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The Day After Tomorrow: Mark's Take

01/07/2004. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper

Buy The Day After Tomorrow in the USA - or Buy The Day After Tomorrow in the UK

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In this new movie Mark finds global warming launches a quick-freeze ice age, killing billions of people. Roland Emmerich brings us a special-effects-laden look at the human race reeling under the havoc caused by the worst natural disaster in 10,000 years, a super-cold cyclonic storm that covers the face of the planet. The story is compelling and plausible enough for non-experts.

Other writers' reviews I have read have compared The Day After Tomorrow with disaster films of the Seventies. That might not be the best comparison. Most of those films killed off a few hundred people at most. They destroyed a mere ship, a tiny skyscraper, maybe one island. The Day After Tomorrow might better be called a super-catastrophe film in which nature kills maybe a third or a half the human population of the planet.

I can think of no film in which the forces of nature are so destructive since George Pal's 1951 film WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE. Indeed, some of the scenes of The Day After Tomorrow are just updated versions of scenes from WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE. Each film shows Manhattan flooded by a torrential wave. And fifty-three years actually have brought us a better class of special effects and somewhat more believable characters, but much stays the same.

The Day After Tomorrow movie review

Pal, who pioneered the special-effects-loaded catastrophe film, probably would have thrilled to see this film. It may not be perfect, but it was what Pal was aiming for. If The Day After Tomorrow looks a lot like a Jerry Bruckheimer disaster film, there is some truth to that observation, though this concept was actually a pet subject of Roland Emmerich's. He wrote the story on which it was based and co-authored the screenplay.

The Day After Tomorrow opens with paleoclimatologist Jack Hall (played by Dennis Quaid) collecting data on a polar ice shelf when it cracks off under his feet. (This was actually a lucky guess on the part of the filmmakers. In March 2002, just a few weeks after this part was filmed, an Antarctic ice ledge, the Larsen B shelf, really did break off and float out to sea. Its size, like the one in the film, is about that of Rhode Island. Perhaps they are even the same shelf.)

This is just the first sign that global warming has redirected the ocean currents and that change causes a new ice age. It is not just a new ice age, which would be bad enough, but one that comes upon us in a matter of a week or so preceded by the worst super-storm to hit our planet in 10,000 years. Los Angeles is hit with multiple tornadoes.

One assumes that Podunk, Iowa, was also badly hit, but the film most concerns itself mostly with major cities. Some places columns of air at negative 150 degrees drop from the troposphere flash-freezing people below. Soon the destruction is planet-wide. The entire northern half of the United States is so badly hit by the storm that it is not thought to be worth the government's resources to even try to save them.

Experts think that perhaps this cataclysm repeats the conditions that caused the last ice age and the best expert the scientific community can offer on anything like what is happening is Jack Hall. The government at first ignores Hall's warnings, then comes to rely on them. Meanwhile Hall's son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) is trapped in the New York Public Library with his school's academic competition team. If the students leave the building they will freeze, if they stay they will eventually freeze anyway.

Jack has arctic experience and decides to set out from Washington D.C. in a climatic Damnation Alley to get to his son and get him the Sam Hall out of the frozen hell that is the northern half of the country. Those from the parts of the country where it is still possible, migrate south to move to the comparative warmth of Latin America.

The film must have given a lot of frustration to cinematographer Ueli Steiger since so many of his images had to be muted in very dark and dismal color palate. Most disaster films are at least colorful. This may well be the coldest and grayest disaster film ever made. My wife pointed that Emmerich has little respect for the street layout of Manhattan.

The most bizarre image of the film is impossible just because of the way the streets are positioned. But then in INDEPENDENCE DAY Emmerich showed the destruction of the Empire State Building from a non-existent side street just to give a better view of the demolition. The scenes of massive and powerful destruction are really the crown jewels of this sort of film. The human stories are just the background to hold the devastation scenes together.

There seems to be a lot of controversy as to just how possible the scenario we see in The Day After Tomorrow. Though scientific experts might cavil, certainly the premise feels a lot more conceivable than the game of cosmic billiards in WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE. And while I feel deep down that Pal's film is the better of the two and the one that I will remember, I am hard-pressed to say exactly why. People complain about the scientific accuracy of this film but accept the premise of a film like SPIDER MAN. I'll give this one a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. With all this cold weather, wouldn't you expect to see someone's breath freezing?

Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 2004 Mark R. Leeper

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