Following his previous big hits such as the overrated Independence Day (1996), Roland Emmerich presented the film-going world with his own rather unique take on global warming in this ecological disaster movie.
When this film was made in 2004, the consequences of what we are doing to our planet were only just beginning to be brought before the national consciousness. Al Gore was merely an American politician, and the subject was not as high on the agenda (both political and personal) as it is today.
However, Emmerich saw the opportunity to highlight / exploit (delete as appropriate) the situation for the delight of the cinema audience - and The Day After Tomorrow was born.
The premise is simple. Scientists are united in their hypothesis that mankind is killing the planet, but do not agree on exactly what the consequences might be. One of them, Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid), is actually dead on the money about what the weather is likely to do. However, his theory has a timescale of several decades, when in fact the World only has a few days.
This allows the film-makers to do exactly what they do best - destruction on a grand scale. So in just the first hour we have Tokyo decimated by a giant hailstorm, Los Angeles destroyed by Tornados, Scotland frozen by a 150 degree drop in temperature, and finally New York consumed with a giant tidal wave.
Only when this initial carnage dies down does the film start to focus in onto any kind of a plot - and this one is as corny as they come. The devastation has been caused by three giant storm systems that together cover the whole of the Northern Hemisphere. These storms cause all the aforementioned weather disturbances, but they also grow so big that they pull supercooled air down from the Troposhere - causing the massive drops in temperature. Nothing can survive this.
Jack Hall's son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhall) is trapped in New York, as first it is flooded, and then frozen solid. Can Jack rescue Sam? Will Sam survive? This becomes the focus of the second half of the film.
And this rather strange structure is ultimately what prevents the film becoming an unqualified success. Most disaster movies open with the big money shot, focus in on individual action during the middle third, and then expand out to include a massive action-packed final scene. The Day After Tomorrow does things differently. Yes, we open on the money shots, and believe me - they are truly awe-inspiring. Whether it is twisters in Los Angeles, or helicopters freezing in mid air over Scotland, the effects are top notch and really do bring home the awesome power of nature.
Although there is plenty of CGI here, the effects never look fake - which is a major positive for a film of a few years old. The structure is also helped by the fact that the focus is slightly wider than most Hollywood blockbusters. Instead of just focussing on the USA, this film widens its scope to look at the consequences on other continents and other hemispheres. It is a token gesture, to be sure, but it is a welcome one nonetheless.
As mentioned before, though, the film tends to misfire when concentrating on the more intimate rescue drama than underpins the second half of the film. The problem is not that we don't care about the characters. The problem is that after the sheer excitement and audacity of the opening hour, anything that follows is going to be an anti climax.
As the film becomes more and more intimate, events start to happen that seem to exist only to further the plot. Never is this more obvious than when a container ship sails up a street in New York only to freeze solid right outside the library where Sam is trapped. It looks spectacular for sure. But what is it doing there? And why is it trying to sail through a city. This is never explained - but it sure comes in handy when urgent penicillin is needed and Sam just happens to realise that there “must be a medicine cabinet on that ship”.
The misfires don't end here, however. As the film progresses, the dialogue gets more hoky - and the ending is just silly. However, the brilliance of the opening section, and the perfomances of the actors just about rescues this film from being a disaster and elevates it to an enjoyable Saturday night popcorn flick.
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