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.

RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 3: Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down” (2013)


The Players…

Channing Tatum, Jaime Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Joey King, Jason Clarke and James Woods.

The Story…

When a paramilitary group lays siege to the White House in order to abduct the President, it’s up to lone cop John McClane to save the day.

Er, sorry. John Cale. It’s up to Cale to be the hero. You sure that’s not a typo?

The Rant…

Hey! Here’s an idea! Let’s talk about a good movie before we get to this week’s thrashing. Pertinent to this installment, we’re going to explore a classic of the action movie genre, the original Die Hard. Hell to the yeah!

Die Hard was a groundbreaking movie. In addition to now being a classic in the action film canon, it set many precedents—for ill and for good—about what an action movie could do and where it could go. Prior to its release, most action movies were exercises in testosterone, profanity and sh*t going kaboom. All vital things, by the way. After Die Hard, out the window went the rulebook and every action potboiler since has been either following its trail or lapping up the crumbs.

Besides pure entertainment value, Die Hard was important for introducing a triad of ideas eventually incorporated into every modern action movie template.

Here we go:

First, it almost single-handedly created a sub-genre of the action film: the “location-specific” movie. Director John McTiernan set the scene of John McClane’s trials in an office building, and nary did our hero nor the audience leave that setting until five minutes before the credits rolled. In comparison, past high watermarks of action films often took place against sweeping backdrops, did a lot of globetrotting (think the Indiana Jones or James Bond movies), crawling in the endless trenches of combat or even taken to the limitless wild, blue yonder. For example, The Great Escape—one of the finest action films ever made, I feel—took place across not only in a seemingly endless POW camp, but also across the German countryside and into Switzerland, for Pete’s sake. Talk about sweeping, and all of us following Steve McQueen on a motorcycle to boot. Rock on!

Not Die Hard. Despite being a vast high-rise skyscraper, Nakatomi Plaza was a warren of endless office cubicles, precipitous elevator shafts, half-finished floors under construction and a lot of hard angles with poor lighting. Very insular. The building was under lockdown; no one getting in or out, especially McClane. This forced our protag into a claustrophobic lair, having to survive by his wits, being resourceful and operate almost solo. No outside force was going to intervene on McClane’s behalf. He was alone, and Nakatomi was his prison.

Now director McTiernan did not single-handedly create the “location-specific” subgenre of action movies, but he was the midwife for making it effective. His work was not unlike Henry Ford and the auto industry. Ford didn’t invent the automobile, he just made it readily accessible. Other past action movies had a key starting point, yes, like The Great Escape’s POW camp or Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Amazonian treasure chamber to set the stage. These prototypes with their location-specific flavor with setting-as-character were rendered solid in McTiernan’s sophomore effort, Predator.

Predator was a fun, taut, bait-and-switch kind of action movie that tricked the hormonally challenged male into believing they were gonna see another Schwarzenegger vehicle of him yelling, shooting and quipping his way through his “wilderness years” between The Terminator and…well, Predator.

Oops. Not this time. To quote Axl, “Welcome to the jungle.”

Predator at its time was the latest iteration of The Most Dangerous Game, but with a nifty sci-fi/socio-political twist. That and a very specific setting: the rain forest of Latin America. Now, with Rambo 2, the jungle was just a part of the setting and scenery; it wasn’t really exploited as a dramatic element. For Predator, the endless tree canopy and rushing waters, wide open and unending swaths of green—not unlike its urban counterpart with the infinite grey floors of Nakatomi Plaza—and lots and lots of mud were the titular villain’s stomping grounds. As well as our doomed heroes’ rat maze. The setting became a character, a antagonist in and of itself. The jungle was just as much a part of Predator as the high-rise was in Die Hard. Location specified, create claustrophobia, give an impression of no way out. All that never-ending green and later late-80s corporate grey metaphor resulted in a dehumanizing neutrality that would make one feel, well, outside and vulnerable. Excellent scenario to generate tension, as all action movies should have in spades.

So I said, with Predator and later Die Hard, the actual setting of an action film became its own character, and with such success that the formula eventually spawned many, many derivations. Speed, Die Hard on a bus. Under Siege, Die Hard on a boat. Air Force One, Die Hard on a plane (with Han Solo! How’s that for validating a genre?). The surroundings were no longer just backdrop anymore. They became part of the integral plot. It was especially important with McTiernan’s follow-up to Die Hard: the big screen adaptation of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. What’s more isolating than life aboard a submarine? Talk about location specific.

