The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
[Note from the editor: This review is by prospective staff writer Rob Kirchgassner. Be sure to check out his blog!]
It’s not exactly controversial to say that many action blockbusters are dumb films. The trick is for them to still be entertaining. This is why some blockbusters like The Lone Ranger bomb big time, while others such as Independence Day score. Independence Day, or ID4 as it’s known, was directed by Roland Emmerich, who previously had a big hit with Stargate. Unfortunately, a lot of his subsequent work has been less than stellar, including our current subject The Day After Tomorrow.
The film is actually based on a book, The Coming Global Superstorm by fringe science legends Art Bell and Whitley Strieber. It describes how global warming could cause a massive storm that plunges the planet into a new ice age in a matter of weeks. Given the two authors, there’s enough reason to be skeptical of the book’s claims, but going by this movie, Emmerich took all of it at face value.
And whereas ID4 had decent enough pacing to make the audience forget about the many plot holes and lapses in logic, Tomorrow’s script and characters are so laughable and predictable that, by the end of the film, you realize it’s ID4, just in a different, weather-related package.
The movie begins with the camera panning over broken chunks of glaciers, and text on the screen tells us that we’re in Antarctica. We see men, led by paleoclimatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) drilling into the ice for samples, as ominous music warns the audience that something horrible is about to happen. Sure enough, the ice breaks apart, and their drilling machine gets swallowed up by the crevasse that just formed. Jack and his friend Frank (Jay O. Sanders) manage to grab the operator Jason (Dash Mihok), preventing him from falling to his death. Jack then performs a Batman leap over the huge gap in the ice to save some of their samples.
He then repeats his superhero leap and barely makes it. In stereotypical blockbuster movie fashion, we get a moment where Jack slips and has only a pickaxe to keep him from falling into oblivion.
After Frank and Jason pull him up, they ask the same question I’m sure Quaid’s been asking himself since he agreed to do Jaws 3: “What were you thinking?”
We next see Jack at a UN conference in New Delhi, where he attempts to convince the gathered audience that the world is heading for another ice age. Not surprisingly, the US delegation, led by Vice President (and Dick Cheney-lookalike) Raymond Becker (Kenneth Welsh) doesn’t believe Jack when he presents his findings.
And for anyone who thinks the resemblance to Cheney was purely coincidental, the VP’s black, money-grubbing soul leaks out when he listens to Jack’s dire warnings that something must be done about the impending disaster and responds with, “It will cost the world’s economy hundreds of millions of dollars!”
Fortunately, the one person in the audience who doesn’t brush off Jack is Terry Rapson (Ian Holm), who introduces himself to Jack outside the conference hall. Here, we also learn that New Dehli is experiencing a record snowfall.
The next scene is at a research center in Scotland, where a guy is watching a soccer game. He then acts like a hypocrite when he wakes up his sleeping coworker before returning to the game. Hey, I’m not one to endorse sleeping on the job, but I’d say watching TV on the job is just as bad.
Fortunately, the guy who was sleeping proves the more competent of the two when, en route to the coffee pot, he notices a reading on the computer that our soccer fan was too absorbed in his game to notice. This turns out to be the beginnings of the deep freeze that Jack warned about, and soon other locations are experiencing turbulent weather, including Tokyo getting super deadly-sized hail.
As if Jack doesn’t already have enough on his plate, he’s also having problems with his son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), who’s (I guess) estranged from his dad because of trouble in school. Jack calls his wife Lucy (Sela Ward) to talk about how Sam is failing calculus. But she’s more concerned that Jack is never home, and Sam needs a ride to the airport the next morning for a trip to New York City for an academic competition. Lucy’s duties as a doctor (which, I would think, keep her away from home just as much as Jack) are keeping her from taking Sam herself.
Jack is drafted to drive Sam to the airport to force some “quality time” together, and also so he can yell at Sam about his lousy grades. Jack reluctantly agrees, since having to deal with a Dick Cheney-esque VP probably makes everything else feel like a cakewalk.
Naturally, Jack totally forgets to pick up Sam until the last minute, and gets there just as a cab is pulling up. Jack pays the cabbie for his trouble, and while on the way to the airport, Sam explains that his calculus professor failed him because he didn’t write out the solutions to the problems, and thus assumed he must have cheated. Rather than simply tell Sam to swallow his pride and write out the solutions next time to make everyone happy, Jack says he’ll have a word with the teacher. But Sam brushes him off and simply darts out of the car without saying goodbye. Yeah, don’t even thank your dad for paying the cabbie you called, asshole!
