The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

Sometimes it’s good to go really, really low-tech.
— Roland Emmerich, commentary track, The Day After Tomorrow

The fact of the matter is, there’s a reason that clichés are clichés — because it’s real.
— Mark Gordon, commentary track, The Day After Tomorrow

At this point, you’re just sort of going, “Oy! Oy veys mir! That is some kind of big action picture!”
— Mark Gordon, commentary track, The Day After Tomorrow

Watching the opening scene of The Day After Tomorrow, director Roland Emmerich and producer Mark Gordon are plainly pleased with their picture. The opening title images of polar ice caps are spectacular, digitally-effected to crisp lifelikeness, swirling, vast-seeming, elegant. The action commences as an ice shelf collapses: the ground opens up and the U.S. scientific crew working the site is sent into a frenzy. Dedicated paleoclimatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) goes so far as to launch himself into crevice to save valuable charts, saving himself at the last second by whipping out his pick-ax and hooking the ice. Here Gordon interjects, “How in the hell did he get that pick-ax out? There’s no fucking way that he could have done that. But it’s Indiana Jones, it’s in a movie, and we never heard a peep about it in the previews.”

This assessment quite sums up The Day After Tomorrow‘s combinatory ethos, mixing action-adventure hijinks with anti-global-warming cautions, all in the interest of audience delight. Even as it lays down a scary geopolitical scenario and a few partisan gauntlets, this movie aims to please.

Fox’s new DVD includes a few extra reasons to feel pleased: in addition to the often amusing Emmerich-Gordon commentary track (the producer especially is prone to play parts, crack jokes, poke fun at his own participation), the DFVD includes a second, more consistently earnest commentary by writer Jeffrey Nachmanoff, cinematographer Ueli Steiger, editor David Brenner, and production designer Barry Chusid, two deleted scenes, and an “interactive sound demo” for a scene involving a helicopter, which isolates and allows you to mix various audio tracks. The title of this featurette, “Audio Anatomy,” again suggests the artists’ approach to their work, at once painstaking and metaphorical, a means to amp the drama and tweak the tears.

Such gonzo good fun speaks to the filmmakers’ explicit glee in its own digital thrills, as well as their self-understanding as gallant tech pioneers. Their work here is geared to make the fake look real, in order to impress on viewers real likely dangers set in motion by human arrogance, ambition, and eager ignorance. That so much of the blame for these abuses is laid at the feet of the U.S. administration is alleviated by the intelligence and courage displayed by the heroes, most U.S., especially when Jack turns into something of a first responder, often backed by a U.S. flag, and always ready and able to save helpless civilians, including his estranged son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), who lives with Jack’s ex, Dr. Lucy Hall (Sela Ward), in DC. To set up the film’s punchline, namely, sensational shots of NYC frozen solid (the Statue of Liberty, the zoo, the library), the film must get Jack and Sam to the city. To that end, it sends Sam to an academic decathlon, an event that also allows him to find an object of affection, decathlon teammate Laura (Emmy Rosenbaum).

Most emphatically, the movie loves Jack (and Quaid is quite up to the adoration, even if the narrative apparatus is increasingly silly). This is a man who believes in science — complicated diagrams and graphs, elegant computer models. 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 (Ken Welsh, whose similarity to Cheney is hardly accidental: Gordon notes on the commentary track: “We liked him as an actor, but it didn’t hurt that he looks like Dick Cheney… And I think we got a lot of shit in the press for it”).

No matter the public ridicule he gets, 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. Indeed, as Emmerich and Gordon note, the Larsen B ice shelf actually did fall into the sea as Emmerich and Jeffrey Nachmanoff were writing the script). And it sets itself solidly against the current administration’s thinking on global warming, the Kyoto Treaty, and other environmental abuses, mostly embodied in 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), who cacthes a brief and ungainly flirtation from Jack’s galumphy good-hearted assistant Jason (Dash Mihok).

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, The 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. Again.

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 is upfront, which made for some minor ruckus on its theatrical release. Its financing is also clear: Fox News reporters breathlessly narrate the disaster’s movements, 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 desperate yanquis wading through a river to enter Mexico illegally makes for a sharp joke, increasingly relevant). 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, whom Gordon calls his “good luck charm,” an actor who also enlivened the proceedings in Speed, the producer’s first big hit), 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 Laura. His desire for this lovely rich girl leads the boy 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.