So I’m walking toward our big press screening at the Ziegfeld Theater — probably the best movie house in NYC — and the marquee comes into view. The film’s title is already plastered up there, cuz the Ziegfeld with its enormous screen and bone-rattling sound system is the place to see the world get blown up so of course the flick’ll be playing there, but the bottom of the marquee from my perspective is blocked by a big 18-wheeler parked in the street, and all I see is The Day After. And naturally it had already occurred to me how smart it is for the producers to deliberately invoke the scariest movie of my childhood, but it struck me again. Anyone with half a brain who’s been paying attention is as terrified at the threat global climate change poses to our civilization as at the one global nuclear war posed.
Cuz it’s happening and it’s real and it doesn’t matter whether we caused it with our cars and our coal plants or whether it’s a normal cyclical fluctuation. Maybe things’ll get scarily worse and maybe they won’t, but it’s a fair enough thing to be terrified of. So there’s something much more viscerally horrifying about The Day After Tomorrow than Roland Emmerich’s last ravaging of the planet and civilization as we know it, in Independence Day. It’s not too likely that aliens who forgot to install firewalls on their PCs will invade the planet; it’s not too unlikely that many of us alive today will live to see catastrophic weather kill lots of people, and maybe we’re already starting to see it with the abnormal heat waves and the devastating flooding and the big tornadoes.
Not like this, though. This is ridiculous. Highly entertaining, but ridiculous. Oh, it makes a sort of sense within the context of the story, as fiery paleoclimatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid: The Alamo, Cold Creek Manor, in full-on campy-fun rage-against-the-machine mode) explains, both before and after the political powers that be start taking him seriously: Global warming causes a gigantic piece of Antarctica to break away, and the dumping of all that fresh water into the oceans throws off some delicate balance in the North Atlantic, which shuts down the mechanism that keeps North America and Northern Europe comfortably warm, which causes monster storms (days-long deluges of rain) and wacky weather (giant hailstones, megatornadoes) and brings on a new ice age, with glaciers covering a huge portion of the northern hemisphere in a matter of days. Emmerich (The Patriot, Stargate) and Jeffrey Nachmanoff’s screenplay was “suggested” by The Coming Global Superstorm, by Whitley Strieber, who believes he was abducted by aliens, and Art Bell, all-around nutjob, so what can you expect?
But if you just go with it — which is, of course, a matter of personal taste; you either buy it for two hours, or you don’t, and there’s no way you can convince yourself to change your mind — it’s compulsively compelling, in the same way that you just can’t help but glance through the Weekly World News while you’re standing online at the supermarket checkout. Yes, there’s tons of the typical disaster soap opera — who will survive the end of the world?; who will fall in love in the ruins of civilization? — although that does have its own corny charms, too. Yes, there’s tons of absurd hero-in-peril stuff — Hall makes an unlikely overland trip from Washington D.C. through the most deadly weather humans have ever witnessed to rescue his teenaged son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal: Moonlight Mile, The Good Girl), from icebound New York City.
It’s the widespread, city-size destruction that you just can’t look away from — okay, that I just couldn’t look away from. I admit that I don’t understand this myself. Why am I fascinated by megatornadoes flattening Los Angeles? Why, if I still get choked up thinking about or seeing pictures of the World Trade Center collapsing, do I find myself riveted by a tsunami washing over Manhattan? It’s all preposterously over the top yet scary as hell, in a visceral, pit-of-the-stomach way, and I can’t wait to see it again. I don’t think the dismissive it’s-just-a-movie explanation quite does it, because just-movies can be quite profoundly affecting (not that this one). Is it a safe way to deal with the unthinkable, the way that small children will watch something they find scary over and over again as a way to master their reaction to it? Or is it just that I imagine — as does everyone who gets a kick out of disaster movies — that of course I’ll be among the few survivors? Sure, there I am, out on the rooftop of a Manhattan skyscraper half buried in ice, getting rescued by a helicopter at the end of the film.
Maybe it’s just that, for all its improbability and exaggeration, this is still one of the more plausible disaster scenarios we’ve seen onscreen in years. It would be nice if it weren’t, if we’ll be able to look back in a century and laugh, as many people will do today, at Emmerich’s political posturing — all the bold, blatant scolding of our governments’ neglect of climate-change issues, and the many instances of bitter, stinging irony to be faced by those governments if and when the weather gets really rough. I’d like to hope that The Day After Tomorrow will be seen as bombastic Chicken Little-ism, and not as eerily prophetic.