With two atmospheric scientists in the family, I must say the science in The Day After Tomorrow is terrible. And with my reputation as a Denver film critic at stake, I must also tell you just how awful its characters, dialogue, and plot developments are.
(But just between you and me, I kinda liked The Day After Tomorrow.)
PG-13 for intensity, peril
The first 20 minutes of The Day After Tomorrow is painful. It’s literally painful. My eyeballs were sore from having to roll them at the constant barrage of formulaic devices and implausible scenarios. I realized immediately that this was the same movie that I’d seen every summer for the last 15 years. I was kicking myself for thinking this disaster film might be any better than — or even as good as — Armageddon, The Core, Godzilla, Independence Day, The Sum of All Fears, or any other recent movie in the genre.
Some of the eye-rolling specifics follow. While working in Antarctica, Jack Hall’s (Dennis Quaid) camp is coincidentally split exactly in half by an ice shelf “the size of Rhode Island,” breaking away from the continent. Jack also happens to be divorced from his wife, but they’re on good terms — the perfect situation in a disaster movie. Jack’s son Sam (Jake Gyllenhall, 24 years old but playing 17) is a genius who is smarter than his teachers. Jack, who drives a hybrid Honda Insight, is a global warming Cassandra who warns a Dick Cheney lookalike (Kenneth Welsh, playing the vice president of the United States) not to be so careless and greedy when it comes to the environment.
Of course, Jack was right. Global warming is happening, and it’s happening all in the course of a few days. Screenwriters Roland Emmerich and Jeffrey Nachmanoff resort to the old Star Trek device of speed-spewing scientific-sounding jargon until your brain gets foggy, then letting a non-scientist say “oh, so you mean to say that the storm’s a-comin!” I think the specific explanation for the two-day onset of an ice age ruled out the sun, and instead relied on something about the salinity of the North Atlantic Drift, but don’t quote me.
I fought the instinct to run out of the theater and became more receptive. When the tornadoes ripped through L.A., I thought of all the film industry professionals to whom the scene was probably dedicated. The tidal wave sweeping into Manhattan was impressive. And when the real storm started, I was glued to my seat.
As clichéd and predictable as all the plot developments are (this is the kind of movie that allows its lead characters — but not its extras — to outrun tidal waves and freezing air masses), there’s something about the experience of sitting in a summer movie theater, watching a big-budget adventure, that transcends the quality of the movie. It’s fun, like riding a roller-coaster or watching a corny small-town parade. A disaster movie without the clichés would be like a parade without the beauty queen.
I laughed at “inappropriate” moments. For example, Jack vows to walk to New York City through the deadly storm to find his son, to fulfill a “promise” he only made in passing. Another laugh-getter was the introduction of the homeless man, with dog, who seems to be lifted straight out of Armageddon. When it is revealed that Sam’s girlfriend needs antibiotics or faces an amputation, I almost felt bad about laughing at the contrived predicament.
Somehow, I don’t think Emmerich was trying for camp value. The movie’s wholehearted embrace of the rules of the disaster genre makes me think he was in earnest. Let’s hope so, because that makes the camp value all the more valuable. This would be a perfect movie for the Boulder Outdoor Cinema.
Maybe I just need to stop rationalizing things and just say I kinda liked The Day After Tomorrow, even if it means I get disowned by my atmospheric scientist brother and get ridiculed by the Denver critics.