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The Day After Tomorrow

A brilliantly made piece of sci-fi hokum.

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

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The Day After Tomorrow is a brilliantly made piece of science fiction hokum, a disaster movie to rank with the best of them, which uses top-notch special effects to depict what it might be like if the climate of our entire planet were to change drastically in a matter of days. In an ideal world, we would be able to sit back and enjoy this kind of spectacle for the far-fetched nonsense that it is.

Sadly we do not live in an ideal world, and the filmmakers have successfully managed to get scientists debating the events depicted in the film as though they were a realistic prospect. Even sadder, while scientists and others acknowledge that the film’s relationship to genuine climate science is tenuous at best, they insist that the film is somehow scientifically legitimate. This shows that contemporary debates about climate change are shaped as much by politics as by science, and that The Day After Tomorrow resonates with the glum political outlook of our time (see Science, and fiction by Sandy Starr).

Environmentalist prejudices have long informed science fiction films. The 1968 genre landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey was open to both humanist and anti-humanist interpretations, but by the time its special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull went on to helm his own Silent Running four years later – in which a spacefaring gardener kills his fellow crew members, in order to preserve the Earth’s last surviving vegetation – the green message was all too clear. Such pessimistic environmentalism, which was marginal when Silent Running was made, has since moved into the mainstream, giving The Day After Tomorrow significant commercial and critical clout.

But The Day After Tomorrow is enjoyable despite its green credentials. Dennis Quaid and Ian Holm turn in solid performances, in the well-worn roles of The Scientists Who See The Disaster Coming But To Whom Nobody Will Listen Until It’s Too Late. Jake Gyllenhaal is impressive as Quaid’s son, a moody, precocious youth similar to the one he played in cult favourite Donnie Darko. The Day After Tomorrow fills out its key characters with such hokey victim figures as a homeless man who disapproves of New York’s polluting, gridlocked traffic, and a child suffering from cancer who is being cared for by Quaid’s wife.

In fact, the film begs for a cheesy Towering Inferno-style poster, setting out its cast of two-dimensional stereotypes. Just as that classic disaster movie’s poster described its characters simply as ‘The Fire Chief’, ‘The Architect’, ‘The Builder’, and so on, so Day After Tomorrow could do with a poster announcing ‘The Paleoclimatologist’, ‘The Meteorologist’, ‘The Homeless Guy’, ‘The Cancer Victim’, and so on. Instead, we must be content with the film’s solemn publicity images of a frozen New York, the Statue of Liberty submerged in snow beside it.

Such solemnity belies the film’s content. The way in which the climate and related circumstances conspire against the characters is so contrived it’s hilarious. In one fantastic set piece, Gyllenhaal, freezing to death in Manhattan Public Library, needs to procure medicine for his girlfriend because she is dying from septicemia. To obtain the medicine, he has to leave the library, brave the elements outside, enter a Russian tanker that is grounded in the ice, and penetrate a locked room by scaling the outside of the tanker and smashing a window with an axe, all the while pursued by vicious wolves that have escaped from a nearby zoo. At this precise moment, the eye of one of the three super-hurricanes afflicting the planet passes directly overhead, meaning that if Gyllenhaal doesn’t sprint back into the library with the precious medicine in record time, he’ll be frozen solid by the cold air being dragged down from the upper atmosphere.

Entertaining, this is. Cause for a serious debate about climate change, this ain’t.

Through such contrivances, the filmmakers interweave the fate of the planet with that of our heroes. The key plot device for bringing the global and the personal together is Quaid’s demented decision – after he has told the US president that it isn’t worth trying to rescue those stranded in the northern states until the climate has settled – to travel, mostly on foot, through the thick of the storm, all the way from Washington to New York, to rescue Gyllenhaal, who may not even be alive. Surely Quaid would be of greater assistance to humankind lending his expertise to the authorities? But he is a movie scientist motivated by movie logic, not scientific logic.

It gets sillier. While trekking through the storm, Quaid expresses regret that his obsession with work has stopped him spending quality time with his son – a moral conversion undergone by many a father in a popcorn flick. But if he had been a more doting father, and less obsessed with his paleoclimatology, he would never have predicted the coming environmental disaster and more people would have died. Aren’t Hollywood morality and environmentalist morality at odds in this instance?

The filmmakers do not take the trouble to address such trifling contradictions. They do, however, take the trouble to namecheck the Kyoto Protocol, and to work in thinly disguised versions of George W Bush and Dick Cheney as the story’s president and vice-president. They also seem to be acutely aware of the grim symbolism of having Gyllenhaal and his chums holed up in Manhattan Public Library burning books in order to keep warm – hesitating only to burn a Gutenberg Bible and a volume by Friedrich Nietszche – while civilisation is destroyed by nature’s forces outside. The story may be ridiculous, but the script’s nods to fashionable anti-human thinking are serious.

Director Roland Emmerich’s previous film about humanity’s last stand against a seemingly unstoppable force was Independence Day. That film was as daft as The Day After Tomorrow, but it had the virtue of knowing that it was. And at least the protagonists of Independence Day faced up to the invading aliens and fought back, eventually defeating them. The protagonists of The Day After Tomorrow are powerless to do much other than batten down the hatches, shelter from the storm, and learn never to provoke Mother Nature again.

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Topics Politics

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