Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Day After Tomorrow (20th Century-Fox, Centropolis Entertainment, Lionsgate, 2004)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched another DVD I pulled from the backlog: The Day After Tomorrow, a 2004 production from director Roland Emmerich, who along with producer Dean Devlin gave us the 1996 film Independence Day (and has since made a sequel and is working on a third film in the cycle) and other similar works of disaster porn. He’s made other movies, too, including The Patriot, which starred Mel Gibson as a farmer during the American Revolution who becomes a committed revolutionary after the British kill his son (Heath Ledger in his first important, star-making role). It seems that while making The Patriot Emmerich fell behind schedule because he was waiting for the right kind of weather for all the film’s many outdoor scenes, and he hit on the idea of doing a film about weather and in particular about the then-popular belief that humans were screwing it up by burning fossil fuels and releasing great amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It’s been one of the great triumphs of the political Right, particularly the American Right (which seems to have a venomous anti-environmentalism Right-wing movements in other countries are either less intense about or don’t share at all — I remember the year the Green Party won seats in Germany’s Congress, the Bundestag, and were embarrassed because the German tradition is the oldest member of your party’s delegation gives an opening speech, and the oldest Green in the Bundestag that year was an ex-Nazi who had joined both the Nazis and the Greens because they had promised to protect the Black Forest) that the idea that humans are wrecking the earth’s climate and threatening the continued existence of life, especially human life, on this planet has actually fallen in political importance and popular support in the 14 years since The Day After Tomorrow was filmed — even though climate scientists are issuing ever more dire reports that climate change is happening faster than they previously predicted and we have only 12 years to turn things around and preserve human life by switching to renewable energy and reversing the earth’s rising temperatures. The Day After Tomorrow was controversial when it came out — while researching the film online I dug up a May 12, 2004 e-mail sent out by urging people to vote with their money by seeing the film on its initial Memorial Day weekend release. The e-mail read, “While The Day After Tomorrow is more science fiction than science fact, everyone will be talking about it — and asking, ‘Could it really happen?’ This is an unprecedented opportunity to talk to millions of Americans about the real dangers of global warming and expose President Bush’s foot-dragging on the issue.”

One of the interesting things about The Day After Tomorrow is that its script — by Emmerich and Jeffrey Nachmanoff, ostensibly inspired by a book called The Coming Global Superstorm by Art Bell (a conspiracy theorist who did a popular radio show, and then an Internet podcast, widely ridiculed for his belief in UFO’s) and Whitley Strieber (a fantasy author who “made his bones” commercially with a modern-dress werewolf tale called Wolfen, then wrote books about aliens from outer space visiting Earth and abducting some of its inhabitants for sinister “research” about us, and still later claimed to have been abducted by space aliens himself — a lot of people joked about his claim to have had an experience similar to the stories he’d made up, though my joke would be the aliens kidnapped him to tell him, “Look at all the stuff about us you got wrong! We’ve been laughing our heads off about you for years!”) — is actually not about the planet getting unsustainably warmer, but quite the opposite. The film’s leading character, “paleoclimatologist” Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid, whose role here is an ironic contrast to his current appearances in TV commercials for an insurance company), has been studying Earth’s most recent Ice Age 10,000 years ago and come to the conclusion that rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere could trigger another one. Jack also comes equipped with an estranged wife, Dr. Lucy Hall (Sela Ward), and a son, Sam Hall (Jake Gyllenhaal — so Emmerich worked with both the male leads from Brokeback Mountain, albeit on different projects), who like his dad is an intellectual genius (he’s the leader of his high school’s academic decathlon team and his calculus professor flunked him because, while he got all the answers right on the final, he didn’t write down his calculations on his test paper because he did them all in his head, and the professor decided that meant he was cheating) but who’s been raised with an absentee father because dad was always tearing off around the world digging out ice cores to test them for evidence of prehistoric climate change. (It’s yet another story where one gets the impression, as Dorothy Parker said about Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth, that if the writer had outlined the plot to a friend and said, “Stop me if you’ve heard this before,” a good chunk of it would never have got written in the first place.)

Jack Hall calculates that the next ice age is going to happen within decades, which gets changed to years, which gets changed to the next few weeks, which gets changed to … well, the day after tomorrow. He tries to warn vice-president Becker (Kenneth Welsh, whom director Emmerich admitted was deliberately made up to look like real-life vice-president Dick Cheney) about the coming climate apocalypse, and gets the usual B.S. about how the American and world economies are even more fragile than the climate, and he isn’t going to risk impoverishing America for some scientist’s loony-tunes notions about climate change. Anyway, the new ice age happens almost immediately and the film basically revolves around three plot lines, each involving one of the Halls: Jack is working to persuade the U.S. government to evacuate the entire population of the northern two-thirds of the U.S. and ask the government of Mexico to grant mass asylum to the people who can no longer live in the U.S. (Naturally Emmerich and Nachmanoff make a great deal of the ironies surrounding this, including shots of U.S. refugees fleeing and trying to cross the Mexican border while Mexican guards try to stop them until Becker, who takes over as President midway through the film when the previous President gets killed by the mega-storm, successfully negotiates a treaty with the President of Mexico to let our people in … a good thing nobody in this movie was dumb enough to try to build a wall between the two countries!)

