“The Day After Tomorrow,” director Roland Emmerich’s new global-warming disaster tutorial, is rich in the sort of head-slamming special effects that could only be improved upon by taking all the money it cost to create them and handing it out at the door.
There’s a brilliantly conceived wolf-pack chase sequence the likes of which I don’t believe I’ve seen before.
There are impressive digitized closeups of a vast Antarctic ice shelf cracking off into the sea.
There are hailstones the size of bocce balls pelting down on Tokyo, and monster waves swelling up out of the sea and engulfing the Statue of Liberty. Oh, and the Sydney Opera House, too. (This is a disaster movie in which the disaster really gets around.)
There are enormous tornadoes prowling Los Angeles like great, howling predators, sucking up the Hollywood sign whole, and then, in a body blow to the already ailing music industry, ripping apart the venerable Capitol Records building.
There are also enormous floods and hurricanes, and all kinds of motorized transport hurtling through the air. In one possibly crowd-pleasing moment, a chattering TV newsman gets flattened by flying debris.
You put your brain on idle and settle in to let all this computerized chaos wash over you … and then you notice something. Something unbelievable. It’s the plot. This is the plot.
Global warming is melting the polar ice caps. This in turn is screwing up the Gulf Stream, which in turn is affecting the icy stratosphere way up above us, sucking it down into the balmier troposphere in which we humans have long whiled away our days, ignoring the fevered exhortations of environmental zealots to trade in our SUVs for rollerblades and start heating our homes with aromatherapy candles in order to avoid the climatological calamity that is — oops — now upon us.
Bad things begin to happen very fast. Temperatures start dropping 10 degrees every second. Endless snow piles up into drifts hundreds of feet deep. Cities flood and abandoned ships drift through canals that once were streets. People die by the millions. In just days, a new ice age has begun. Very worrisome!
Among those doing the worrying are paleo-climatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid), who early on strives to convince the government that something really, really awful is about to happen. Unfortunately, he has to make this case to the president of the United States — a clueless boob — and his hard-nosed vice-president, who has shadowy agendas of his own, none of which would likely involve trading in an SUV.
It’s transparently clear whom these two characters are meant to represent; the VP even bears a passing resemblance to Dick Cheney. But the president, for some odd reason, looks for all the world, not like George W. Bush, but like Al Gore. Either this casting choice represents some sort of political wish-fulfillment for the director or it’s an odd nod to Al, who’s joined the leftist agitation group MoveOn in proclaiming the release of “The Day After Tomorrow” an excellent opportunity for people like themselves to “raise consciousness” about things like this that haven’t happened yet. Either way, it’s sort of strange.
But back to Jack. He has a 17-year-old son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), who’s visiting New York with some friends. When the weather starts getting scary, Jack swears to Sam, by phone, that he’ll come to Manhattan to get him and bring him back home. New York is about 200 miles from Washington, D.C., and, as you might think would be made clear by looking out the window, the East Coast is now being buried by the worst snowstorm in … well, a couple thousand years, maybe.
But Jack is unfazed. He and two hardy colleagues set off in what one hopes is a seriously all-terrain vehicle. For shelter in the midst of this way-sub-zero weather riot, they bring along a smallish yellow tent, which we’re asked to believe does the trick. Their ride dies about 40 miles outside of New York. Although the apocalyptic onslaught of snow and slashing wind is, if anything, even more brutal than when he started out, Jack decides to walk the rest of the way. In what seems a curiously short time, he arrives in Manhattan. All of this, if it need be said, is hilariously implausible.
Meanwhile, in the grand, now-unpatronized halls of the New York Public Library, where they’ve taken refuge from the fast-rising slosh of flood waters, Sam and his friends have been having implausible adventures of their own. To keep warm, they’ve been burning rare books. The room they’re huddled in is a large, wood-paneled space filled with tables and chairs and other things that would burn longer, and give off more heat, but … they’re burning the books. Earlier, we’ve been told that these are ultra-bright students. Again, hilarious.
More stuff happens. One of the students has developed a septic infection in a leg wound sustained earlier, and Sam leads a few of his friends out into the now iced-over urban ruin in what would appear to be a wholly unpromising search for penicillin. But a crewless Russian freighter that drifted in from the harbor has gone aground in front of the library, and the intrepid little band scrambles aboard. They find an infirmary room stocked with medications, but all the pill bottles are of course labeled in Russian. Except for one. One is labeled “penicillin.” How fortunate. (This could be a knowing joke, I suppose. The audience certainly laughs at it.)
None of this would matter much if “The Day After Tomorrow” were a standard-issue disaster movie. But it’s not. The conceit of the film is that it’s a message movie. But given the hooting implausibilities of the end-of-the-world plot, one can’t help but wonder about the science that’s said to underpin the message.
Serious people can disagree about the extent and the importance of global warming. Scientists certainly do. And some of them have already weighed in on “The Day After Tomorrow.” In USA Today, Patrick J. Michaels, a research professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, said of the film’s various meteorological catastrophes, “Each one of these phenomena is physically impossible.” The stratosphere will change places with the troposphere, Michaels said, “when all three laws of thermodynamics are repealed.” He also pointed out that, according to MIT oceanographer Carl Wunsch, in a letter published in the April 8 issue of Nature magazine, the only way to create the sort of Gulf Stream collapse fantasized in the film would be “either to turn off the wind system, or to stop the Earth’s rotation, or both.” Wunsch says that the chance of such an occurrence happening “any time soon — within tens of millions of years — has a probability of little more than zero.”
Well-informed laymen have been equally derisive. Gregg Easterbrook, a senior editor at The New Republic, and a man who takes the global-warming issue seriously, earlier this month described the doomsday scenario presented in “The Day After Tomorrow” as “preposterous,” and derided the movie’s “imbecile-caliber ’science.’ ”
And where did this “science” come from? Well, it’s worth noting that “The Day After Tomorrow” was “suggested in part” by a book called “The Coming Global Superstorm,” by Art Bell and Whitley Strieber. Art Bell is a UFO buff who hosts a syndicated radio show devoted to the paranormal. Whitley Strieber is the author of a best-selling 1987 book about his many encounters with space aliens. The name of the book is “Communion: A True Story.”