Here’s the second leg of the triad, an extension of location-as-character. Die Hard would’ve gotten nowhere without its protagonist established as both fully-dimensional and regular guy, not all sweaty like Rambo or Dutch. Before McClane, most action heroes were not self-effacing, vulnerable and God forbid guys who got scared. McClane’s just some schlub trapped in a building crawling with heavily armed “terrorists” a wee bit peeved at him for being a fly in their proverbial ointment. His bewildered, “how did I get into this mess?” outlook defined the character for the duration of the movie, as things go from bad to worse.

Prior to Die Hard, the gold standard for action was Rambo: First Blood, pt. 2. There was a case that Sly was decidedly none of those things. Stallone gallivanted through the jungle, well-oiled and throbbing, dispatching the baddies with an arsenal of seemingly endless ammo that would shame your average doomsday compound-owning redneck back to Hope Depot looking for RPG launchers. And with Rambo, no wisecracks were uttered nor a smirk cracked, just a lot of growling and grunting. Okay, granted Rambo was nuts, but even the most hardened of marauders chuckle once in a while.

Rambo was bulletproof. McClane was not. Hell, he wasn’t even glass-proof.

John McClane was your Average Joe cop on Xmas vacation. He was not expecting trouble (okay, maybe some from his wife), he didn’t ask to be plopped down into some byzantine caper—unlike Rambo or Hiltz, who both had orders to follow—and he sure as sh*t couldn’t bulldoze his way out of his predicament. McClane was no Rambo. He wasn’t Indy. And he definitely wasn’t Riddick. No. McClane was a chain-smoking, estranged family man who was under-confident, outgunned, cried, got injured (a lot) and even appeased the Lord above to make sure he lived to see the next day. Would Ah-nuld ever do that? Uh-uh.

It was this relatable streak of everyday humanity that made Bruce Willis’ character such an icon. Sure, some days we want Superman, but sometimes we need Clark Kent. We need someone to keep us grounded, connected and extend a hand of sympathy. McClane did that, with humor and determination, and lo and behold, a new action (stereo)type was born. Again, for good and for ill.

By the way, I eventually read the book Die Hard was based on. I also watched the movie relentlessly the summer before I entered high school, like almost daily. I guess this explains a few things. It was called Nothing Lasts Forever by Rod Thorpe. The book was published a decade before the movie proper, and has since been re-titled Die Hard, doubtless to reflect/capitalize on the franchises’ success. Forever was a dark beast, with this stripe of unending pessimism running throughout. The book was filled with meditations of family dysfunction, corporate greed and the rise of “new terrorism.” It’s ending was considerably more downbeat than the movie’s. But moreover, the hero of the book—one Detective Joe Leland, not “John McClane”—was a dour, humorless man with barely a whit of warmth or irony. In fact, the only (in)direct references caged from the original book was the hero being shoeless and the line “Now I have a machine gun” (McTiernan and company added the clever “Ho-ho-ho”). For a slim read—it was only 188 pages—Forever was a slog, and had very little humanity going for it. Here’s a rare case where the film version is superior to the book

Anyway, back to our hero. Before Die Hard, Willis was mostly known as a comedic actor. Fox Studios initially balked at him starring in their new big budget thriller because he had been too busy making America laugh with his wit and smirk on Moonlighting; then later—in his motion picture debut—trying to woo Kim Basinger in Blake Edwards’ Blind Date (a rather underrated screwball comedy). In sum, the studio heads were snuffling, “What does this clown Willis know about testosterone?”

Back in 1988, not much. But Willis indeed knew humor. That humor later became a trademark in both the original Die Hard and the (law of dwindling returns) sequels that followed. The humor made McClane accessible. It made him likeable, like a bar buddy. It also made his points across being scared and anxious and worried for his wife’s well-being as much as he was. I mean, don’t we all at one point in our lives inject brittle humor into times of stress? If you say you don’t, you’re a liar with a cold, cold heart. You probably didn’t ever so much as simper watching Brian’s Song. Punter.

