The problem with large-scale disaster movies (as opposed to smaller-scale ones like The Poseidon Adventure) is that we’re given a few people to care about, out of presumably millions of lives. If tornadoes are tearing L.A. apart and a gigantic wave is turning New York City into an aquarium, who cares whether some guy rescues his teenage son? We might care if the characters were written with some panache and skill, but The Day After Tomorrow, political posturing notwithstanding, is all about the spectacle. In the long-shot views of destruction (most of which you’ve seen in the trailer), you watch thousands of people die, but you know most of the people you’ve been watching for a few scenes are going to live. A truly chilling apocalyptic film like this would dispense with a heroic narrative altogether and just wreak havoc for two hours, for mass death would be the meaning of the event for most people.
Director Roland Emmerich follows exactly the same recipe that paid off lucratively in Independence Day and less so in Godzilla: one heaping cup of destruction, a teaspoon of character development, half a pound of scenes involving our heroes narrowly avoiding death — sprinkle CGI effects liberally, let cool, serves millions of gullible moviegoers (the studio hopes). We have here, too, a Message: Instead of aliens or Godzilla, this time it’s Mother Nature herself testing our American resolve (we see glimpses of chaos in other nations, but this film’s view is so narrow you’d think America was composed solely of L.A., N.Y.C., and Washington). The British at a remote weather station can only get drunk and await death by freezing; it takes a red-blooded American, in the person of Dennis Quaid, to fight the odds and make it to an iced-over Big Apple in search of his son (Jake Gyllenhaal, a long, sad way from Donnie Darko).
As usual, Emmerich’s direction is sloppy. A perky brainy girl (Emmy Rossum) falls ill due to an infected gash on her leg, and Gyllenhaal (who’s nursing a crush on her) and some friends head out to a Russian ship that has floated into the middle of the city and frozen there. They’re in search of penicillin, which they assume will be available on a Russian ship in a bottle marked “penicillin” in English (and, wonder of wonders, it is!). En route, they run into a pack of nasty timber wolves that have gotten loose from the city zoo; they also got loose from the film’s CGI artists before they could be made remotely realistic-looking (for a second I thought I was watching Van Helsing again). Then we cut away to Quaid or some other business, and when we next see the sick girl, she’s feeling much better. Emmerich doesn’t give us the moment when Gyllenhaal makes it back and the girl gets the penicillin — the very point of this entire outlandish sequence. And don’t even get me started on the hilarity of the scene where a bunch of people outrun a blast of freezing air and close the doors on it. What, does the air see the closed doors and shuffle away, sniffling dejectedly? We’ve just seen that same air stop three helicopters in flight by turning chopper fuel to ice, for Christ’s sake.
One moment in the bloated spectacle pleased me greatly: at the New York Public Library, where Gyllenhaal and some other survivors hole up, two librarians — a fussy dusty stereotyped one and a funky earthy-crunchy type more typical of who librarians are these days — debate whether to toss the works of Nietzsche onto the fire that’s going to be warding off the impending freeze. A literary discussion in a big-budget summer apocaflick? I couldn’t believe my ears; Emmerich must’ve been off taking a piss when that was written and filmed. Elsewhere, the movie’s respect for the written word — and for credible science (yes, we’re ruining the planet, but an overkill movie like this doesn’t help the credibility of actual environmentalists one whit) — is typified by dialogue like “Unpack the snowshoes — we’re walking from here” or the film’s final line, the most unintentionally funny punchline since “Somewhere in heaven there’s an angel with big ears” in The Tall Guy. The librarians should’ve tossed the script onto the fire first.