The U.S. flag waves repeatedly in Day After Tomorrow. The first time comes after the camera has apparently (digitally) traveled the earth’s oceans to arrive at the Larsen B ice shelf base in Antarctica, where hardy, dedicated paleoclimatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) is reading charts. When a huge crack opens up under his assistant Jason (Dash Mihok), Jack leaps into action hero mode, quite literally. To save some valuable charts, he launches himself across the widening crevasse from which Jason has just been barely saved. “What’s happening?” worries young Jason. Jack instructs, loudly, “The whole damn shelf is breaking off, that’s what’s happening!”
Jack believes in science — complicated diagrams and graphs, elegant computer models. Though his faith will be tested (he misgauges the speed of the approaching disaster more than once (by 1000 or 100 years, during his report to a Global Warning Conference, then by months and weeks, in reporting to the skeptical Vice President), Jack, basing his theory on the Ice Age 10,000 years ago, remains convinced that scientists tell truth and politicians, like that pesky Vice President Becker (Kenneth Welsh), do not (“Our economy,” he snipes at Jack, “is every bit as fragile as the environment”). Jack knows that the costs of decades of shortsighted, profits-driven planet-abusing policies (including the U.S. rejection of the Kyoto treaty, specially noted here). As the movie’s title announces, the catastrophe is already in the works.
This $125 million film, of course, supports Jack’s thinking. The press notes report that the Larsen B ice shelf actually did fall into the sea (after director Roland Emmerich and Jeffrey Nachmanoff wrote the scene), and provide a list of terrible weather incidents in 2002 (including Europe’s “Floods of the Century”), to which might be added 2004’s U.S. tornadoes or Middle East earthquakes. The film itself also provides Jack with amiable allies in his resistance to the VP (the President, played by Perry King, is slow of thought and dependent on his second to make decisions), in wise and cuddly Professor Rapson (Ian Holm) and NASA hurricane specialist Janet Tokada (Tamlyn Tomita, essentially repeating her earnest girl with a clipboard role from 24).
That the “abrupt climate shift” encompasses multiple disastrous aspects makes it difficult to harness as a movie-style threat: hailstorms in Tokyo, tornadoes in L.A. (taking out the Hollywood sign and the Capitol Records building), land-based hurricanes in Canada, floods in Manhattan, deep freezes across the northern half of the U.S. Rapson ends up with his crew of two at his Scotland research base (with assistant Simon [Adrian Lester], lamenting that he’ll never see his new son “grow up”), a moment that typifies the film’s narrative strategy; much like Independence Day, it sets up thumbnail-sketched characters at various points on the globe, then destroys them one by one, mostly offscreen, so the survivors can grimace or look sad as they realize their associates are gone.
Because it is an action movie as well as political tract, Day After Tomorrow doesn’t only leave hordes of anonymous folks to their dire fates. And so Jack not only gets to look sad, but he also must make a mighty effort. Toward this end, the film also gives him an estranged son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), leaving home in DC, where he lives with Jack’s ex, Dr. Lucy Hall (Sela Ward), for an academic decathlon in NYC.
Predictably angry at his obsessively professional father for being absent throughout much of childhood, Sam is also conveniently (genetically?) bright enough to grasp the import of dad’s warnings even when the U.S. administration is steadfastly ignoring them. So, when Jack says stay put at the Manhattan Public Library, and burn whatever is available to keep warm, Sam convinces a hardy band to do just that. This company includes a librarian (Sheila McCarthy), an atheist determined to save the Guttenberg Bible for the sake of “Western civilization,” and a host of nerdy decathletes, including “captain of the electronics club, the math club, and the science club” Brian (Arjay Smith), double-underlines the film’s affection for science and research. That a couple of the nerds are transformed into action stars only makes them more admirable.
The film’s politics (and financing) are upfront: while an assortment of Fox news reporters breathlessly narrate the disaster’s movements, when the U.S. attempts to evacuate its Southern states’ citizens to Mexico, that government holds up the proceedings until the U.S. President agrees to forgive all Latin American nations’ debts (news footage shows yanquis entering Mexico illegally makes for a sharp joke). A rich kid in the Library with the rest of the nerds, J.D. (Austin Nichols), also learns a valuable lesson, courtesy of homeless person Luther (Glenn Plummer), expert at “staying warm,” due to his many nights on the streets of New York. (Luther is also assigned Emmerich’s favorite sign of moral decency, a spunky dog.)
For Emmerich, disasters (aliens, Godzilla) are terrific incentives for romance and reconciliation. And so, Jack and Lucy (who remains at a DC hospital with a young, stoic, and eminently pathetic cancer patient) will re-bond over their concern for Sam, and Sam will make time with the object of his affection, decathlon teammate Laura (Emmy Rosenbaum). His desire for this lovely rich girl leads Sam to feats of derring-do to rival his dad’s, including an expedition to find penicillin aboard a ship that has floated down Fifth Avenue and parked outside the Library, just as the city is about to freeze, and just as a pack of digitized wolves (escaped from the zoo) show up on cue (this sequence is among the movie’s most desperately silly, these creatures being the more technically advanced brethren of the monsters in Wolfen, but wholly less convincing).
The ostensible through line amid the pockets of survival and tragedy is Jack, who rises to preposterous action-heroic heights, following his decision at last to be a good dad, and trek from DC to NYC in order to locate Sam in the Library. His arguments with the government types melt away as his personal efforts take center stage — and lead again to a sighting of the U.S. flag (this after a tidal wave and then ice overtake the Statue of Liberty, as Emmerich again (again and again) takes easy aim at emblems of U.S. big-talking self-mythologizing so that his audience can thrill to their destruction).
As the “eye of the storm” speeds across the screen, instantly freezing everything in its path, Jack looks up to see a flag, turned spastically solid in a second. Here it is, the money shot: the emblematic United States, stuck in time, blind to consequences, fixated on its own reckless self-love. Surely, there are smarter, more compelling ways to make this point than Jack’s whole-hearted, robust embodiment of U.S. remythification.