Tuesday, December 23, 2008

REVIEW: The Day After Tomorrow

Manhattan Project? Meet the 'Minneapolis Project.'

So what, is this the sequel to the 1983 made-for-TV movie The Day After? That movie was a big budget, ensemble scare flick about the horrors of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia, best known for a nuclear explosion scene in which people in still photographs get skeletonized. Okay, it was 1983 and a TV movie, but really, I think they hired Terry Gilliam to do the special effects.

When he said he wanted to be woken up at the crack of dawn, nobody quite understood what he meant.

The Day After Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich's (Independence Day, The Patriot, Godzilla) 2004 summer blockbuster, is cut from the same cloth, hypothesizing a sudden catastrophe that annihilates most of the northern hemisphere, all of which is the fault of the Republicans. This time, however, it's not from nuclear brinksmanship, but from global warming. Now, in the interest of full disclosure about a touchy political subject, I'm personally agnostic on the global warming issue, one who supports environmental responsibility, but is highly doubtful that we're in any immediate or inevitable danger, and unwilling to completely stall the US (and world) economy out of environmental paranoia. Regardless of whether you agree with that assessment, you'd probably agree with the fact that while a nuclear war is something that can develop almost immediately, even the most exaggerated global warming scenarios say that any real threats will take decades or even generations to materialize. But don't let any thin thread of reality get in the way of Roland Emmerich's--this generation's Irwin Allen--landmark-smashing fun. In fact, this entire movie is basically a rehash of Independence Day, except without that film's stark realism. Although at least no one defeats global warming by uploading a devastating computer virus from a Macintosh into a hurricane.

"And in addition to the sign language translator, you'll be glad to know that my speech is being simulcast in night vision for the visually impaired."

After the 20th Century Fox logo swings by, surrounded by nasty weather, we get an actual opening credits sequence. It's not often that they run through the entire list of credits at the outset of the movie nowadays, with nothing else to entertain us beyond the viewpoint of a helicopter as it sweeps through icebergs in the Arctic/Antarctic (sorry, I didn't bother to take note and I don't care), accompanied by Generic Non-Military Epic Movie Score #69287B. Pretty soon, though, Dennis Quaid's scientific expedition runs into a problem when the iceberg starts to crack around them. There's some shouting and a green screen-assisted leap across a widening chasm as the ice shelf breaks apart, and this tells us two things: 1) Either that damn rodent with the acorn from Ice Age is up to something, or something's making the ice all fragile. 2) This movie can only get better.

Back to civilization, and Quaid's a paleoclimatologist (wacky weatherman who guesses about prehistoric weather instead of guessing about tomorrow's weather) giving a lecture to some UN-like council in New Delhi (where protesters are chanting 'Stop global warming!' outside, in English no less). He warns that global warming will cause the North Atlantic current to shut down, which is apparently all we need to understand on the subject to make international policy decisions, and considering that this entire concept is explained in about 20 seconds, I can only assume that Quaid's speech opened with a lot of Paris Hilton jokes. Too bad the Vice President's there, apparently lacking anything better to do on his weekend, and he's such an oil industry stooge that he refuses to spend hundreds of billions complying with the Kyoto Accord (putting him in line with every member of the US Senate, incidentally) in response to Dennis's confident tone and proof-positive computer models. Personally, I feel that if computer models projected Eric Gagne to have a 3.60 earned run average in 2008, I'd avoid eviscerating the Western economy based on computer models.

Bilbo's love of the One Ring began to reach some... unhealthy extremes.

Taking an interest in Quaid's work is Ian Holm, also a scientist of some kind. He and his fellow researchers back in Scotland (who, of course, include a soccer lunatic and guy who keeps talking about his newborn baby back home) are detecting temperature anomalies from buoys in the Atlantic Ocean. Meanwhile, other weird stuff is happening all over the globe: ginormous hail is falling in some back alley made up to look like Tokyo, massive hurricanes are tearing apart the Caribbean, birds are flying south in massive flocks, dogs and cats are living together... mass hysteria! And the foolish TV reporters, who are never ones to promote the Greenhouse Effect alarmism perspective, blame all of this on sunspot activity, which is... actually a legitimate theory, one that appears to have more of a correlation to historical world temperatures than Al Gore's ice cores.