So both by wit and grit—boom—Willis becomes the iconic, working class action hero. To a fault really, resulting in all the derivative ciphers that dropped in Die Hard’s wake. It’s now the case that Willis, by his own admission, is inextricable from action movies. He’s gone from the quintessential, reluctant, wisecracking hero to the quintessential, reluctant, wisecracking hero actor. Again, so much so that I heard Willis opted for a Disney film once because he wanted to star in a movie “his kids could watch.” At least the RED movies are trying to actively deflate Willis’ dubious legacy, with a wink and a smile.

Willis has become a victim of his own legacy. What’s more, for every Jack Traven, Casey Ryback or Dr. David Grant, we must thank and/or blame John McClane for birthing this now hackneyed action type. Others have tried, some have succeeded, but none have done it better than former loose cannon, goofball Bruce Willis. Yippie ki-yay, motherf*cker. Till death do you part.

Okay. Thanks for your patience. I got the vibe from my readers that, “Hey, blogger, you’re rambling. Again.” Heard you. Reeling it in. Quite soon.

Like Cosby, I told you those stories to tell you this story; the third leg of the triad The endless derivations of McTiernan’s beast that now cannot be fed. Sometimes when I want to sink my teeth into mindless, sweaty, defy-the-laws of physics kind of action movie…well, these days, few are to be found. They all are “gritty and earthy” like so much potting soil. Ghosts of John McClane. What was revo a quarter-century ago has now become as well trodden as the lines at the local Cineplex. So much that I’m wishing for an exaggerated, anti-hero like Rambo again. At least his films delved into utter stupidity with no shame unlike the dozens of Die Hard rip-offs that’s polluted the filmscape for the past three decades.

At their core, action films are meant to either revel in dumb fun, or set the stage with a cool story that’ll eventually result in dumb fun. It’s the delicate balance between engaging your neocortex while giving your brainstem a hand job. McTiernan did it. His film did not pander like a lot of the interchangeable 1980’s shock-and-awe boomfests. McTiernan learned from these mistakes, and instead gave us a smart story with well-rounded characters and engaging action. Who could ask for more? The original Die Hard never pandered.

Anyway, still reeling it in. Director McTiernan achieved success three times (once even with a Baldwin brother). But Die Hard, a tight, confined action-drama that the likes have never seen before or since set the standard, for better or worse. Good job, John—both director and his creation—and now, despite all the millions you’ve made for Hollywood, you’ve never received open credit for your donation to film.

I’m doing it here. Thanks John McTiernan. And curse you, too.

So there you have it. I know I’m not the first guy—nor the last—who waxed all philosophical about Die Hard. The movie’s been dissected a million ways to Sunday by endless cinema buffs. I figure the film wouldn’t be left well alone if it weren’t such a defining classic. Its success launched both many sequels (most of which are car wrecks) and endless imitators (most of them twisted metal). Some good (Speed), some bad (er…Speed 2) and some trying either to pay homage or add a new twist. Most with dwindling quality.

Welp, here we go again. Too bad you were tall enough for this ride.

White House Down is the latest incarnation in this never-ending line of toys. You think I had a lot to comment about with Die Hard? We should check out what disaster movie maven Roland Emmerich had to say with White House Down.

But more on that later. First, there’s something sinister lurking in the District of Columbia…

It’s a hard-won goal to get your dream job.

Stressed out Capitol police officer John Cale (Tatum) tries and tries and yet can’t reach his brass ring: to be a member of the Secret Service. Sure, he’s been decorated in combat, and has a more or less reliable CV, but overall he’s been coasting. Cale’s been doing either the “safe” thing as a cop (a position he basically fell into) or simply the middling thing to get by being a working-class schmo cum absentee parent. He’s got a lot of nerve, passion and very few prospects. Especially when it comes to the big deal job of his dreams: ensuring the President’s safety.

On one of his weekends, Cale comes to pick up his daughter Emily (King) who is a burgeoning politics wonk. The kid wants to tag along for Dad’s interview with the big cheese, Carol Finnerty (Gyllenhaal) who will give the yay or nay if John has the right stuff to be a Secret Service agent. Cale and Finnerty have some history, personal and otherwise. Of course the interview does not go well, so Dad has to break the news to his daughter:

“I think I have a shot.”

