The Day After Tomorrow: A Freezing Cold Summer Blockbuster

There’s a long tradition of big budget summer blockbusters that lure American audiences with the delight of dread and disaster.  The prototype was Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), which had a perfect premise for getting vacationers to come into the movie theaters—it isn’t safe to be in the water.  The Day After Tomorrow, which opened over Memorial Day weekend, has a similarly compelling ploy.  If global warming is going to bring about the end of western civilization, might as well come out of that hot summer sun and into an air-conditioned movie theater to see how it happens.  Taken as a two hour and twenty minute escape from the heat, The Day After Tomorrow is well worth the price of admission.  Just don't expect any plan to prevent the coming ice age, or the American patterns of consumption that bring it on.

The problem with disaster films is that there is a pedantic side to them, and this is sometimes construed as their main purpose.  In fact, their main purpose is to delight with the spectacle of destruction.  Confusion about the film’s “message,” however, explains why The Day After Tomorrow has been criticized by environmental groups and government officials alike for proposing a highly unlikely scenario of global climate change.   Briefly, the premise of the movie is that gradual escalation in the earth’s surface temperature causes the ice caps to melt, the salinity of the oceans to change, currents to reverse, and ultimately a rapid drop in the temperature of the Northern hemisphere—a repeat of the ice age scenario that happened 10,000 years ago.  Few scientists dispute the possibility that global warming could bring about another ice age, but there is great debate over how long it would take.

Thankfully, the film dispenses with real science, has the above events take place in roughly 48 hours, and allows its visual special effects to do the convincing.  After paleo-climatologist John Hall (Dennis Quaid) explains his ice age theory at a global climate conference  we see  blizzards in New Dehli, bowling-ball sized hail pummeling Tokyo, and the coup de grace, teams of tornadoes descending upon Los Angeles.  Who needs science when you’re watching cultural landmarks like the Hollywood sign get erased by giant columns of swirling wind? 

Destruction isn’t the only form of delight in The Day After Tomorrow.   Director and scriptwriter Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla) had fun indulging in numerous geopolitical and social ironies, as well.  In one scene hordes of North Americans illegally rush across the Rio Grande into Mexico attempting to avoid the killer frost.  In another scene a homeless man gives tips to an upper crust Manhattan preppie on how to insulate himself with paper to keep from freezing.  Emmerich has the most fun portraying the vice president as a Dick Cheney-ish power behind the ineffectual president.   By the end of the film, after a sheet of ice covers  most of North America, the vice president apologizes (this may be where the film deviates most from reality) and admits to being wrong about America’s energy policy.

Ironically, the box office success of The Day After Tomorrow may depend on the weather.  Performances by Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal , who plays his son, and other actors such as Ian Holm and Emily Rossum, are competent, but  not likely to draw crowds away from Shrek 2.  This movie lives and dies on its special effects, and the hotter it gets, the more people may want to see gigantic hurricanes that pull down 150-degree-below-zero air from the troposphere,  freezing people in their tracks.  Ultimately it provides a way for people to feel good about global warming as a natural corrective to American gas guzzling.   The final image of the film shows astronauts peering down from their satellite space station at a snow-white North America.  One says to the other, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen the air so clear.” 

This article was originally published in the CineMatters column of The Baltimore View: June 2004. Joseph Christopher Schaub