RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 19: Roland Emmerich’s “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004)

The Day After Tomorrow

The Players…

Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ian Holm and Kenneth Welsh, with Emmy Rossom, Sela Ward, Dash Mihok and Jay O Sanders.

The Story…

Something’s a-stirrin’ in the Atlantic Ocean, and it ain’t just the tuna running.

When Jack Hall, a roguish climatologist and his team nearly perish in an ice flow cracking off the Antarctic shelf, he takes this to be a sign (at the very least) that his theories on climate change might be correct. Despite his credentials and impeccable data, Hall’s claims don’t do much to sway the US government into taking action. There’s been evidence for decades that global warming is a very real thing, and all of Hall’s research might be on to the reason why and maybe how to fix it.

And it’s not just all about a drastic increase in greenhouse gasses.

It’s far worse.

The Rant…

If you’ve been paying attention, the subject of climate change has been quite the hot topic—so to speak—in recent years, both in the scientific and political communities alike. Some claim global warming is due to man-made pollution. Others say it’s part of a natural cycle. A few say both. Most stamp their feet and say neither and return to that Game Of Thrones marathon and their Chex Mix.

Me? I don’t know what to think. I’m no climatologist. I’m not a politician, either (thank you and you’re welcome). But I’ll tell you what I know. Say you work in high places, and some Poindexter with multiple PhDs and a particle collider at the ready approaches you with some data suggesting a possible global catastrophe, wouldn’t you, as an elected government official serving the people’s interests, take at least some pause?

I would. And I have only one term limit: my life, and want to keep it as long as possible.

Hmm. I think this might be my first openly political diatribe here at RIORI. Sure, I’ve dabbled in the kiddie pool of partisan social commentary before. Hell, it’s part of this blog’s raison d’être (and movies. Can’t forget about movies). But actually taking a deliberate stand on a social issue? Not sure.

Too bad. I’m drunk and here we go.

Here’s a tale courtesy of the way-back machine. When I was a kid, way back in the bad ol’ 80s, I became aware of this environmental crisis which swiftly became a major buzz during the drowsy end of the Reagan years. Scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. This layer of weird oxygen surrounds the planet serving to deflect most of the sun’s harmful radiation. Without it, all of humanity would be one big, walking melanoma. Down at the South Pole it went missing, and kinda began to f*ck sh*t up.

And the hole was getting bigger.

And later another hole over the Arctic joined the party.

Then Tibet got bit.

What was up? Turned out that all those aerosol cans of Aqua Net, Lysol and Silly String (yes, Silly String) sprayed over the decades were the culprit. Or rather, what made the stuff spray was to blame. The propellant those things used to pssssht were called chlorofluorocarbons. CFCs. They were found to basically eat ozone when their residue reached the upper atmosphere. And this only took—give or take—a little over fifty years to happen. A veritable blink in Earth’s history. All from a few hundred thousand A/C units churning Freon on a daily basis.

When all the research got added up, the US and many other industrialized nations quickly put a moratorium on CFCs. The disuse of said chemicals didn’t halt the damage to the ozone layer, but it was slowed. But the damage was done, and is still there. The consequence has been, besides the Dali Lama’s bros needing SPF 10,000 to work tai chi, an increase in potential global warming.

This was over thirty years ago, and efforts were made to fix it. Thanks in no small part to the vigilant guys in white coats.

So now. It’s thirty years later. Efforts were made back then and the environmental issue of depleting ozone got addressed, including the offensive chemicals being banned. Still global warming exists. Persists. And the majority of our present elected leaders are breaking their knuckles from jamming their fingers into their ears with force greater than tearing a phone book in two drawn between a pair of tanks (go watch the MythBusters ep). Um, huh? The scientists so esteemed then are but witches and goblins these days as regarded by House and Senate. There is no proof. Look at this snowball I brought in to this hallowed hall of government. Well, if said snowball hailed from Phoenix during July then I might be a tad concerned.