With that offhand remark, Emily drags her worn out Dad on a tour of the White House. Sure, what else now does Cale have to do with his time? Much to Emily’s surprise—as well as John’s—President Sawyer (Foxx) is home, and on his way to Congress to argue his proposal to ensure all American troops are out of the Mideast in due course. Ever the statesman—and knowing that any press is good press—Sawyer offers up the highlights of his proposition to Emily and gives her a shout out on her blog to boot. Yep, she’s in heaven. And it’s a nice change for John and Emily to share a moment together rather than an argument.

Meanwhile, not all is well in Camelot.

The head of the Secret Service, Martin Walker (Woods) has a bone to pick. Ever since losing his son in the Mideast, Walker has become increasing disenfranchised with the political machine he’s sworn to protect for all these years. Especially having to uphold the President’s latest efforts of peacekeeping, which Walker views as another pie in the sky. But he’s retiring! Time to wave all that bureaucracy bye-bye, settle down, maybe mourn a little, write some memoirs, take up knitting, whatever.

Nuh-uh. Walker’s aforementioned picky bone.

So now the President wants to make all nice with the enemy. That’s all hunky dory. Where was this action back when Sawyer was getting re-elected? It took a back seat, as well as Walker’s son. And Walker is not alone in his dismay about how the administration’s been run under Sawyer. Turns out that there are a lot of disgruntled ex-government workers who sympathize with Walker’s plight. It’s high time that this upstart Prez quit crawling into bed with the baddies and takes care of the homefront first.

But how…where do you attack your enemy where they’d be most defenseless?

Of course! On his home turf…

Director Emmerich is no stranger to making things get all blow’d up good on screen. He’s a master of disaster—the movie kind, that is. This is the guy who re-invented the summer blockbuster—as well as give Will Smith acting career a boost—with Independence Day and later unleashing his Godzilla remake, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012.

Uh. Wait. Hang on.

All right, with the possible exception of ID4, most of Emmerich’s films have been schlocky at best and outright stupid at worst. But you wanna know what?

I think he knows this.

All his big-budget fiascos have their tongues firmly in cheek. There is not an air of pretense or solemnity in his work. There’s no apologies either, or giving a damn what critics say. The man’s having fun and making merry! Hopefully the audience will follow him down his rabbit hole. Quite often they do.

Despite their tight, linear and technically executed production, Emmerich’s movies have a ramshackle quality to them, like everything’s gonna fly off the hinges with the next scene. Disaster films are like that though; we’re expecting to see havoc wreaked and sh*t going kerblooey. We want to see innocents in danger, running around and screaming in a panic, punching each other in the head trying to put the fires out. We especially want special effects that insult the gravitational constant of the Universe. We want the boomy things. Can’t forget that.

Emmerich’s fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants aesthetic has worked to greater or lesser degrees for over twenty years. In addition to that cutting edge/disheveled quality of his productions, his movies almost have an improv aspect to them; we’re just makin’ it up as we go along here, people. Here we go! Let’s go for a ride! Ka-blam! Splat! Whee! It’s this kind of maverick attitude that makes his films just so darn endearing. Here we got an adult male in the director’s chair—ostensibly all grown up—but give him his toys and implements of destruction and whoopee! All bets are off; he’s nine again on Xmas Eve. Here we go again with another circus, dancing elephants and all. People keep getting suckered into watching his silliness, and laughing at themselves for it every time.

Here’s a tired but apt metaphor: Emmerich’s films are roller coaster rides. Yeah, yeah. That one’s been used since the damned things were invented. Still, his fly-by-night operations are pretty fun if you go along with the joke. And most of Emmerich’s body of work has been one big winking joke. He knows this is all about fun and nothing else. In truth, that’s what all movies are supposed to be about. Art form, social commentary, exposé? Pish-aw. Emmerich’s squealing at the naked emperor. He does it with every one of his movies, thumbing his nose at the public and needfully deflating hipster film critic egos. No artistic merit? Who cares? The first motion picture was about a f*cking train robbery! The first movie wasn’t some pithy Shakespearean adaptation. It was an action flick! It’s as though through his lens, Emmerich is screaming, “Remember that, you yutzes!?!” Boink!

Now, you’re probably saying, “Wait a minute. Hey, blogger. What about Michael Bay? His crapola’s a big, fat joke, too. And you talk about explosions? Right! And where are your pants?”