And of course, in the great natural disaster movie tradition, Dennis Quaid has an estranged wife, Sela Ward, and son, Jake Gyllenhaal. Naturally, Dad's months apart from his family is causing strain, but while Jake's a nerd, he's actually doing okay for himself. He's a straight-A student, he's got a best friend who's black and straddles the line between nerdy super-genius and nerdy comic relief, and he's chasing Emmy Rossum (Way to go, Donnie Darko!) by joining a Quiz Bowl-type competitive trivia team at his school. I was on one of those things in high school, and it was a lot of fun, but I don't remember getting flown from Philadelphia to a swanky prep school in New York City to participate. In New York, Jake is alarmed by a rich prep school kid moving in on Emmy, but he turns out to be a nice guy who encourages Jake to express his love to his kewpie doll object of affection. The four of them buddy up, and in a spectacularly unsubtle bit of foreshadowing, they visit the Museum of Natural History and are shocked--SHOCKED!-- to learn that there were woolly mammoths found perfectly preserved in the ice. Dudes, did all of you guys skip that day during first-grade science class? Isn't this supposed to be a competitive trivia team?

"Thank you for calling Age of Conan technical support. Your call is very important to us. A customer representative will be with you as soon... Mwa-ha-ha-ha! Oh, I'm sorry, I just couldn't quite make it through the whole thing."

Meanwhile, that little weather problem starts to actually get noticed when it's Americans being annihilated, not the Japanese or Central Americans. Tornadoes start to rip through Los Angeles, killing off the usual slew of stock Roland Emmerich characters: the horny guy in the Hawaiian shirt, the blonde ditz, the nerdy administrative type, the preening reporter. The National Weather Service in Washington, DC springs into action, calling together a group of scientific nerds so nerdy that there are audible gasps in the room when Dennis Quaid solemnly announces, "I think we've hit a critical desalinization point." They want to work on getting Quaid's computer model of prehistoric climate change fed with modern data, so that they can forecast what's about to happen. As someone who works at a software company, I'm grateful that they left the process of entering data, writing macros, and converting file formats mostly off-screen. But it's not like Quaid's wife, Sela Ward, has nothing to do either. She's apparently a doctor, and is taking close personal care of a hospitalized child who has cancer, but apparently no parents. And in yet another subplot, a bunch of wolves at the Bronx Zoo have escaped their cages. Huh?

His wife suddenly hung up, and Dennis was left wondering if she had misinterpreted his mention that he was "watering the Devil's Ivy."

Finally, things start to get a bit serious when a massive tidal wave sweeps through Manhattan, drowning thousands of people and forcing Jake and Emmy and their friends to take cover in the New York Public Library. Fortunately, Jake and his friends are able to stay safe and warm inside, and the building holds up just fine even while submerged in 40 or so feet of water. Hell, they must be doing GREAT, because they're sufficiently warm even as blizzards pound the US and all the water outside freezes solid. So just how cold does it have to be for billions of gallons of seawater to freeze in a matter of hours? I'm sure it could happen. If the sun were to suddenly burn out. But regardless, the gang manages to survive by fueling the fireplace with books, which are apparently the only things flammable in an enormous old building. But not everybody's going to make it: an idiotic policeman decides that with the world ending, it's best to lead dozens of unprepared men, women, and children through the freezing cold, walking across the ice to some nebulous idea of safety. Fortunately, neither Jake nor his friends go with them, and nor does a wise-cracking homeless guy with his dog. I like the world Roland Emmerich lives in, where the typical homeless people are eccentric, but perfectly sane, and in fact have oodles of street wisdom to share with us. Although even he probably couldn't explain how a Russian cargo freighter (completely uninhabited for some reason) has managed to drift its way into downtown Manhattan and freeze in place just outside the library, apparently avoiding getting stuck on any of the buildings in its way.

"Houston, it's beginning to look like our planetary cataclysm is, in fact, an elaborate Walt Disney World advertisement."

Back in DC, Dennis Quaid gets a call from Jake, telling him where he is just before he's cut off. Considering how long it took before I could make a successful long-distance phone call back on 9/11, I think he should feel lucky to have gotten through at all after the annihilation of half the US. Dennis decides that it's time for him to be "there" for his son. Remember how he had that issue earlier in the movie? Oh yeah, I'll bet you weren't aware that might be a motivation later on in the movie. How's he going to help? By driving to New York, presumably with some supplies. Some of his paleoclimatologist buddies come with him out of loyalty, their services apparently no longer needed by the government, but the task ahead of them is great. The entire northern US is covered in a dozen feet of snow, and there's the perpetual threat that the troposphere will swoop down at some point, hitting some unlucky portion of the country with ultra-cold air that will freeze everything instantly.

