In the 1994 movie Stargate, director Roland Emmerich presented us with an interstellar portal leading to a planet populated by ancient Egyptian look-alikes. Two years later, with Independence Day, he offered a genocidal alien invasion that was overcome by two guys spreading a computer virus. And two years after that, his Godzilla featured a 200-foot-tall radioactive iguana running amuck in Manhattan. But with his latest film, The Day After Tomorrow, Emmerich has asked us to suspend disbelief to an unprecedented degree: The vice president of the United States, modeled closely on Dick Cheney, is overruled on a policy question by the president. I mean, come on. Even science fiction needs to have some baseline plausibility.
The Day After Tomorrow, released on video the day before tomorrow, introduces (and in all likelihood lays to rest) a new film genre, the Environmental Apocalypse Thriller. The story is like an Earth First fever dream: A government climatologist (Dennis Quaid) theorizes that greenhouse emissions could cause a new ice age in as little as 100 years, but his concerns are brushed off by the pro-fossil fuel vice president. It turns out that Quaid is, in fact, wrong: The climatic cataclysm he predicted does not take decades to occur, but rather seven to ten days. Yes, the entire global climate shifts--obliterating the Northern Hemisphere in the process--in less time than it typically takes to get a dentist appointment. Over the course of Emmerich's biblically awful week, hail stones the size of volleyballs pummel Tokyo, tornadoes suction away half of downtown Los Angeles, and a tidal wave tickles the Statue of Liberty's exposed armpit on its way to a Big Apple rendezvous. It's not, in short, a good week to travel.
Quaid does travel, though. His teenage son (Jake Gyllenhaal) is visiting New York for an academic tournament, which is unfortunate because the culmination of the environmental upheaval--a giant, hurricane-like ice storm bringing lethally frigid temperatures--is bearing down from the North Pole. The situation is so dire that the government plans to evacuate only the southern states; for those north of the Mason-Dixon line, it's already too late. But Quaid, who was frequently an absentee dad because of work commitments (who knew the life of a climatologist was so demanding?), decides that he is going to go to his boy now, even if it means hiking most of the way from Washington to New York in snowshoes. (It does.)
You may already have intuited that The Day After Tomorrow is not the most realistic of films. A larger problem, however, is its political ardor. At the beginning and end of the film are environmental sermons so smug and emphatic that one wonders whether Emmerich actually believes that his dizzy apocalyptic fantasy might come to pass. (He's not the only one: Al Gore, ever in search of a new off-note to hit, helped promote the movie, declaring it a good starting point for debate on climate change.) If the film's overheated environmentalism weren't enough, it also wants to make a point about immigration policy. Fleeing the deadly cold, American refugees illegally stream over the border into Mexico. It's an ironic inversion that, with the right treatment, might have added a dark comic touch to the proceedings; instead, we get more hamfisted homilies: The Mexican government is persuaded to open the border when the U.S. president kindly agrees to forgive all Latin American debt. (Call me cynical, but with millions of American lives at stake, I think a more likely inducement would be the arrival of an armored division.) Rather than aspiring to a straightforward, end-of-the-world escapism, The Day After Tomorrow holds itself to a standard of seriousness it can't possibly meet. It's as if Towering Inferno had lectured us about municipal building codes, or The Poseidon Adventure had lobbied to reform the Law of the Sea.
It's too bad, because as pure entertainment, The Day After Tomorrow has its moments. Emmerich has long had an eye for striking fantasy visuals (the ancient futurism of Stargate, the ominous city-spaceships of Independence Day), and The Day After Tomorrow offers several arresting set pieces--from the savage kineticism of the L.A. whirlwinds, to the quietly eerie sight of millions of birds flapping southward, to the wall of water that washes into lower Manhattan. The problem is that all of these scenes take place in the film's first hour. Once the climatological chaos settles into a turbocharged cold front there's just not that much to see. Quaid trudging up a snow-encased I-95 and Gyllenhaal and his friends outrunning killer frost in the New York Public Library just don't compare.