Where did this willful ignorance come from? Sean Hannity? Look, if there were any immediate threats to life on this planet, and the nerds came a-callin’ with their clipboards and slide rules to the powers than be and said, “Wait!” Well, you with your doctorate from Georgetown and not MIT, might be wise to take at least some heed.

Politicians are supposed to uphold the public need—the so-called “greater good”—for their constituency. If some well-educated, well-meaning dude—an expert in their field—pays you a call and tugs on your coat about a potential danger to your much-needed voting community, again, wouldn’t you take pause? At least to prolong the lives of the electoral season ticket holders? Some that even work for ExxonMobil or BP? Some that might be lobbyists possibly holding the unedited cut of the Zapruder film?

I dunno, maybe. Just maybe.

There. Lecture over. Please pass in your Blue Books and class dismissed.

*audience rushes towards the exit, some trampled into a molasses-like smear, now unable to catch the latest Michael Bay movie staring Jim Carrey*

Like I said, I’m neither a scientist nor a politician. I don’t know what’s going on, except that something is going on. In the sky and/or in the halls of Congress. But I reiterate, I’m no expert. If I want to get some facts on climate change, I think it best I consult a real expert.

Good thing I got Dennis Quaid on my contacts list…

The life and work of a dedicated scientist can be harsh. The life and work of a dedicated paleoclimatologist (say that five times fast) screams harsh.

Ask Dr Jack Hall (Quaid). He’s been globetrotting for years, lifetimes away from friends and family, all in search of clues. Clues to how our planet works. Clues to how our endless ice ages advanced and retreated. Clues to what makes the ocean currents tick. And after many years, while posted in Antarctica, Jack might have found some answers. Finally. In the form of a vast chasm that nearly swallows up his entire research party.

Wait. The clues weren’t leading up to this. The Shackleton ice shelf is breaking off into the ocean? Like that? Christ. More clues abound.

Hall has been studying the Earth’s ancient past it see if climate change then predicts climate change now. According to his data, the answer is yes but a helluva lot faster than a few millennia. We’re talking decades now. Maybe just decade. No matter when, the issue of global warming demands attention now. But for all his skills and exhaustive research, Hall’s warnings go all but unheeded by a US subcommittee headed by the man himself, veep Becker (Welsh).

With the global economy on his mind, and America’s place in it, Mr Becker recognizes a potential grave matter in a global catastrophe. However there isn’t enough resources going around to just jarring shift the world’s industrialized nations into a realm of tree huggers. Besides, the planet has fared far worse before humans began littering its atmosphere with greenhouse gases. How dire could this matter be? How rapid could these climate shifts move?

In a word: very.

Despite Congress bending an ear backwards, Hall has at least one advocate in the form of Dr Terry Rapson (Holm). Rapson is more or less Hall’s spiritual mentor regarding climate affecting the planet and vice versa, and since taken a shine to Jack’s work. His experience studying the ocean, particularly the ebb and flow of the North Atlantic Current might be pertinent to Hall’s theories. Perhaps it’s not just global warming that’s messing around with Mother Earth, and it might go beyond the polar caps melting at an alarming rate. Rapson warns there’s a distinct chance that rapid climate change could disrupt the planet’s oceans, namely the currents that serve as Earth’s natural thermostats. If the currents begin to shift—or even fail—we could see a precipitous decline of the world’s temperature, heralding in a new, aggressive ice age.

Chilling. Literally. But Hall and Rapson’s theories are just that: theories. Global warming is unfounded. Ocean currents interrupted is the stuff of textbooks. And neither of these are compelling enough to get the world’s governments’ collective heads together and be proactive. Hall and Rapson, frustrated in their acts of environmental futility, bang their heads against the wall and wonder what’s it gonna take to make the powers that be understand a potential ice age is in the immediate future?