But don't let reason get in the way of an emotional paleoclimatologist. Dennis and his buddies get on their merry way, but their car gets stuck in a snowbank just north of Philadelphia. And instead of getting their car UNstuck, they do the perfectly reasonable thing: walk from Philadelphia to New York City. In a blizzard, as if I needed to add emphasis. But really, considering that he's just pulled off the feat of predicting the weather, I don't find it at all difficult to believe that Dennis Quaid can bend time and space at will.

"You never lick me like that!"

Down south, millions of Americans are illegally pouring into Mexico. It's either because of the weather, or because they saw Babel and now know how lovely and charming things are down there. In exchange for forgiveness of all its national debt to the US--and likely the assurance that some global warming via thermonuclear explosion won't "accidentally" find its way down south--Mexico sets up refugee camps for the Americans. Even the entire US federal government is now headquartered in Mexico, because they apparently find Florida too tacky and Puerto Rico too ethnic, and because the President's ducking his neighbors at the Crawford Ranch in Texas. But the President himself doesn't even make it, having been killed when his helicopter was caught up in a storm. This news is delivered to Vice President Ignorant at his office in a tent at the refugee camp. So let me get this right: the Mexicans are willing to host the entire US populace for an indefinite period of time, but not to give the President of the United States an actual building to conduct affairs of state in? Honestly, I don't blame them for being a little confused and discombobulated. The movie can never seem to decide whether the really bad weather ends at the southern New York border, the southern US border, or if you're to believe some of the meteorological maps they flash on-screen, the southern tip of North America.

After Dennis Quaid loses one of his buddies in an accident--Yeah, it was a much better idea to drive/walk to Manhattan than to work a little harder to secure a helicopter.--a far more serious problem develops. Emmy Rossum got a nasty cut way back when the flooding started, and now she's sick and going to die if they don't get her some penicillin. Fortunately, there's that inexplicable Russian freighter out there, and the kids reason that just because it doesn't have any people on it doesn't mean it doesn't have any medicine in it.

"But residents around the 'S' in 'Los Angeles' can expect a clear and sunny day!"

When they head out to relieve the ship of its medicine, finding the sick bay with remarkable ease, it's finally time for one of the movie's more ridiculous subplots--yes, I said it--to pay off. Them darn wolves are up to no good! In fact, I believe that Roland Emmerich was originally going to call this movie Wolves on a Freighter, except that some producer decided to make it more relevant to the times by tacking some global warming pretext for this scene. And I believe that you're going to enjoy this movie far more watching it with that proposition in mind, because it's much easier to accept than the idea that a massive disaster movie suddenly decided to have a bunch of teenagers attacked by computer-generated wolves on an abandoned freighter.

All the guys actually get out of the ship alive, dragging the injured one among them in an inflatable raft, just in time to pay off yet another heavily foreshadowed threat, this time the descending troposphere with its instant-freezing air. If it weren't brain-meltingly absurd, this would actually be kind of a cool scene, no pun intended: tracing the descent of the troposphere as frost slinks down skyscrapers and watching waving American flags suddenly freeze is fairly exciting. Tension turns to laughter, however, when the kids get into the library and the air chases them at the rate of an amputated mummy. I guess that if it's possible to outrun an explosion, I shouldn't be too upset about someone being able to outrun air, but at least most people who outrun explosions do it at full speed; here, by necessity of having to drag their injured comrade by raft, they might as well be outrunning air while participating in a sack race.

"Let's hurry up with this scene. Roland needs to digitally capture this thing for his next movie when we're done."

But outrun it they do, as does Dennis Quaid, who's more than halfway through his 90-mile walk through the blizzard. When he and his remaining buddy arrive, they pass the Statue of Liberty, easily the most-abused landmark in film history, and there's a brief moment of despair when they think that the library is buried and all the kids are dead. And if this is the first movie you've ever seen in your life, you might briefly think that too. But they find the library, find the kids safe inside, and eventually have them all carried off to safety by the helicopters that they didn't try to procure in the first place. Given that the helicopters had to come to rescue them anyway, the sum total of Dennis Quaid's expedition was that his friend and colleague of many years had to die, but Dennis did get to prove to his son that he cares about him. I'm starting to see why we have these people spend most of their time digging out ice cores in the Arctic, safely away from the majority of the world's population.

