just as the film’s environmental message is polluted with exaggerated apocalyptic paranoia, the film is too beholden to action-movie requirements to successfully wrap its snow-and-sleet battered head around general geopolitical issues. Mexico’s border closing is meant to be a swipe at U.S. immigration policy, as if Emmerich truly believes that our southern neighbors haven’t been given a fair shot at enjoying America’s bountiful pleasures, and one can feel an underlying sentiment that New Yorkers (and, by extension, Americans) have gotten the catastrophe they deserve. These politics, however—given the film’s fixation on derivative maelstroms (the producers of Twister should sue for a scene involving tornado-chasing newscasters on the L.A. freeway)—are hardly more thought out than Quaid’s preposterous decision to traverse hundreds of miles in sub-zero weather to find a son he can’t possibly believe is alive, or the director’s desperate attempt to create extra tension by letting loose a pack of computer-generated wolves (escaped from the Central Park Zoo) to hunt Gyllenhaal and his nerdy friends. Mother Nature is a bitch, but another Ice Age would at least put clichéd, sermonizing blockbuster filmmaking like this on deep freeze.