Well, the North Atlantic Current failing is a good start. Tornadoes ripping the West Coast apart might work. How about hurricanes the size of Greenland spewing ice, covering the Northern Hemisphere in fatal, white, fluffy stuff?

Maybe someone’ll pick up the phone then. Right after they find their mittens…

A few months back I dismantled another Roland Emmerich disaster film, White House Down. The movie was a hilarious, unapologetic Die Hard rip-off, with all the hallmarks of an Emmerich big screen clusterf*ck. We had memorable characters spewing chewy dialogue, rife with cheese-tastic one-liners. There were stunts a-plenty that flipped the laws of physics the bird. A bare thread of a plot that strung (heh) the offhand story together. And of course, lots and lots of collateral damage. Let the wild rumpus begin (sorry, wrong movie. Don’t care)!

All the above are trademark Emmerich popcorn fodder. He’s a master of disaster. His neo-catastophe epics harken back to The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, only with big name stars and better pyrotechnics. His movies are designed to be loud, brash and fun, with zero philosophizing and the barest scintilla of coherence. You gotta be in the right mindset to catch one o’ Ronnie’s movies (namely being unpretentious and unplugged). Sometimes you need Solaris, but other times you want Event Horizon.

Emmerich understands this. His work fills a void in the cinematic universe: big, dumb, explosive fun. IMHO, he is the 21st Century king of the “Saturday Afternoon Movie.” You know. Steamy summer weekend. Bored? Have time to kill? Need to unwind? Stream Independence Day on a lazy Saturday. There ya go. It is here where the proverbial hog rolls in its waller. All we need to complete the scene is a sixer. Or a twelver. Whatever works.

*shakes head with a crooked smile*

For some odd reason, The Day After Tomorrow missed working by a hair. And considering the above criteria of a signature Emmerich boomfest, I think I figured out what was lacking this time out. I think I also figured out why a good chunk of his movies do work.

I mean, let’s face facts. All of Emmerich’s films are derivative. This is the point. Let’s keep and maintain the story at its absolute baseline. Let’s amp up the F/X to a ludicrous level. Let’s play connect-the-dots with story progression. Let’s just have fun, people.

But whatever we get out of his films, let’s not ever do these two things:

  1. Get all serious, and;
  2. Have boring, stock characters.

Day committed both these crimes, and that’s why it swiftly got bogged down resulting in a 2-plus hour long slog.

First things first (and this might be a first). Here’s an action movie with a sociopolitical/environmental message. Been done, and seldom well (Steven Segal’s On Deadly Ground springs immediately to mind, unable to be redeemed even by Michael Caine’s gravitas). It’s a tricky thing to make a mainstream movie with a serious message to get out to the masses. Socially relevant movies are as old as the medium (e.g. Birth Of A Nation) and all over the place. If you take a breath, all movies are socially relevant, from Silver Linings Playbook to the Watchmen adaptation (you can read those reviews here :)). Movies are farting out loud with social issues; the skill is executing such a movie without being too obvious or—heaven forbid—preachy. Emmerich’s movies are at their best when they don’t tax your neocortex too much. When they don’t act as a churchkey popping open a fresh can of paint. We want popcorn. We want jokes. We want boom. Boom, I tell you!

We don’t want the Weather Channel, no matter how well the writers did their homework.

There’s nothing wrong with having a big deal disaster film tackle so prickly a matter as climate change. Al Gore and friends did a pretty good job. If you think about it (something I don’t openly endorse regarding an Emmerich film), Earthquake and The China Syndrome were about environmental disasters, and both achieved what Day failed to: generate interest.

As I’ve said before, the glue that holds a story together and keeps it humming along, be it novel or movie, is tension. For all the chaos seeing Mama Nature at her worst time of the month, Day suffers from an acute lack of urgency. I know. Despite at the outset Hall and Rapson tell us about the ensuing weather calamity, when the sh*t goes down there’s a lot of tripping over feet. Stuttering. Sure, there are a lot of the the key Emmerich touches of crash and wow, but they stagger. Why? Mostly lousy editing.