Another Winterfresh Gum-related fatality.

And thankfully, most of the world's population is off the hook, because the great freeze is thawing already, ensuring that it will vanish as quickly as it arrived. All the displaced Americans are even starting to head home, unfazed by the fact that all the buildings are ruined, human bodies line the streets, all the crops and animals are dead, melting snow is causing massive floods, and the Chinese government is asking the question, "Whom do I want to conquer first?" If I were the screenwriters, I might have attempted a downbeat, but faintly hopeful ending, acknowledging that humanity is going to need to struggle to survive from here on out, and that all political boundaries are now ancient history. Instead, they give us the old, "Whew! We sure dodged a bullet there!" treatment.

Actually, maybe humanity really didn't lose much. Here's a summary of the damage in this movie:

-Los Angeles ends up in slightly better shape than it does at the end of the average season of 24.
-New York City ends up in slightly worse condition than it was at the end of the Mayor Koch administration.
-Floridians finally learn what sub-60 Fahrenheit temperatures feel like.
-One New Englander says to another one, "January sure came early this year."
-Western Europe finally gets to test its wonderful socialized medicine during a massive humanitarian crisis.

Oh, and the kid with cancer's all right too. Except for still having cancer.

Nah, the new Yankee Stadium doesn't need a retractible roof.

In all fairness, The Day After Tomorrow isn't really a bad movie except that it's absurd, which admittedly sounds like damning with faint praise. It's very formulaic and mostly predictable, but its characters are all likable (even Vice President Ignorant's heart grows three sizes in the end, and he becomes an environmentalist) and the whole thing is surprisingly pretty light and frothy for a movie in which billions of people die. Mostly importantly, the special effects are spectacular, all the way up to the cartoon wolves. And while the movie's science is insane, so is the science in most science-fiction movies. Furthermore, since the outrageous weather in this movie is supposed to be far more pronounced than even Dennis Quaid predicted, and this is the only way to make a huge action movie out of something as mundane and slow-to-transpire as global warming, I guess I'm supposed to give it a pass. After all, bashing a Roland Emmerich movie for its scientific inaccuracy is like bashing a James Bond movie for the unlikelihood of so many research scientists and fellow secret agents being female, gorgeous, late-twenties, and single. Furthermore, it seems harsh to bash a movie based on a book co-authored by Whitley Streiber. Come on, people: the man's already received enough ridicule in his life for writing a book about his experiences being abducted by aliens, so I don't think I should contribute to his public scorn.

The parking situation at Philadelphia International could use some improvement.

But there's a difference here with most fiction-heavy science fiction: The Day After Tomorrow was presented in its marketing as a film relevant to our age, one that's supposed to engender discussion about the very real threat about global warming. That's like saying Left Behind is just supposed to engender discussion about social issues. You can't have it both ways. You can't make a ludicrous movie that exaggerates a theoretical problem beyond anything even resembling rationality, and then say that it should be a legitimate way to promote discussion. If I were to make a movie in which the Nazis built a time machine to go back and convince FDR and Churchill's mothers to abort their babies, would that be a legitimate tool to promote discussion about the pro-life agenda? No, it wouldn't, and the same holds true for this movie. If you want to watch it as a fantasy movie, it's watchable. If you treat it as anything that should affect your life outside of the two hours it takes to watch it, you're delusional.

"It says very clearly that Bigby's Grasping Hand does not allow a Will save. Now, are you going to roll the d20 or not?"

But perhaps I don't have the credentials to bash this movie's science. After all, I don't like it when English professors use their liberal arts credentials to pretend that they're political scientists (I'm looking at you, Noam), so maybe I shouldn't pretend that I'm a meteorologist. So I'll just link to an actual meteorologist's very entertaining review, after he was paid $100 by a newsgroup's readers: http://groups.google.com/group/rec.arts.sf.written/msg/6e52157aaf63775f

It's so funny that I'm not really sure I should be linking to it, for fear of acknowledging that people who are accomplished in the natural sciences can write humorously as well or better than I can.

Peter (Falk), Paul (Weyrich), and Mary (Mother of God)

In summary, Roland Emmerich's message is to support alternative fuels (but not nuclear, as The Happening clearly tells us), ride a bike when possible, carpool when not, lower your thermostat, and move south of the Mason-Dixon. Oh, and buy Macintosh in case the aliens come. And just avoid New York City in general, because Godzilla might be around too.

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