Good question (never you mind about me pantaloons). I draw a fine line between Bay’s popcorn-chokers and Emmerich’s “play it fast and loose” escapades. Note: fine line. Sure, both Bay and Emmerich love to play around with pyrotechnics. Both employ storylines that can be derivative (especially here with Down), with stars that seem either out of place or out of sync with the film’s tone. Both guys operate a little thin in the human drama department.

So what’s the diff? Here’s that fine line, and I bet some of you are gonna groan and start up with the goddam beer cans again. Quit that!

Where Bay’s exercises in cinematic excess are designed to distract you from the fact that his movies are infinite loops of non-Euclidean logic, Emmerich’s histrionics are used to drive the (often unoriginal and threadbare) story. They enhance the feeble plots, and not used primarily as wallpaper. That’s right, “enhance.” Bay’s sh*t leads up to and is eventually punctuated by fireworks, but is nothing more than shock-and-awe. Emmerich’s nonsense is woven in and out of the story like some tapestry. This makes his oeuvre a lot smoother and allows a little breathing room for story, drama and acting. Granted, not a lot of those things—nor seldom good—but their presence are better felt than the baiting Bay uses. And who is a better smooth-talker, pouring honey in your ear, than a guy with a knowing sense of humor? Emmerich’s slapdash is awash in corny jokes, sight gags, one-liners, hammy characters and an overall feeling of “Gotcha!”

Long story short, Emmerich’s movies are organic and funny. Bay’s are neither.

White House Down is no exception. It follows the usual, tried-and-true Emmerich formula. It’s chockfull of the mindless goofiness and hair-brained spectacles we’ve all come to expect from his demented brain. But there are a few twists, and it’s these novelties that keep Down afloat and not come across as yet another obvious Die Hard rip-off. Even if it is.

Let’s talk about Cale for a moment. Now Channing is no Bruce Willis, and maybe that’s good thing. It’s made clear at the outset that Cale is Joe Average, but not in a humble, underdog kind of way. In fact, Cale is kind of a slacker, and people often have a lot of contempt for foot-draggers. Cale never completed any necessary education to be a Secret Service agent. He only got his current job out of blind luck. His marriage failed and his own kid won’t even call him Dad. Cale’s neither a loveable loser nor a plucky charmer who’s down on his luck. Nope. He’s an absentee father and kind of a drudge. How is an audience supposed to get behind a hero like this?

The key about Down’s execution is, for once, our John McClane cipher is not operating alone. Our John Cale (and who wants to wager the writers were Velvet Underground fans?) may be the focus of our adventure, but he’s not the lone wolf like McClane was. Our schlumpy hero actually has some allies in his struggles, as well as an actual partner, the POTUS himself. Not only that, but “Our Man in Berlin” is Finnerty, who Cale keeps in radio contact to keep apprised of what’s going on outside the action. Finally, Cale has own inside man—er, daughter running point to keep the baddies distracted. It’s a family affair.

It’s through these interactions that Cale becomes accessible. Prior to all this madness, Tatum is just John Cale, working-class nobody. Once plopped into all the chaos, he rises to the occasion. Now that he’s got a real mission—to save not only the Prez but his daughter, too—Cale musters up enough courage to fight back and take out the bad guys. You kind of got the impression from Die Hard that McClane wanted to save his skin, whack Hans and company and rescue his wife, in that order. In Down, Cale’s motives are highly personal and start to come across as even selfless. Eventually—but definitely not at first—Tatum makes a decent action star. Not great, but serviceable. Maybe even likeable. Doubtless the character—and story as a whole—wouldn’t’ve panned out that way without a good supporting cast behind him, literally and figuratively.

Like I said, our protag has in a partner in Down, namely the President. And what a delightful, protean character he is, too. Foxx’s Obama-meets-Denzel-meets-Urkel role is a little schizo, but Foxx’s charm and comedic talent make it work. His President Sawyer is one moment, dedicated statesman, then leader of the free world, then determined family man, then fighter. All of these disjointed facets would usually confuse, even insult audiences’ sensibilities. But you forget this is a Roland Emmerich film! Our Prez is the comic relief. He gets almost all the good one-liners. He’s awkward but determined to save his home, his life and his agenda, and he’s not afraid to pick up a gun and take out these home invaders. Sawyer’s the guy that Cale’s not: a leader in words and action. Between their uneasy partnership (not unlike the Lethal Weapon movies), both find union against a common enemy.