The plot lines shift back and forth between the attempts of Jack Hall to convince the United States and United Nations bureaucracies to deal seriously with the coming global superstorm and the situations of his wife and son. His wife is a doctor working in a cancer ward and trying to keep a young boy named Peter (Luke Letourneau) alive through the disaster — yes, that’s right: Emmerich and Nachmanoff are not only doing a cancer patient, but a sickly-looking young prepubescent cancer patient for maximum tear-jerking value! — and his son is attempting to lead the members of his academic decathlon team (including a Black kid named Brian Parks, played engagingly by Arjay Smith) to safety through the suddenly ice-bound streets of New York City, where they end up hiding out in the New York Public Library (where, amazingly, the old pay telephones work even though the storm has wiped out electrical power and taken down the cell-phone grid). When one of the kids gets an infected leg and the teens need an immediate supply of penicillin to save him from having to undergo a D.I.Y. amputation, fate (or scriptorial fiat) provides one in the form of a giant Russian tanker, which gets lost in the middle of the storm and sails up a New York street (flagged as a “goof” on by someone who noticed that even the widest of New York street rights-of-way would accommodate the width of an entire ship). The kids think to board the freighter and raid its emergency medical supplies, but they’re endangered by a pack of wolves who escaped from the New York zoo when it was destroyed by the storm (though they looked to me like ordinary large dogs driven feral by the weather situation) and who provide some exciting if rather bizarre suspense moments on our way to an eventual plot resolution that involves what’s left of humanity resigning itself to living on the few parts of the earth’s surface that are still habitable after the Great Storm.

Made during the George W. Bush administration, The Day After Tomorrow seems even more current now that the percentage of people who believe human beings are responsible for climate change has actually gone down, and with it the support for the kinds of sweeping and extreme changes in human civilization and lifestyles needed to forestall its dangers. MoveOn’s 2004 e-mail criticized the Bush administration for paying lip service to the climate accords in Kyoto but doing nothing; today we have a President who is not only ignoring the dangers but arrogantly dismissing them, pulling the U.S. out of the subsequent accords in Paris (which themselves were way too weak to accomplish anything) and launching a change in U.S. policy from “energy independence” to “energy dominance.” As Antonia Juhasz writes in an op-ed column in today’s Los Angeles Times (, “Trump has unleashed a massive, untethered expansion of oil, natural gas and coal production, designed to make this country the world’s foremost dirty energy powerhouse. The policy not only worsens catastrophic climate change, it pushes the U.S. into a small and increasingly isolated club of autocratic regimes intent on maintaining a global commitment to fossil fuels” — which will mean, ironically enough given Trump’s stated agenda of making America great and self-sufficient again, that when the fossil fuel regime finally collapses and likely takes the world’s climate and ability to sustain its current world population with it, we will end up having to buy our renewable-energy technology from China because they’re one autocratic regime that does see where the energy and climate futures are going and they’re developing renewable-energy technology and we aren’t. 

I’ve long been convinced that the only way human civilization can survive climate change is if the climate scientists are wrong and are way overstating the imminence and the catastrophic impact of the danger, because if they’re right this is one crisis that humanity, with its current economic and political systems — particularly the dominance of global capitalism and the priorities of the giant worldwide corporations that really rule us, simply cannot muster the political will or overcome the entrenched opposition to solve. What Trump — and a lot of Republican propagandists before him — have done is to neutralize climate change as a political issue by undermining public support for the scientific consensus and therefore making sure enough people don’t want the issue to be addressed, especially if it means making short-term sacrifices for long-term survival, so we as a nation (and a world) continue pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the oceans continue to grow warmer, and more fresh water is released into the oceans — thereby changing the salinity balance which in turn affects the global currents that are responsible for preserving most of Earth’s relatively temperate weather (at least that’s the explanation Emmerich and Nachmanoff employ in their script to explain how, contrary to the snippy dismissals of Trump and Right-wing propagandists in general that the earth can’t be getting warmer when storms are becoming more frequent and short-term temperature trends getting colder). Watching The Day After Tomorrow 14 years after it was made — by people who deliberately ramped up the immediacy of their story and the speed with which it happens precisely because audiences wouldn’t be able to understand or emotionally get involved with a disaster that takes place over decades instead of days — one’s gripped by the ironies that climate change as a political issue has receded in importance and significance even as, according to the climate scientists, it’s becoming an ever more immediate threat to the world’s and humanity’s existence and we’re quickly reaching the “tipping point” beyond which any activity to stop it will be too late to make a difference.