Retro movie review: The Day After Tomorrow

(courtesy IMP Awards)

It turns out that the old adage that you get different things out of a film depending on in which stage of life you watch it is actually quite true.

It makes sense since time does tend to change perspective and thoughtful consideration and even emotional response to a significant degree, but what is most remarkable about watching the Roland Emmerich disaster film The Day After Tomorrow almost twenty years after its release is how progression in the science of climate change has altered how the movie impacts you.

It goes without saying, unless you are a climate change denier hiding deep in the rancid depths of the dark web, that what we know and appreciate now about the way the Earth’s environment is being changed by our rampant clinging to fossil fuels and unending industrialisation is considerably beyond what it was back then.

We knew there was a problem back then, in fact we’ve known there’s been a problem for multiple decades but when you now watch the world’s weather collapse into the three giant super cell storms and usher in a terrifying new ice age in the film’s slowly-but-surely unspooled first half or so, it feels less like a remote disaster film that you can view from a factual and emotional distance and more like an existential threat to your existence.

Of course, what stops it feeling completely like a documentary writ large is the fact that everything si so gloriously and emotionally over the top.

That is the way of all disaster films, and Emmerich’s in particular where extreme coincidence and overwrought circumstance form the cosiest of extraordinarily bombastic narrative momentum that propels us through the usual cocktail of scientists knowing things, politicians scornfully dismissing them and multiple million of people paying the price for all the fiddling while Rome burns, or in this case, is snowed under, with their lives.

It all happens so fast and with so many facts being flung around, earnest facts being expositionally arranged and characters meet tragic but storyline necessary deaths that you don’t really stop, or you didn’t back in 2004 anyway, to think about what this might mean in real life.

In 2023, however, where the climate change modelling that was supposed to be happening many decades from here is happening now, it all feels hauntingly real, with the events of the film where American paleoclimatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) and his team race to a frozen in New York City to rescue Jack and ex-wife Lucy’s (who’s a cancer doctor naturally who stays with her young charge) teenage son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), feeling like they could take place right this very moment.

It almost comically overdone, yes, but that aside, the massive floods of recent years in countries right across the globe and the wildlife-decimating fires in Australia and a thousand signs that the world’s weather and environment are collapsing like a climatic house of cards, lend credence to the far-fetched idea (then at least) that the world could be destroyed in the course of one fortnight-long hellish disaster.

Spectacularly unnerving as it is, and the special effects from people freezing instantly to waves of America refugees streaming across the border to the relative safety of Mexico and Central and South America do grab your attention, what really anchors The Day After Tomorrow and surprisingly impacts you, is the baked-in emotional resonance of the story.

Leaving aside the more obvious melodramatic flourishes of Lucy staying with young cancer patient Peter and several key people dying in OTT ways early in the mayhem of the world’s climate coming messily apart, what moves is the central story of a dad, who’s been a tad neglectful in his pursuit of science over family, racing to save his son.

His son, then up-and-coming star Gyllenhaal, is in New York attending a special school comp with his secret crush Laura (Emily Rossum), and bestie Brian (Arjay Smith) with the three finding themselves taking shelter in the stone-hewed grandeur of the New York Public Library with hundreds of others as the storm strips every last vestige of future promise from the city, and really, Western Civilisation as a whole.

Sam knows stuff thanks to his dad, and while his warnings don’t stop a lot of people making some particularly dumb, but understandable in some ways under the circumstances, decisions, he is able to save his friends and onetime romantic rival J.D. (Austin Nichols), homeless guy Luther (Glenn Plummer) and his dog Buddha, librarian Judith (Sheila McCarthy), and two intellectually-inclined people, Elsa (Amy Sloan) and Jeremy (Tom Rooney) who saves a C15 Guttenberg Bible from destruction.

While Sam and his pals are holed up in a room with a fireplace and burning lots of books to survive – hence Jeremy’s determination to save one special books above all others – Jack is racing to save him while tens of thousands, actually tens of millions die on the alter of a Vice President’s dismissive hubris, including a small scientific team up in Scotland who in their short time with us really drive home what a disaster of this scale would mean to people caught up in it.

It may feel massively blockbuster-y in its scale and impact, but The Day After Tomorrow works because it goes intimately small when it comes to the human elements of the story, and as we watch oceanographer Terry Rapson (Ian Holm) and his Hedland Centre team of young dad Simon (Adrian Lester) and generator-tending Dennis (Richard McMillan) face their end, the bombastic elements of the tale, of ocean currents shifting and cities flooding into oblivion, suddenly feel very real and very impactful.

It’s no longer just things going boom and snapping in two, though there is a lot of that and like many of these disaster films, it does scarily, arrestingly well, but peoples’ lives breaking clean in half as well, all of their hopes and dreams, love and meaningful connections with other human beings being ripped from them by circumstances over which they no control at all.

Yes, it’s meant to be vicariously entertaining and it most certainly is, the idea being that watching a disaster this big and this brutal frames our lives into somewhat more manageable and liveable with perspective, but The Day After Tomorrow‘s also movingly human in a way many other disaster films aren’t because it never deviates from the idea, even if its execution is sometimes hamfistedly, pulpily melodramatic, that people always lost out in these scenarios and that if the film is to mean anything to us, their stories must be noticeable enough and full of enough heart, that all of the banging and freezing and booming actually actually makes some sense.

That it does, and that you really care about these characters, means that The Day After Tomorrow is not just a sage (if clunkily expositioned at times; some of the dialogue is laughably overwrought) warning about climate change, that now feels far ore alarmingly real and possible than it did in the year of its release, but a story of real people in almost unreal times which affects you in ways that bring home what something this terrible and world-changing would mean to those caught up in it.

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