And boy, oh boy, have we got an enemy for you. James Woods has always been a smooth smoothie. His acting style is laid-back and to-the-point, but has a gift for delivering tension is very subtle ways. Most folks might agree with me—at least those who’ve paid attention to Woods’ long career—that Woods’ outward genial nature underlies a simmering anger and sinister bent, like his characters always have a personal agenda. They often do, but Woods delivers it patiently and slowly, until the hero realizes, “Oh, sh*t!” and it’s too late.

You hear me. Woods plays bad guys really well, and not just his unglued Walker here. He’s always been good at being slimy and chewing scenery without hamminess. I remember a couple of movies from the 80s that were definitive Woods, but neither at all blockbusters. One was Best Seller, where Woods plays a hitman who kidnaps a novelist so he can write Woods’ memoirs, as well as drag him along for one last target: the one who got away, as well as his daughter. The other was simply titled Cop, where Woods’ detective character goes off the grid to hunt down a serial killer who’s been offing all the women in Wood’s life. Dark stuff, and Woods’ pulls it off with a flintiness and barely-there smile that just screams anti-hero. Even his role in Contact, as the administrator trying to disprove Jodie Foster’s contact with extra-terrestrials, Woods comes across as coolly logical and determined, but not being cast as truly a “bad guy.” When you take in what Walker’s motives are for the siege, and his demands proper, he almost seems, well, reasonable. It’s that even-handed poise that makes Woods so sympathetic and such a great villain.

A good action movie should use intimate pieces of humanity to buffer the adrenalin. Down would be just another boomfest without engaging, likeable and above all fun characters amidst all the organized chaos. It’s an Emmerich movie; it’s lighthearted, despite all the gunplay. There’s lots of clean, easy action tempered with sharp humor. No muss, no fuss, (SPOILER) even when a subplot about a government conspiracy against the President is introduced in the third act. Conspiracy theories are also a lot of fun, and I’ve already pounded on what fun is to making this movie work. There are a few loops here that usually aren’t a part of Emmerich’s go-to, straight-line storytelling style, but like the explosions, they’re interwoven in such a way that they don’t detract from the story’s barrel-roll tempo. And don’t think for a moment that the bits that are of a heavier concept backbite the relentless, nutzoid action scenes. The pacing was really smooth, with barely a lull. Isn’t that what action’s all about?

Okay. So Die Hard will never be topped, and yes, there will thousands more of movies like White House Down coming down the pike (be ready to catch Frosty! Die Hard on an ice cream truck). But you gotta give some props to a crazy, whimsical, carnival barker-type director like Emmerich to do a rip-off so shamelessly and admittedly funny. If you think about it, Down is a Die Hard satire. We’re all woefully familiar with the formula by now, and as I said, Emmerich knows this. We ain’t trying to reinvent the wheel here, but we’re having fun knocking out a few of the spokes to see where the wagon crashes.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Three words: This was fun. Stupid, giddy fun, Disregarding the histrionics of the source material, but paired with Emmerich’s verve, White House Down injects some much needed goofiness into the Die Hard knockoffs that keep sprouting up. Yippee…oh, whatever. You get it.

Stray Observations…

  • “That’s a talent?”
  • With the Capitol Dome collapsing, would that be an allusion to 9/11? One would think people, including Emmerich, would still be sensitive about that. Then again, you gotta set the stakes high at the start of an action movie.
  • “…which got blew up in Independence Day.” Ha!
  • Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony?” Really?
  • “Get. Your. Hands. Off. My. Jordans!”
  • Nicorette! Again: Ha!
  • “Please don’t touch my toys.”
  • Lorazepam. Yeah, it’s not for just any ol’ headache.
  • “What is with this family?”
  • If only Emmerich had access to CGI twenty years ago…
  • “Did you see my routine?”
  • I know this installment ran a little long. Sorry and too bad. You made it all the way down here, didn’t ya?

Next Installment…

Jon Favreau understands that the job of a Chef is hard, but learns that the job as a dad can be far harder. Fire the boards!