Environmental concerns raised by catastrophic pic

Fox’s global warming thriller “The Day After Tomorrow” is generating plenty of political heat of late, but the studio and the pic’s producers hope the attention translates into box office sizzle as well.

The big-budget disaster epic has become a political football in recent days, as environmentalists embrace it as a warning about the perils of greenhouse-gas emissions and the Bush administration looks to avoid being tagged with accusations about its ecological policies.

A rally featuring former VP and environmental advocate Al Gore will be held a couple of blocks away from the pic’s May 24 preem in Gotham and hosted by MoveOn.org.

Mark Gordon, producer on the $125 million pic, said no one involved in the picture planned to participate in the campaign, and he didn’t think the sudden attention would affect “Day’s” box office potential.

“If they want to use our picture to make people aware of their concerns about the environment, it’s not anything I have control over,” Gordon said. “My biggest issue is that the movie opens to the biggest number we can. The fact that there is enthusiasm, controversy and discussion is only good for our business.”

Though it’s not planning any events connected to the film, the Natural Resources Defense Council said it has briefed Jake Gyllenhaal, who stars in “Day,” on global warming. “He had wanted to make sure that as questions came up that he was able to speak to these issues,” NRDC spokesman Jon Coifman said.

Helmed by Roland Emmerich, “Day” follows the onset of a new Ice Age just three days after the polar ice caps melt. With Emmerich’s penchant for onscreen destruction, pic includes catastrophic tornadoes touching down in Los Angeles, giant hail in Tokyo and the flooding and freezing of New York.

Scientists of all political stripes say the scenario in the film is pure science fiction, though it is roughly based on the climatological theory that melting ice at the North Pole could lead to colder winters in Europe and North America. But the effects would be seen over decades, not days.

” ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ presents us with a great opportunity to talk about the scientific realities of climate change,” Gore said. “Millions of people will be coming out of theaters on Memorial Day weekend asking the question, ‘Could this really happen?’ I think we need to answer that question.”

Fox spokeswoman Florence Grace said the pic “is meant to entertain audiences with a mix of spectacle and emotion. If it also increases awareness and inspires audiences to take an interest in some of the issues raised in the film, then all the better.”

Pic already is stirring controversy: The New York Times reported NASA ordered its scientists last month not to speak about “Day” because of fears it could politically injure President Bush. The space agency has since relaxed that ban.

In addition to the rally, which will be held four blocks from the pic’s preem at the American Museum of Natural History, MoveOn plans to recruit volunteers to pass out leaflets at theaters playing the pic. The brochures,headlined “Could this really happen?,” argue that global warming is a very real threat.

Filmgoers are urged to go to a Web site for information and to email President Bush and Congress in support of legislation that would reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Peter Schurman, executive director of MoveOn.org, who describes “The Day After Tomorrow” as “the movie George Bush doesn’t want you to see,” said his org was taking its cues from an old playbook: the 1983 ABC telepic “The Day After,” which dramatized a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Soviet Union.

“It had a huge impact on Americans’ awareness of the dangers of nuclear war,” Schurman said. “We think this is an exciting opportunity to open a dialogue about global warming and the threat it poses.”

Josh Baran, a public relations consultant who is coordinating some of the current efforts, also worked with activists in that campaign. “It’s a great intersection of reality and drama,” he said. “The filmmakers and studio should be happy that they’re engaging millions in a very serious issue at the same time they’re making money and entertaining people.”

Another group, the Energy Futures Coalition, which advocates use of alternative-energy sources, is mailing information packets to media outlets, particularly targeting entertainment journos. Executive director Reid Detchon said the group is looking to take advantage of the massive marketing push to advance the group’s political goals.

“We hope this is a teachable moment,” he said. “The movie will have the public’s attention when people will see a rather extreme depiction of what might happen because of climate change.”

Dan Schrag, a professor at Harvard and a paleoclimatologist, the field Dennis Quaid’s character is in in the film, is affiliated with the efforts. He compared the science in “Day” to that of last year’s journey-to-the-center-of-the-earth tale, “The Core.”

“When I first saw the previews, I thought, this is such a disaster, the science is so bad, that it’s going to damage the whole thinking about climate change,” Schrag said.

But he’s since changed his mind. “Testimony by me and my colleagues to the Senate over the last decade has done a fairly limited job of making people aware of the issues. We haven’t been able to ignite people’s imagination. Getting people excited about something that happens over decades is difficult, so I understand why they shortened it to a couple of days.”

In reality, he said, “The consequences are going to be just as severe as the movie suggests, but it may be boring to watch.”

Groups that oppose policies that would reduce emissions, so far, are mostly waiting on the sidelines.

Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute said, “We don’t think it’s going to help the cause of global warming alarmists, because people can tell the difference between fantasy and science.”

But environmentalists say for all its fantasy, the movie contains a kernel of truth.

Gore, whose 1992 bestseller “Earth in the Balance” addressed global warming, said, “I felt that if we do not set the record straight, many people might be confused by the film’s story.”

He added, “It will not be as sudden and dramatic as the Hollywood film, but the earth’s environment is currently sustaining severe and potentially irreparable damage from the unprecedented accumulation of pollution in the global atmosphere.”

Gordon said “Day After Tomorrow” is not meant to be an educational film, but added, “If this makes people think about how better to take care of our planet, that’s great. The movie wasn’t made for that reason, but it’s certainly something that we’re proud to be a part of.”

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