Day comes across as too self-aware, especially with the heavy-handed environmental message in tow. The self-aware factor in Emmerich’s movies are always there, though. It’s that when it’s winking, it works. The goofiness factor of his films—be it with story, acting or pyrotechnics—make the flaws go down a lot easier. Just a little bit of sugar with the urine.

Day lacks that. It’s a fickle movie, in mood and execution. The film’s whole atmosphere, so to speak, is cranky and pessimistic. The story drags out in a terribly over-serious, PSA kind of way. It’s a cautionary tale with a very large budget and banks of digital tech (over)driving the message home. Now a lot of Emmerich’s films—if not all—have a message of caution. Be it the dread of an impending alien invasion, science going too far or governments sleeping with the enemy, it’s all a hook for his movies. It mostly works, but when his stuff gets too self-aware (read: self-important) as it does in Day, the helium goes out of the balloon. The urgency gets lost in the scuffle, and the actions scenes are like so many bookends encapsulating the message, always with the message. In short, Day got too serious for its own good.

Secondly, a great deal of Emmerich’s success relies on his movies’ casting. There’s a lot of awkward wedging of human drama into Day, video feeds or no, which ain’t Emmerich’s typical MO. It’s not organic here like his usual fare, for all its wanton and welcome (and in this case, needful) silliness. So take pause and listen up. I know you’re not gonna like this, and it might want to make you slam the book shut forever. I’m telling this for your own, movie-going good. It is true, but it is not necessarily fair:

Independence Day was a ridiculous film with a scattershot plot lifted from a billion S/F “alien invasion” films. It was derivative. It was obvious. And if you took a nanosecond to pick apart the plot holes, a singularity would occur over your head and all your memories would be transmogrified into the liner notes of a mid-70s Rush album.

But it sure was fun. Vintage Emmerich. Damn the torpedoes!

Why did ID4 work, what with all its contrivances? Casting. The folks at the casting call did their homework when it came to selecting dramatic personae for the mid-ninties update of Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers. We had fresh-faced Will Smith in all his winking, charming glory. We had eternal nerd Jeff Goldblum. There was the poor man’s Harrison Ford, stony Bill Pullman. Whack job Randy Quaid, Sage Judd Hirsch. Oscar-winner Mary McDonnell. The late, great character actor James Rebhorn as the irritant. Then piece-of-ass-of-the-moment Vivica A Fox. ID4 even had Commander Data, for Pete’s sake. With that eclectic line-up, how could a summer movie not entertain?

All of Emmerich’s movies feature ramshackle casting; folks you’d never see communing together except at a bar. With the example of ID4, it was a fun film, but not a good film. It was redeemed by its colorful cast. Pitting Kurt Russell and James Spader against the tranny from The Crying Game was great, chewy fun for Stargate (it didn’t spawn multiple TV series for nothing). Foxx and Tatum in White House Down made for a funny Abbott and Costello dynamic. Such casting saved potential turkeys from the sticky cinema floor because it kept the movies engaging. The characters held our attention, and quite well.

The casting aspects never quite gel in Day. It’s not for lacking a great cast, the classic Emmrich ace-in-the-hole. I love Dennis Quaid, and he’s no stranger to sci-fi action films. I remember his roles in nifty B-movie homages like Dreamscape, Enemy Mine, Wilder Napalm and Innerspace. Hell, there was that recent s/f calamity tale Pandorum where he got to play the demented bad guy. His bro did great in ID4. With Dennis’ credentials, he should’ve been a round peg here.

Nope. His Jack Hall, although in reliable Quaid form, is stiff, disconnected. He doesn’t really engender much empathy from the audience. Sure, he’s the pinion on which the plot spins. He’s a got a solid backstory (also derivative, but I’ve already hinted at giving Emmerich a pass about this). He’s got family issues. He’s got drive. And he is wanting for an emotional investment from the audience. The Quaid movies I mentioned above were fun because he hammed it up some. This is an Emmerich film. Isn’t the hero supposed to crack wise with regularity? Not with Hall. It’s all shrugs and worry. Again, I blame the subtle-as-neon message up against the neck. It robs the movie of any potential verve.

