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The Day After Tomorrow. Movie Analysis

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The day after tomorrow

Remember, if you will, if you want to, the 1996 blockbuster “Independence Day”, starring Will Smith and Bill Pullman as tough guys battling intergalactic space aliens hell-bent on destroying earth for no apparent reason other than the satisfaction of superiority. Now, re-imagine that entertaining, highly implausible film without the Fresh Prince, Bill Pullman, and all of those aliens, but instead with Dennis Quaid as the hero, and snow blizzards as the enemy, and throw in the same level of apocalyptic insanity cut with a big helping of American cheese and you’ll get “The Day After Tomorrow”, an awesome, ungodly, laughable, and exciting disaster epic that plays with the globe like it’s one big etch-a-sketch, with unpredictable weather patterns as the two white knobs. It is a film so huge in its ambitions, and so terribly overwrought in its murky sentimentalism, that anything less than the complete annihilation of the Northern United States, and an impossible subplot of a father searching for an abandoned, hopelessly imperiled son, would be too domesticated; it lives on sweeping strokes of risk and pig-headedness, and dies on its inability to stick it through, not unlike Will Smith and his alien friends, to the end of its long, windswept, frostbitten journey. Afterwards, you’ll be happy to see the sun again.

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“The Day After Tomorrow” is a popcorn flick in every sense of the phrase. It boasts a recognizable cast, a strict formula (fashioned a bit on ’70’s B-pictures like “The Towering Inferno”), a big budget, state-of-the-art computer effects, a proven director (Roland Emmerich, also of “Independence Day”), and lots and lots of destruction, with little intelligence to level it off. If you were to see one movie this summer, and eschew all other forms of cinematic art, than you’d have wildly mixed feelings about the power of Hollywood. One the one hand, you’d be tickled, even titillated to see how men working behind computers can simulate the destruction of the Capitol Records building in Los Angeles with a fake tornado, but, at that, you’d be horrified just the same to think that in this post 9/11 society, the obliteration (albeit fiction) of architectural landmarks, all for the sake of your entertainment dollar, could conceivably pass as savvy, and sane filmmaking. But it does, we’ve come to expect it by now, and to be honest, the sight of New York City covered in 50 feet of ice, frozen to its very apple core, is pretty darn cool, and I mean that with no sarcasm, or pun intended.

Dennis Quaid stars as Jack Hall, a paleoclimatelogist (a what?), who researches weather patterns of decades past. His most recent thesis, based on the “cyclonic system” of the ice age, is that, with global warming getting out of control, pumping fresh water from the ice caps into the salty oceans, an imbalance could trigger a catastrophic weather event. Though that wouldn’t be for 80-90 years, not now, not in 2004, before a Presidential election; no way, impossible, never gonna happen, he thinks. But tell that to the guy in Japan who just got killed by an ice chuck the size of a soccer ball, or to the crowd at the New York Public Library, who just saw a Russian tanker dock in the floodwaters on 42nd street. As the weather patterns become more erratic by the day (his theory is that it would take seven days to trigger a complete ice age; after that it’s clear sailing for the next 10,000 years), Hall starts to question his own role as a father figure to sullen 17-year-old Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal, who bears a striking resemblance to Tobey Maguire, another summer film hero). As father figures out what to do, his son is trapped inside the cavernous New York library, with a colorful crew of New Yorkers, including a bum with a dog, a pretty classmate and love interest (Emmy Rossum), and a nerd cradling the original Gutenberg Bible (because it represents the “dawn of the age of reason”) waiting it out, about to be swallowed up by the brunt of the apocalyptic blizzard that cares not for respect and reasoning.

The plot hinges on Quaid’s character tracking 400 miles north (as everybody else flees south) into the eye of the storm, to save his son and make up for 17 years of neglect. Father of the year, or A number one bonehead? You decide, but keep in mind his own theory, which predicts the storm to, “change the face of the planet in 24 hours”; I’d say it’s only a tad masochistic to plunge headfirst into the furry, to rescue a son who, for all he knows, could be a Popsicle. But then the film would have no dramatic rescue plot, and without that, all we are left with are spectacular twisters, glorified ice-cubes, and a whole lot of geeky weather-speak, which in and of itself is tedious and best left to the brains behind the Weather Channel, and the Farmer’s Almanac.

The $125 million project is thoroughly entertaining, and the cast (especially the always reliable Dennis Quaid) and technical crew all receive high merits for a good effort. But director Roland Emmerich (of “Godzilla” shame) is way too self indulgent, and his writing awfully sappy (Sela Ward gets buried in a corny subplot involving a sick child waiting for an ambulance), to pull off an intelligent and continually exciting film that can hold our attentions beyond the superb explosions and neat tidal waves. On a lark, I would like to see him try something lighter, something sophisticated, something without the end of the world; maybe a Jane Austen adaptation, perhaps just to see if Elizabeth would snag Mr. Darcy, or die trying, by way of spaceship, earthquake, or the dreaded poisoned crumpet.

It is easy to make fun of a disaster film like this because it’s so unabashedly unreal. I don’t believe for a minute that we’ll ever see another ice age, but couldn’t you just imagine it? In Western New York we are used to snow, but still, we tend to overemphasize the tiniest accumulation; I’d hate to see Mike Randall standing on top of a frozen City Hall, reporting with a blank look of abject astonishment on his face as his mustache tingles like little icicles, hair by hair falling to the pure white ground at his feet. It’s an imaginary image, like “The Day After Tomorrow”, that is both devilishly funny, and questionably empty.

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