The Day After Tomorrow (2004 USA)

dayaftertomorrow Let’s be honest, you don’t watch an ‘end of the world’ movie for the tight plot, incredible script and Academy Award winning acting. You watch it for the special effects to run rampant and to turn your brain off. This one hits all the right spots for the viewer to enjoy some undemanding fun. You have to credit director Roland Emmerich for delivering the goods.

Mainstream apocalypse films like The Day After Tomorrow pose a challenge: how do you convey awesome carnage while telling an essentially upbeat tale? The short answer is by ignoring a lot of details. There’s quite a few secondary characters in this film, but their fears and hopes are subordinate to the heroes’. One could set countless other stories in the same universe about fathers and sons who don’t find each other, but die alone while clutching each others’ photographs. Emmerich knows what his task is: create a group of simply drawn characters, kill the least important to evoke suspense.

Then add a minor subplot which draws emotion, then round it off with a happy ending for those with the most screen time. It’s ruthless, but it works. Critics may call it bad, but bad films slip free of their makers’ control and become something worse than expected. I get the feeling that The Day After Tomorrow is exactly what Emmerich intended it to be. It’s his vision, and it’s amazing to witness. Paleoclimatologist Dr. Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) predicts that a new ice age will come if we don’t act now, but he’s dismissed by the American vice president (Kenneth Welsh).

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Freak weather then begins to assault the Northern Hemisphere, trapping Jack’s son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) in the New York Public Library with his friends Laura (Emmy Rossum) and Brian (Arjay Smith). Americans are forced to migrate south into Mexico to escape the freezing conditions while Jack, aided by his colleagues Frank (Jay O. Sanders) and Jason (Dash Mihok) hikes from Washington to New York to find Sam. Meanwhile, Sam’s mother, Dr. Lucy Hall (Sela Ward), stays by a young cancer patient’s bedside until an ambulance can arrive.

The plot is as thin as soup. After a while you sense Emmerich and his co-writer inventing problems on the spot just to keep it rolling. The science is non-existent. Half an hour of vague exposition sets up the impending doom, then the rest of the film is a struggle for survival. The acting’s all good. Ian Holm brings poignancy to his role as a meteorologist holed up in a Scottish bunker with two colleagues. Though not exactly convincing as a seventeen-year old Jake Gyllenhaal gives a solid performance too.

Dennis Quaid’s fine as always, though his character’s very generic. The special effects are what rise above everything else; there are shots in this film which are darkly beautiful. Emmerich is a spellbinding visual magician; he destroys cities the way a child smashes Lego houses. The storms are scary in their scope and realism. On an imagery level The Day After Tomorrow is a masterpiece. The thin and sentimental plot holds it back a bit, but if you accept the manipulative storytelling you’ll enjoy yourself immensely.

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