Let’s talk about the rest of our players, shall we? Like I intimated, Day isn’t lacking for an eclectic cast. Holm is a delightful character actor, and I remember him best from his role as the psychotic android in the original Alien as well as the fidgety priest in The Fifth Element. His acting chops are terribly underused here. His Rapson was so terribly laid-back in Day, the calm voice of reason and/or herald of impending danger. Sure, it’s nice to have at least someone keeping their sh*t together in the face of impossible odds of survival, but I’ve watched Holm freak out, and it would’ve added some spice here. Kinda like smooth operator Captain Kirk losing his crackers in the original Star Trek ep “The Enterprise Incident” (what? Too abstract? Too bad, film nerds).

What I found rather amusing about the casting in Day (besides trying to accept him as a teenager) was seeing Jake Gyllenhaal in all his pre-Oscar glory. Jeez, Bubble Boy has come a long way. In Day, young Jake doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself. His character is terribly awkward, and not because of his obvious geekiness. He appears aware that he was too old to play a teen, and being a young man unable to convince himself of acting so otherwise. That and his Sam is a cipher. Isn’t the whole strained father/son dynamic over and done yet? I know that Emmerich likes to play with classic Hollywood character tropes, giving spin. No spin with Sam. He’s rote, that and totally lacking any chemistry with Quaid, especially when their interactions get mawkish by the third act. It’s a shame what with these two usually reliable actors.

Now Welsh as VP Becker was a stitch. There was a none-too-subtle analogy going on there with a Cheney/Bush portrait (and Perry King as the bewildered Prez with maybe only one line of stumbling dialogue drove the point home). Welsh was the only interesting character in the whole movie. Sure, he was the “bad guy” and they always get the best lines, but it was how they were delivered that mattered. It’s easy to peg a villain that twirls his mustache. It’s more interesting to try and peg an antagonist who carries themselves so calmly and rationally as an antagonist. Remember Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter? He wasn’t the villain. Ostensibly it was Buffalo Bill, but Lecter was calm and calculating. Bill was clearly disturbed. Who won the Oscar? Now no, Welsh didn’t eat anyone, but he exuded slimy confidence of a dyed-in-wool politician that would never accidentally shoot a hunting buddy in the face. This appeals to me (not the shooting-in-the-face part. Sorry).

Sela Ward was pretty. Moving on.

Enough grousing. There were some aspects of Day I dug. You gotta find the sweet amidst the bitter, right? I think I spent enough time being bitter here for now. Instead, how ’bout those signature Emmerich F/X? As always, strategic and dazzling. The weather effects are great. They’re also totally plausible. Over the top, yes, but the “atmospheric anomalies” kind of reminded me of a Jack Kirby comic. What he drew didn’t exist, but looked like it should. Even those multiple tornado touchdowns in LA could never happen (based on the laws of physics, which are rigorously never adhered to in an Emmerich movie, thank God) looked like they should’ve happened, at least within the context of the story.

Apropos of nothing, I’d be remiss to mention that Day—for all its awesome spectacle—got a lot of flak for so much urban collateral damage so relatively soon after 9/11. This must’ve hurt the box office takeaway. I don’t think any terrorist attack undercurrent was part of Emmerich’s story, but people can be a might fickle regarding a city under siege, be it a bomb or a hurricane. This possible oversight on the studio’s behalf might’ve done some damage to the movie’s rep (but I think the fragile acting might’ve been a more likely culprit).

