When Bob Dylan warned that a hard rain was gonna fall, he surely didn't have anything like this in mind. But it's difficult to dispute that platter-sized chunks of ice falling out of the sky onto the beaches of Los Angeles is anything but very bad weather. The sort of climatic drama one should be warned about. And in Roland Emmerich's eco-thriller/neo-disaster pic The Day After Tomorrow, that ice storm is the warning, a harbinger of much, much worse.
Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) knows which way the wind is blowing; he's a paleoclimatologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization, and carping about global warming and predicting the next ice age are his specialty. At a global-warming conference set early in the film, his cautions are derided by two representatives of oil-producing countries (Saudia Arabia and Venezuela) and by the vice president of the United States, the world's greatest consumer of fossil fuels. (It's the first of several geo-political digs that Vice President Becker bears a distinct resemblance to the oil-happy Dick Cheney.)
Nearly as fast as Hall can say "I told you so," Earth's weather goes on a bender. A break-up of the Antarctic ice shelf disrupts the delicate temperature balance of the North Atlantic current, and suddenly there's snow in New Dehli and tornadoes howling up Hollywood Boulevard. When Hall's colleague, Dr. Rapson (Ian Holm), stationed in Scotland, relays information about plunging ocean temperatures, the two doomsayers are in accord: The top half of the earth is in for a rough ride.
The Day After is a better film than Emmerich's last rampage through the world's cities, 1996's Independence Day. That film was so much flash and crash just for its own sake, and featured two distracting heroes, jivey Will Smith and snarky Jeff Goldblum. The slate of capable, if dull, actors in Day keeps our focus on the weather crisis, the film's most intriguing aspect.
Weather-porn enthusiasts -- those who live for those glimpses of red and purple on the weather-radar screens -- will thrill to see some impressively rendered storms. (Actual meteorologists may just shake their heads; Day asks for quite a few leaps in scientific logic.) A useful plot point has two men -- one Russian, one American, working together natch -- stranded on a space station, providing viewers the perfect opportunity to study the Biggest Storm of All Time from space.
Emmerich scales down parts of this literally world-sized drama into tiny human-sized pieces: There's Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), Hall's teen-age son, who's in New York City attending a scholastic competition (brawn counts for less than brains in Day) with his pals Brian (Arjay Smith) and the lovely doe-eyed Laura (Emmy Rossum); Dr. Rapson and his doomed, if game, assistants; and Hall's ex-wife (Sela Ward), a doctor who is tending, of all melodramatic things, an orphaned child with cancer. As if turning the world into a giant Popsicle weren't enough to worry about, Emmerich tosses in thin subplots about overworked dads and today's fractured families, a narrative tactic that's a classic weakness of disaster films.
Sam, his nerd buddies and few others hole up in the New York Public Library to ride out the cataclysmic storm. A homeless man shows the Yuppies how to stay warm (the leveling of class is another disaster-flick hallmark). It's really in the storm's aftermath that the film's plot starts succumbing to only-in-the-movies silliness and wildly convenient coincidence. For me, there was more entertainment in the depictions of the government's ill-informed response than in the tired father-son spats. One NOAA science wonk gets to scream at the president's cabinet, not without a perverse bit of smugness: "You didn't want to hear about the science when it could have made a difference." Now that's satisfying fantasy.
In Independence Day, audiences cheered when aliens blew up American urban landmarks. Emmerich doesn't let recent events hold him back from pummeling lower Manhattan: Skyscrapers crack open, cars and dazed people clog the streets, and a several-story-high wall of gray water surges through the business district's corridors, mimicking those huge clouds of debris that chased terrified New Yorkers through the streets when the World Trade Center towers collapsed.
Disaster thrillers, of course, serve to some degree as cathartic experiences that allow us to live through fearful situations, however unlikely (trapped in an upside-down boat or evading swarms of killer bees), and to leave the theater comforted that the square-jawed hero solved the problem. Unfortunately, there is no cure for an Ice Age; there isn't even a clearly defined set of circumstances to be avoided. Emmerich is obviously delivering an over-the-top warning specifically about global warming, but the film's underlying anxiety and lack of clear resolution also speaks to our current fears about ill-defined terrorism, a global threat that we can't realistically "fix" or prevent. Like the survivors of The Day After Tomorrow, we have no control; we can only react when something goes wrong.