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Ice Folly

 

The Day After Tomorrow

Roland Emmerich, USA, 2004

Rating: 2.6

 

 

Posted: May 29, 2004

By Laurence Station

99% of all the species that have ever existed on this planet are now extinct. The last ice age ended roughly 10,000 years ago. We live in accelerated times. Put all three of these statements in a blender, puree, and voilą! Instant globally conscious summer blockbuster. Roland Emmerich, the man who helmed Stargate and Independence Day, loves to blow things up. In The Day After Tomorrow (DAT), he gets to use the ultimate hammer of destruction in the form of Mother Nature. The main difference between DAT and his earlier escapist fare: Emmerich wants people to think. This is a disaster film with a message: Stop polluting the world or suffer the dire consequences (especially for those living in the Northern Hemisphere, i.e., the most industrialized nations). And those consequences, thanks to some slam-bang special effects, are completely devastating.

The basic setup: Global warming melts the polar icecaps, which dump fresh water into the oceans, which desalinizes them, which throws the currents out of whack, which leads to storms of colossal power and ultimately, a new ice age is born. Emmerich's not too far off base here. Unfortunately, his expediency -- due to the hardwired dictates involving Summer Blockbusters, necessitating the execution of thrilling, cataclysmic events in a very short space of time -- impels all of these events to unfold in less than two weeks. So the director gets to make his point and fulfill the prescribed disaster quotient at the same time. Fine -- this is a Hollywood movie, not a nature film. The real letdown, then, is not Emmerich's credulity-straining hyperactive science; it's his lack of sustained tension.

Ice ages, like slowly drifting polar ice caps, have a ponderous inevitability about them. Once triggered, there's not a whole lot to do but wait until they've passed. And that's what happens in DAT: people sit around and do a whole lot of waiting. Realizing he has no alien baddies to fight or dimension-warping gates to close, Emmerich does set about contriving mini-adventures for his characters. The closest thing we get to a hero is Dennis Quaid's Professor Jack Hall, a paleoclimatologist who works for the government and has been trying to convince the current administration (and make no mistake; Emmerich has the actual current administration in his crosshairs here) that an ice age similar to the last one may be arriving sooner than anyone expects. Compounding matters further is the fact that Jack's son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) is trapped in Manhattan when the cataclysm begins, taking refuge in New York's Public Library (which leads to an interesting sequence involving burning books to stay warm -- to save civilization, we must burn the written record of it). Jack decides to rescue Sam and boldly heads north from D.C. while the rest of the country flees south to the warmer climes of Mexico, only to find that the borders have been closed! (Oh, the bitter irony.)

Meanwhile, Jack's medical doctor wife Lucy (Sela Ward) valiantly stays with a young cancer patient while waiting for the last ambulance out of the nation's capital. While Jack treks north, Sam decides to find some medicine for his injured love interest, Laura (Emmy Rossum). In Emmerich's most desperate attempt to generate a little heat in this sub-artic narrative waiting game, not only does Sam have to risk the inclement weather by leaving the relatively warm confines of the library and boarding a huge Russian frigate that has docked conveniently outside,  he unleashes a pack of hungry wolves to boot! It's patent overkill, humorously akin to the first Austin Powers movie, in which Mike Myers' Dr. Evil doesn't just want sharks but demands sharks with "frickin' laser beams attached to their heads." If the subzero temperatures don't get Sam, then surely those darn wolves will.

This sequence alone exemplifies DAT's greatest flaw: Ice is not an engaging foe. Ice doesn't plot or scheme or exhibit cool, Matrix-like moves. Ice just is, and that's not a very sexy sell for Summer movie audiences. Besides which, we all know that the big-name stars are not going to freeze to death. Thus, it's just a matter of reuniting Jack and Sam before the final credits, and. well, there are those untold millions who perished as a result of the super-fast ice age event to consider. But DAT isn't concerned with those tales -- that would be too bleak for audiences just out for a couple hours' worth of whiz-bang distraction.

This lack of narrative tension is disaster enough for any disaster movie, but perhaps even more egregiously, Emmerich piles on the messages at the end, from the Third World nations who graciously open their borders to the now-homeless industrialized nations to making sure we're all grimly aware of what our dependence on gas-guzzling, greenhouse gas-emitting vehicles is doing to the fragile ecosystem. DAT has some impressive force-of-nature effects, trite characterizations, and a whole lot of waiting out a really bad storm micro-dramas. It neither says anything particularly profound regarding the environment or geopolitical relations, nor does it deliver a rousing adventure story. It's a disaster film in search of a heartbeat, snowed under by its lofty political message and presumption of ignorance on the part of its audience.

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