Day did have another significant thing going for it. My darling, bitchy muse pacing was sated here. Despite the bumbling plot and protracted running time, the movie had a mostly smooth pace. I know, I know. How can that be with all my moaning and groaning about lackluster story and clunky acting? Well, we understand the plot was convoluted and at times felt kind of non-linear (not to mention lacking in following interior logic, but hey again, Emmerich movie), but it strangely all hung together well. The subplots, though generally unnecessary, didn’t muddle the flow of the film. The overall muted acting didn’t distract from the story’s momentum. Despite all the other hiccups, Day rolled along with nary a hitch in context. I think that last bit’s the key. In context. I guess with this aspect, the sum was greater than its parts. If only in this aspect.

Lightening up, let’s not forget the funny. Like with all Emmerich films, there’s a good deal of humor in Day. I’m not gonna get into (again) the whole Bill Shakespeare thing. I lamented earlier that this film needed a healthy dose of silliness. While not on par with the hijinks of ID4Day had its tongue-in-cheek moments. Seems all that overarching self-awareness wasn’t lost on our heroes winking understanding about how ridiculous and surreal their circumstances are. And they are ridiculous. Emmerich hasn’t lost sight of screwiness here, even though it gets all bleary with needless melodrama and an overly serious message. Some comedy is better than none when the entire planet’s atmosphere is malfunctioning, I guess.

I’ve found precious few directors who can so cleanly set up shop the way Emmerich does, making their movies their signature own. Spielberg, Scorsese, Zemekis, Gilliam, Fellini and Kurosawa are others (not to name-drop). Now I’m not placing Emmerich in their camp, not exactly, but you have to respect a filmmaker who knows his station and can sell it so well to audiences. To be so unashamed to lay it so think like so much peanut butter that audiences get all up in that. Like I said in the White House Down installment, Emmerich’s stuff is such silly fun, and not designed to win any awards (barring Best Visual Effects and most ka-booms per frame).

With Day, the man slipped up a bit. Sure, all the nuts and bolts were there to make it another surefire Emmerich blockbuster, but the parts weren’t connected properly. Too many loose ends. Too much philosophizing. Not enough one-liners. No Jeff Goldblum. You hear what I’m screaming.

I repeat, Emmmerich is the modern day king of the disaster film (maybe the only king), a sub genre that’s been more or less absent until his rise to power with ID4. We need chaos and creation like his. We need stupid stunts and even stupider jokes. We all need to sit back, get all comfy with our Slim Jims, turn on one of his films and let them delta waves do their thing. It’s just that simple. And Day was not. It was a fantastic, visually-rich disappointment. It was also a movie of contradictions in execution. Smooth pacing, jerky storyline. Great cast, lame acting. Interesting plot, preachy story. Again, screaming.

If there was one message I got from Day—besides the subtle-as-neon enviro one—it was this. One for Emmerich, actually: You be you, so don’t make us think. Keep that ID4 sequel nice and goony and maybe I’ll return your calls, just so long as a colossal electric storm doesn’t drop over the Eastern seaboard and generates enough amps to create an EMP to wipe out all the cell towers from here to Venus.

Don’t forget to recycle!

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Sorry, folks. If you’re looking for style over substance, look elsewhere. Just watch out for the storm front first.

Stray Observations…

  • I really dug the opening credits. Cool camera work.
  • Emmerich sure likes to do a lot of globetrotting in his movies.
  • Nice touch with the tree flick in the foyer.
  • Erasing the Hollywood sign? Roland you sly devil, you.
  • “So much for one in a billion…”
  • What was Tomita up to between here and Karate Kid 2?
  • “Terrible weather!” “Tell me about it!”
  • Amazing service that lady in the library has.
  • “We’re all gonna need it.”
  • “There’s a whole section on tax law down here we can burn.” Come to your own conclusions.
  • “Just dropped in to do a little shopping.”
  • Thank you for not showing Sanders’ impact. A rare display of restraint on Emmerich’s part.
  • “Have you ever seen the sky so clear?”

Next Installment…

Disney leads Pixar Studios into a Brave new world, and the results are rather pretty. Maybe too pretty.

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