Unlike other entries in this series, The Day After Tomorrow isn’t particularly reviled; it grossed over $500 million and doesn’t fare terribly on either IMDb (rating: 6.4) or score aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes (critic rating: 45%). Why does it deserve a second chance, then? Because you, yes you conveniently-viewpointed reader, think it’s stupid. TDAT is near-universally seen as ”an exceptionally stupid movie” that “seems to go out of its way to be stupid”, and leaves us “feeling thick and stupid”. Fighting words.
Variety, May 1, 2002.
Universal, Fox and Paramount are the frontrunners in the ferocious bidding battle for “The Day After Tomorrow,” a spec script for a big-budget, high-concept sci-fi film in which the world is ravaged by global warming.
A spec script about angry weather and super-speedy snow sent three studios into “a ferocious bidding battle.” The very same film that would cast Dennis Quaid as an action hero and command a budget of $125 million turned Fox, Universal and Paramount giddy on the strength of its words – words like “ravaged by global warming”. There was obviously a dose of genius in the air to get that project so hyped, and that genius was Roland Emmerich.
Emmerich is a master of disaster. He makes films best viewed with a sticky claw full of popcorn dipping in and out of view and best heard with a steady rustle and slurp a few seats behind. He’s half-P.T. Barnum, half a billion dollar gross. He’s also acutely aware of one of the key aspects of the modern blockbuster: identifiability.
Whether it’s the sight of familiar monuments getting frozen, being blown up or becoming daikaiju chow – or characters we can, if not relate to, then recognise – Emmerich keeps enough of a grounded world for us to identify with. There’s something otherworldly about the man’s disaster fetish and it necessitates an identifiable foundation.
Quickly, for the PowerPoint enthusiasts that got their climate information from An Inconvenient Truth, TDAT sees Jake Gyllenhaal’s blinking-enthusiast/general knowledge nerd, Sam, and two of his school chums hunkering down in the New York Public Library alongside a diverse cross-section of New Yoikers to survive sudden global warming caused by the desalination of the North Atlantic Current. Meanwhile, his Paleoclimatologist father, Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid), is prophesying doom to the President and making plans to set out on the jaunt from DC to New York to rescue his son.
The Day After Tomorrow is a global disaster flick with the ambition to look at the world, and condemn half of it in one fell swoop. In one scene, Jack strikes an entire line across the United States, effectively dooming millions of people. The entire world is affected, and Emmerich takes care to recognise that, not simply showing the plight of ‘Murica and leaving the rest to our imagination.
Over the course of the film, action shifts from New Delhi to Scotland, from DC to Tokyo, from Los Angeles to New York, from El Paso to Space itself. What’s more, in Japan they speak Japanese, and in Scotland three average-looking scientists chat shit about their families, their passions, that time the toilet got backed up. Inside it’s Pinter, outside it’s the apocalypse.
On the otherwise typical DVD commentary between Emmerich and producer Mark Gordon – nestled along the Gordon nuggets like “look it’s beautiful, look it’s amazing – I know I’m complimenting here but it looks great!” – there are a few interesting gems. Regarding the Scotland-set characters, Gordon references an event where studio execs “who shall rename nameless” viewed footage in which Simon (Adrian Lester) kisses his wife and responded with “do you really need that scene?” Simon is black, his wife white. Gordon’s response: “come hell or high water we’re not taking that scene out of the movie, doesn’t matter what they say in Alabama, we don’t care.”
Though Gordon’s ironic stereotyping of an entire state does just a little to undermine his good intentions, it is nevertheless brave to insist on keeping what would otherwise be a slight scene – a quick minute where Simon’s family enter and depart. In doing so, Emmerich successfully adds another element to a character that could so easily be another exposition-spouting statistic. Instead, Lester plays a part that doesn’t have to be framed as Scientist #1: deceased. Simon won’t survive, his family will.
Consider, too, the film’s impact. Could rising global temperatures really lead to abrupt cooling? Can an abandoned Russian tanker really cruise down Fifth Avenue? Is it really prudent to burn books in the New York Public Library rather than bookshelves and chairs? The actual science of the film is up for debate but the message is never in doubt: the earth needs help and a Vice President who (deliberately) looks like Dick Cheney isn’t providing it.
One study, published in Environment Magazine, found that forty-nine percent of those questioned who had seen The Day After Tomorrow reported themselves somewhat or much more worried of climate change, while forty-two percent claimed it had not changed their level of worry. Concerns that TDAT might muddy the rising waters in terms of the climate change argument were “clearly incorrect”.
And in Jack Hall, TDAT presents a scientist bucking a career trend more commonly found capturing aliens, creating deadly viruses or framing their friend for murder with an assassin who was the one-armed man I tell you! Those ruddy scientists are so often the cause of the problems, it’s just plain refreshing to see one who would sacrifice himself for test samples and isn’t willing to put a definitive date on results. Now that’s science. I assume (I write for a film website).
Finally, it’s worth observing that for a dumb action flick, TDAT doesn’t rely on big explosions and loud noises, gratuitous sexuality, obligatory “adult” dialogue etc., etc. – all those less-than-wholesome blockbuster features. It can hardly be described as subtle, but Emmerich doesn’t smash the Statue of Liberty into teeny tiny pieces, he freezes it and buries the girl up to her belly in snow,
her torch snuffed out, pointing to a similarly afflicted world while The White House isn’t obliterated, it’s evacuated. The result is something much more affecting.
Robocop, Starship Troopers, Speed Racer – all the subject of critical reassessment in recent years as their other aspects, whether the message, the satire or the aesthetic, have been praised. The Day After Tomorrow probably isn’t going to inspire glowing editorials on how prescient it turned out to be – give it time – but it does deserve credit. And it’s certainly not stupid.
Though I still don’t know why they didn’t just burn the bookcases.