The Day After Tomorrow is apocalyptic.

Reviews of the latest films.
May 27 2004 6:35 PM

The Ice Age Cometh

The Day After Tomorrow is full of hot gas.

Still from The Day After Tomorrow
Eco-soap opera gets a rinse

The Day After Tomorrow (20th Century Fox) has one of the most absurd and implausible plot turns I've seen in a movie, ever. Global warming melts the polar ice caps, which makes the oceans rise and disrupts the Gulf Stream. There are lethal hailstones in Tokyo and ravaging tornadoes in L.A.; and after New York City is flooded by seawater, the temperature plunges at a rate of 10 degrees per second, so that people are transformed into ice statues where they stand. Tens of millions are dead and the upper United States has become uninhabitable. Now here's the implausible part. The vice president (Kenneth Welsh)— closely modeled on Dick Cheney —who has pooh-poohed all evidence of global warming, goes on TV and says, "I was wrong."

Of course, if I had to catalog all the moronic plot turns in The Day After Tomorrow, we'd be here until the next ice age. It's just so very bad. You can have a pretty good time snickering at it—unless, like me, you think there's something to this global warming thing, and you shudder at the irony of a movie meant to warn people about a dangerous environmental trend that completely discredits it.

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The first half hour is full of standard corny disaster-movie foreplay, and it's kind of fun to be five steps ahead of all the "experts" on screen. The paleoclimatologist hero (Dennis Quaid)—who warns the world that something like this is coming, albeit not quite this fast—is introduced to Terry Rapson (Ian Holm) at a climate conference in New Delhi and exclaims, "Professor Rapson? I've read your work on ocean currents!" I just love lines like that. Climatologists stare into their computer screens while munching on some piece of food and say, "Hmmm, that's strange. The temperature at Georges Bank just dropped 13 degrees. Must be a broken sensor." Idiot! Hasn't he seen the previews?

The filmmakers can get away with all the bum dialogue early on because we're still in a state of happy anticipation: It's a kind of therapy to see our fictional counterparts die in horrible ways, our cities crumble, our deepest anxieties realized. There are even a couple of chilling images, like the one in which tens of thousands of birds take off from Manhattan in an evident panic.

But the director of The Day After Tomorrow is Roland Emmerich, the man responsible for three of the clunkiest summer blockbusters ever made, Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998), and The Patriot (2000). Emmerich has said that audiences will show up to see killer special effects, but what will keep them in their seats is the presence of recognizable human beings with recognizable human problems. I couldn't agree more—except that Emmerich's recognizable human problems make the ones on Days of Our Lives seem outré. And when it comes to weaving personal stories in and out of the special-effects set pieces, the director has the most colossal antitalent since Ed Wood Jr.

Everyone will have his or her favorite bad moment in this movie: We could almost hold another contest. I almost lost it when someone yelled, "It's a wall of water coming toward New York City!" because that's the most laughable line in The Poseidon Adventure (1972), too. But my favorite is probably when Quaid's teenage son (Jake Gyllenhaal, who outgrew this sort of part years ago) nearly drowns in freezing ocean water to swim to a pay phone and call his parents.

In the midst of all the horror, Emmerich wants us to care very deeply that Quaid prove to his son that he's not an absentee dad. So, the paleoclimatologist announces that instead of helping the government draw up evacuation plans, he's going to snowshoe from Washington, D.C., to Manhattan to find Junior, now holed up in the New York Public Library making cow eyes at Emmy Rossum. "Your dad will never make it," says someone, and Gyllenhaal says, "He'll make it"—and it's a testament to the actor's smarts that he knows how to soft-pedal that line so that it doesn't bring down the house. (More suspense: Will Gyllenhaal have the courage to tell Rossum that he, uh, likes her? While he makes up his mind, the entire country of Scotland perishes in a deep freeze.)

The Day After Tomorrow ends up feeling weirdly underpopulated, because the scenes aren't thought out in terms of the movement of the masses but the soap-opera tribulations of the few—each of whom gets his or her own little moment of heroism. Sela Ward, as Quaid's ex-wife, is, fer sher, a pediatric oncologist who remains at the bedside of a little boy with no hair when her clinic empties out. Rossum risks flood waters to retrieve the passports of a mother and child, and Gyllenhaal risks water, cold, and hungry wolves to get Rossum some penicillin. A homeless man taking refuge in the library rescues his dog. (Hmmm: Many starving people, one dog, one roaring fire. No even thinks about un chien roti?)

Never mind all this, you're saying. How are the FX? Swell, although at this point most of us can recognize computer-generated imagery, and so we register on some level that it's a computerized Antarctic ice sheet cracking and a computerized Hollywood sign being blown away by a computerized tornado. It's more of a problem that all the cool effects—the evisceration of L.A., the tidal waves sweeping past the Statue of Liberty, the buses flying through the air—come relatively early. The last part of the movie is people and skyscrapers getting very, very cold, which is not all that photogenic—although Emmerich has Gyllenhaal being chased by an arctic chill as if it's Godzilla.

The sad part is that Emmerich really thinks he's making a political statement, and he and his producers and actors are making the rounds blabbing about the movie's message to the world. As a German, he's no doubt eager to teach the United States some humility: The most amusing scene features North Americans racing illegally across the Rio Grande as Mexican troops attempt to turn them back. But the mainstream American audience won't want to know from humility, even in a fantasy alternate universe. It's too Jimmy Carter. Meanwhile, global-warming experts I know are already girding themselves for a major PR setback, as everyone involved in this catastrophe becomes a laughingstock. Is it possible that The Day After Tomorrow is a plot to make environmental activists look as wacko as antienvironmentalists always claim they are? Al Gore stepped right into this one, didn't he?

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.