When climatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) reports to an environmental conference that he believes the disastrous effects of global warming could be only a century away, he’s a few years out. In fact, the dawn of a new ice age has already begun, and soon North America is being bombarded with the most severe weather conditions for 100,000 years.
The Day After Tomorrow is the latest film in which Roland Emmerich wrecks wholesale destruction on America’s cities. Following Independence Day’s murderous aliens and Godzilla’s skyscraper-stomping lizard, the threat here is from the planet itself, revolting after decades of abuse to its climate. In this case Emmerich tries to present a message alongside the CGI-assisted mass destruction – namely if we don’t stop fucking up the atmosphere, then bad things are gonna happen. This is largely confined to the first quarter – Dennis Quaid delivering his predictions to a bunch of money-grabbing politicians, fellow weather expert Ian Holm looking increasingly worried about world-wide temperature drops, Quaid’s moody son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) experiencing incredible storm conditions while flying to New York. Once that’s out of the way, Emmerich brings on the spectacle, and it is undeniably thrilling in places – tornadoes levelling LA (including the Hollywood sign), Manhattan literally drowning, with CGI blended seamlessly with the human actors and Harald Kloser’s thunderous score cranking up the tension.
Unfortunately, beyond the effects, there’s not really anywhere for the story to go. While Independence Day and Godzilla had actual villains, there’s clearly no way this climatic disaster can be stopped or reversed, forcing Emmerich to fall back on the thing he’s absolutely worst at: human drama. So we have Gyllenhaal struggling with his emotions while trapped in New York public library with the gorgeous schoolpal he is secretly in love with, Quaid making the epic trek from Washington to Manhattan to find his son, Quaid’s estranged doctor wife refusing to save herself and leave a sickly child alone in a hospital. Bleughh. None of this is remotely stirring – Quaid and Gyllenhaal are fine actors, but even they struggle to invest Emmerich’s lumpen script with any level of emotion.
The film is also brimming over with all sorts of idiotic behaviour and occurrences that annoy more than they entertain. There’s an early scene in which a pack of snow wolves are seen to have gone missing from a zoo... and whatdyaknow, they reappear an hour later, inexplicably menacing Gyllenhaal as he tries to find some medicine on board a boat that has ended up floating down Fifth Avenue. Quaid decides to make the journey from Washington to New York, mostly on foot through an apocalyptic blizzard, and manages to get there within a few hours (losing one of his pals en route). And I haven't even mentioned the 'hilarious' tramp and his 'lovable' dog. There are a few nice touches – an ironic scene of reverse-immigration as hundreds of Americans flee across the Rio Grande into Mexico – but the whole thing lacks humour and seems totally unaware of its own ridiculousness. Gimme Will Smith punching an alien any day.