We then get a quick scene of astronauts on the International Space Station observing the weather patterns that are preventing them from returning home. Cut to Sam on an airplane with his classmates Laura (Emmy Rossum) and Steve Urkel-lookalike Brian (Arjay Smith). Sam is afraid to fly, so Laura tells him there’s nothing to worry about. Despite her reassurances, weather-related turbulence causes the plan to rock so violently I think I might have put in Final Destination by mistake. This also gives Sam a reason to hold Laura’s hand.
They make it to New York, and traffic is at a dead stop. Sam, Laura, and Brian are in a cab heading to the public library, and they decide to walk since they’re only two blocks away. I have to wonder how long they were sitting there before they figured that out. As they get out, a huge flock of birds flies over the city, an obvious portent of doom. And in the nearby Central Park Zoo, we get shots of other animals, such as seals and wolves, getting agitated as well.
Next, the trio is at the competition itself, where Laura catches the eye of J.D. (Austin Nichols), a student from a rival school. He introduces himself at the after party, where Laura is the only one who’s changed clothes, and put on a slinky cocktail dress because she’s a girl and this is a Roland Emmerich film. J.D. offers Laura a tour of the place, and Brian notices that Sam is getting jealous. Thanks, movie, for making your predictable plot points as obvious as possible.
In the next scene, Rapson calls Jack and says that his theories are coming true, and Jack is shocked, because he didn’t think it would happen in his own lifetime. He then goes to a weather station, where he’s introduced to hurricane specialist Janet Tokada (Tamlyn Tomita). But their attention is soon drawn to news of multiple tornadoes in Los Angeles, which the reporter in the chopper notes have taken out the Hollywood sign (no need to remind us you made Independence Day, Roland). Unsurprisingly, there are people on the ground risking their lives just to get a few stupid pictures of the damn twisters, and serve as the ubiquitous victims of the natural disaster.
Over in Washington D.C., VP Becker informs the President (Perry King) that L.A. is in ruins. Although the President here doesn’t resemble George W. Bush, it’s pretty obvious he was the inspiration, because he immediately asks his VP what to do.
At the weather center, Jacks says that the storms are only going to get worse. His boss gives him 48 hours to prove it and Janet offers her assistance in building a new forecast model. This also gives Jason the chance to hit on her, mainly by answering all the questions she directs at Frank (yeah, you’re sure to get a date with her now, pal). Eventually, they determine that the world has mere weeks before everything goes from bad to worse.
Cut to Sam, Laura, and Brian stuck in the library, due to all air traffic being grounded. Jack calls Sam to tell him to get home ASAP, but this falls on deaf ears, because Sam is far more interested in staying wherever Laura is.
Jack heads to D.C., where he tells VP Becker that they have to act quickly and evacuate the northern states. This, as you can probably guess, leads to Becker once again telling Jack to piss off.
Meanwhile, over in Scotland, some army chopper pilots encounter a massive storm that causes them all to crash. And then one pilot opens the door to his chopper and instantly freezes to death.
We go back to our three young leads, who are trying to get out of New York, which is now completely flooded. And that’s when a massive tsunami hits the city (why not?).
Sam sees a huge wall of water coming at them, so all the students make a run for the library. They all get inside in the nick of time and are completely safe, because apparently the library’s revolving door is watertight.
They’re all trapped inside, but Sam manages to make a call to his parents (who have met up somewhere along the way) via the library’s payphones. This gives Jack a chance to warn him that things are about to become so cold that simply going outside could cause instant death. And the phones in the library are also getting flooded, but Sam stays on the line long enough to hear that his dad will come for him, before the rising water almost drowns him.
This leads to Laura warming Sam up with her body, which she explains as something she learned in health class, and which may be the closest thing this film has to a gratuitous sex scene. To help stay warm, the students proceed to burn the library’s books in a fireplace, much to one of the librarians’ horror.
At the same time, Jack meets with the President, and suggests evacuating everyone in the southern United States into Mexico, adding that everyone to the north is screwed. But that doesn’t stop him from taking Frank and Jason to go find Sam who, last I heard, was in the northern US.
The intrepid group gets as far as Philadelphia when their truck crashes, prompting Jack to say, “Break out the snow shoes! We walk from here!” This line makes me chuckle, because Quaid says it like it’s just another inconvenience, rather than something that requires walking nearly 100 miles in potentially lethal weather. During their super long hike across the snow, Frank dies when he falls through the glass roof of a mall. I wonder if he died from smelling the place’s Auntie Anne’s.
Back in NYC, Sam and Laura kiss after he confesses that he only joined the team so he could be near her. See? There’s nothing like a new ice age to break the proverbial ice in a relationship.
