A loose remake of “Independence Day” with weather as the villain rather than aliens, “The Day After Tomorrow” is a disarmingly pulpy, eye-popping disaster movie during its first half, and an increasingly dull survival melodrama during its second. With the muscular assistance of some spectacular special effects depicting the devastation of New York and Los Angeles in particular, this latest End of Western Civilization pop-culture artifact plays fast and loose with science and environmental theory to engineer a paranoid fantasy about global warming causing a new Ice Age. With media coverage already pushing “Is this possible?” angles, Fox can expect very warm early summer B.O. Stateside and even better results internationally (where it opens imminently in 110 markets) for this old-fashioned mankind-vs.-the-elements speculative fiction epic.
As demonstrated in most of his previous pics, from “Moon 44” through “Independence Day” and “Godzilla,” director Roland Emmerich’s sensibilities, and perhaps his heart as well, reside in ’50s-era B-movie sci-fi. His career-making trick has rested in taking cheesy material and elevating it just enough, through casting and effects, to reach contempo blockbuster proportions. His screenplays, however, rep little advance on those they emulate.
And so it is with this new outing, another doomsday scenario that, in the manner it imagines global peril and paralysis at the sudden onset of temperature-plunging storms, also recalls the more recent cycle of natural-disaster extravaganzas that included “Twister,” “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon.”
After nearly floating away on a Rhode Island-sized block of ice that cracks off the Antarctic Shelf, dashing climatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) startles a New Delhi environmental conference — and pisses off the Dick Cheney-like U.S. vice president in attendance (Kenneth Welsh) — with his “sensationalist claims” about the paradoxically frigid consequences of now-upon-us global warming.
Lo and behold, it starts snowing in Delhi, and pic’s first reel surveys the inclement weather from Scotland and Japan to Washington, D.C., and outer space, where international astronauts can view the enormous storm systems beginning to spin down through the northern hemisphere.
Although Tokyo gets popped by a torrent of giant hailstones, first city to really take it on the chin is L.A. Hollywood and Vine is revisited by much better special effects than demolished it in “Earthquake” three decades back, as multiple tornadoes convincingly lay waste to such landmarks as the Hollywood sign and the Capitol Records building.
As Scottish ocean currents specialist Professor Terry Rapson (Ian Holm) charts the rapid decline in ocean temperatures and suggests melting ice is putting too much fresh water into the seas, Hall comes under pressure to turn his theories into actual weather predictions. At the same time, his bright teenage son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) decides to fly to New York for an academic decathlon, arriving shortly before a wall of water hits Gotham.
These scenes, which begin with a tsunami all but engulfing the Statue of Liberty and then flooding Manhattan, are perhaps the most impressive in the picture. The frequent aerial views of water surging through the streets are eerie and dramatically convincing, and while some of the setups, with people running and cars and busses flipping, are virtually identical to those in “Independence Day,” there’s nothing in that film to match the shot that assumes the p.o.v. of a surfer atop a tidal wave as it surges through midtown. Pic’s action-packed first hour ends with Hall ominously predicting, “In seven to 10 days, we’ll be in a new Ice Age.”
While there are some spectacular sights still in store, notably the freezing-to-the-cracking-point of the Empire State Building and other structures, second half quickly becomes a slog.
On his father’s advice, Sam remains sheltered in the 42nd Street main branch of the New York Public Library with a few friends, which allows for a rote romance to develop between him and smart classmate Laura (Emmy Rossum). Hall’s doctor wife, Lucy (Sela Ward), figures in scenes that are even more tedious, as she remains behind at a hospital to care for a bedridden boy rather than remove herself from harm’s way.
Most ludicrous of all, Hall himself decides to don snow-trekking equipment and trudge through the snow all the way from Philadelphia to New York (in temperatures dropping by 10 degrees per minute) on the off-chance of locating and rescuing Sam. Unfortunately, the long march is so unconvincing and dull to watch that it serves to chill pic’s excitement level at an equally precipitous rate, just as it refocuses dramatic attention from the grandly global to the pallidly personal. Ultimate resolution to the overall crisis is disappointingly ho-hum.
Still, there are occasional little kicks to enjoy. Portrayal of the U.S. president (Perry King) is amusing; when confronted with the predicament, he immediately turns to the VP and asks, “What do you think we should do?” Better still is a subversive little plot twist that turns the historical immigration tables, with millions of Americans fleeing the unendurable weather by busting through the closed border with Mexico. And when the U.S. president finally goes on television at the end to report on the state of the nation, he does so on the Weather Channel.
“The Day After Tomorrow” goes beyond the far-fetched into the preposterous, but the first half delivers enough of what people want and expect from disaster pictures, and there are enough money-shot special effects, that auds probably will be more satisfied than not.
Cast members have no special demands made upon them beyond looking concerned and, alternately, foolishly brave, and coin was spent where it counts, in putting some images onscreen that haven’t been seen before, or at least haven’t been conveyed so convincingly. That should be enough.