At the same time, the President gets killed by a storm while heading to Mexico. So it would appear VP Becker just got a promotion. Damn, first half the world gets frozen over, then Cheney gets to be President. It really is the apocalypse!
Laura begins to feel ill, and somehow Sam, a teenager with no medical experience, correctly determines that her wound has led to blood poisoning. But as it so happens, a (miraculously intact) Russian cargo ship has floated into the middle of a freezing metropolitan area and is right outside the library. So Sam and Brian decide to go aboard the conveniently abandoned vessel, where, yep, they happen to find the exact medicine they need.
This leads to the funniest part of the film, where wolves (who earlier escaped from the Central Park Zoo) sneak onto the boat, and proceed to attack our heroes. It’s a good thing for Sam that no polar bears or any other animals accustomed to freezing climates escaped from the zoo, otherwise he and everyone else in the library may have already been dinner.
They make it back to the library in one piece, and it seems the snow has become solid enough to walk on. Everyone takes this as their cue to make their escape, completely ignoring Sam’s warnings about the coming deadly weather. Predictably, they tell Sam to piss off, and just as predictably, they end up dead.
Then comes what might be the dumbest scene in the film, where the deadly cold finally arrives. And I do mean “arrives”, because we actually see ice forming on skyscrapers one by one, as the coldness “moves” through the city and heads for the library. Our characters are literally able to run from the cold into the room with the fireplace, and we even get a “coldness POV” shot as if they’re running from an axe murderer or something.
Eventually, Jack and Jason reach the library and reunite with Sam, Laura, Brian and everyone else who listened to Sam earlier. I guess that super-deadly cold air must be taking a coffee break right now, because helicopters are able to move in and rescue all the survivors.
Becker addresses the nation as the new President, and all but admits that he screwed up, saying that he and the rest of his government don’t deserve another term in office.
The movie ends with the astronauts still aboard the ISS (remember them?) commenting on how the air looks so clear from where they are. I guess they’re not too bummed out about their homes most likely being buried in snow. The final shot is of the Earth, with the northern hemisphere all frozen over.
To summarize, this film is basically Blockbuster 101. You have the characters who you know will die because they either a) don’t listen to the main characters or b) are especially chummy with the main characters. You have the obligatory big SFX set pieces, as well as the arbitrary romance subplot.
Sadly, the characters are basically all useless clichés. I’ve always thought that Dennis Quaid was one of our most underrated actors, so it’s quite disheartening to see him spending this movie spewing the same pseudoscientific gibberish over and over again.
Ian Holm, Sela Ward, and Jay O. Sanders are all clearly here for a paycheck, while Emmy Rossum and Tamlyn Tomita are just here as eye candy. In fairness though, Sela Ward has several nice scenes with a sick child, but it’s kind of odd to focus on one sick kid when millions of people are dying elsewhere. (Emmerich did a similar thing in ID4, showing a dog being miraculously saved while thousands were bring incinerated by a massive fireball.)
Likewise, Gyllenhaal and Rossum play characters straight out of a romantic comedy, where Boy holds back feelings for Girl (even while Rival Boy poses a challenge for her affections) until late in the film, and then confesses and they live happily ever after. At least they respectively had Brokeback Mountain and Shameless in their futures.
I guess the ending was also meant to be some sort of comment on immigration issues, showing the reverse of the current situation, with many Americans seeking refuge in Mexico. Though, I wonder where all the people freezing in Europe and Russia went to.
Like the previous year’s The Core, this film rightfully came under attack upon release by professionals who actually had some scientific knowledge. Specifically, while rising sea levels and changing weather patterns are certainly potential effects of global warming, the rapid pace at which those things occur in this film is just plain implausible.
Just as understandable were criticisms from those who thought depicting major death and destruction in New York just three years after 9/11 was insensitive. At least War of the Worlds had the decency to leave NYC alone.
Despite all this, there are actually worse SFX-laden blockbusters out there, as After Earth recently proved. This is because, for all its flaws, Tomorrow is never boring and you’re sure to get at least some enjoyment out of it (if you didn’t vote for Bush). But it doesn’t stick out from the many dumb blockbusters that came before or since, and it doesn’t seem to even aspire to be all that memorable.
If it’s a scathing commentary of the Bush administration you’re looking for, watch Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 instead, which was released the same year. Whether you agree with Moore’s politics or not, the only bad acting you’ll get in that film is from Bush himself (who, amusingly, was awarded a Razzie Award as Worst Actor for his “performance”).
Likewise, if you’re looking for a good film about the effects of climate change, watch Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Like Tomorrow, it has a dark message, but, unlike Tomorrow, it tells us how we can make things better without the use of any eye-rolling clichés.