Tomorrow never dies

Monday, 31 May 2004 — 3:11pm | Film, Full reviews

Roland Emmerich’s latest Movie of Mass Destruction, in which the culprit responsible for desecrating the Statue of Liberty yet again is neither an invading race of space aliens nor a knockoff of a radioactive Japanese lizard, but no less a threat than global warming, is a movie in two parts. The first half of The Day After Tomorrow deals with the melting of the polar ice caps triggering a cataclysmic change in the North Atlantic Current that, in a dramatic reversal of Inigo Montoyan proportions, brings about the abrupt glaciation of all of North America. Think of it as Kill Bill, Vol. 1, but with the Los Angeles skyline shredded by tornadoes instead of masked henchmen shredded by a Hattori Hanzo blade. The second half focuses on the survival of a group of teenagers stranded in New York on account of a trivia competition, particularly Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Laura (Emmy Rossum), while Sam’s father (Dennis Quaid) embarks on an epic snowshoeing trip to rescue them. Think of it as Kill Bill, Vol. 2, but with kids buried in the New York Public Library under twenty feet of snow instead of Uma Thurman buried in a coffin under six feet of dirt.

Likewise, I will follow the same narrative structure in this review by doing it in halves: the part that everyone actually came to read, followed by a few paragraphs of melodrama where this reviewer valiantly begs to be taken seriously.

Roland Emmerich is often criticized for being one of those filmmakers whose films quite unfortunately started making money before he ever learned the fine art of subtlety. The naysayers need not say nay to this latest movie of his, as it embodies all manner of clever literary devices in its very title. Now, while pretty much everybody in the business of making fun of movie titles has already trodden on this with the standard attempts to emulate Abbott and Costello (“Did you buy tickets for The Day After Tomorrow?” – “No, I bought them for today.”), what has not been done thus far is its subjection to the rigorous critical analysis that it deserves, an appraisal that exposes its true genius.

What the target audience of “people who inexplicably still watch television dramas” will miss completely, but any respectable aspiring film scholar should pick up on right away, is that the title The Day After Tomorrow is an obvious allusion to Casablanca. In Rick’s last speech to Ilsa before she boards the plane to Lisbon, the same one where he makes the observation that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” he also says: “If you don’t get on that plane with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.” This applies very well to a scene early on in the film that establishes the father-son dynamic in preparation for the second half of the film, where Sam’s father rushes home to send his son to the airport for his flight to New York. Besides that – if not today, and not tomorrow, then when doth regret arrive? That’s right: The Day After Tomorrow.

The Casablanca connections don’t stop there; recall how Rick tells Major Strasser, “There are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.” The subtextual point is that according to Emmerich, the coming of a new ice age heralded by global warming is analogous to no less than the Third Reich. Take that for what you will.

But let it not be said that this is the be-all and end-all of subliminal allusions in the piece. For a moment, let us turn our attention to the real reason anybody would pay to see this movie: not the thunderous wanton annihilation of an entire continent, but whether or not Emmy Rossum is a good enough actress to carry The Phantom of the Opera. Sadly, as was the case with Gerard Butler (who plays the Phantom) in Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, the jury is out. Perhaps what The Day After Tomorrow needed more than anything was a musical number about how “the sun’ll come out tomorrow,” not that it’s been done or anything.

Still, even without any singing and dancing – not even on ice skates – Emmerich does not ignore the Phantom Phactor: that if the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical makes a successful transition to film, people may one day watch his apocalypse flick and exclaim, “Hey, that’s Christine!” like how they pick out Bob Falfa in American Graffiti as Han Solo with a cowboy hat. Observe the two-part structure of the film I pointed out earlier, and how this is really two movies in one – one before the disaster that befalls the United States, and one after, which works its way towards a big happy reunion. Now observe what Christine sings in Act II of Phantom: “Past the point of no return – no going back now, / Our passion-play has now, at last, begun… / Past all thought of right or wrong – one final question / How long should we two wait, before we’re one?” Case closed.

And now for something completely different – the boring part where I actually talk about the film.

For a movie boasting variants of the typical Roland Emmerich clichés – the Sceptical Authority Figure whose negligence and resemblance to Dick Cheney lead to the deaths of millions, crowds huddling around televisions watching the disaster on a breaking-news segment, a sympathy-wrenching boy afflicted with an incurable disease (a level down to which even Don Cherry would not sink) – The Day After Tomorrow feels surprisingly fresh. On a visual level, it is almost the opposite of a standard disaster movie: there are no fiery explosions that blossom into the lovely mushroom clouds of a nuclear spring, but tidal waves that engulf cities and icy winds that creep along walls and chase you down and freeze you on the spot. Count on Emmerich to preserve his long-standing tradition of defying physics and explaining it with threadbare junk science, but innovate when it comes to executing such defiance itself. As an effects spectacle, it holds up well, and in all likelihood there is little about its images of an apocalypse-in-progress that will look dated a decade from now. The five-minute destruction of Los Angeles by tornado has more visceral impact than all of Twister put together, and the flooding of Manhattan is a serviceable prequel to A.I. if there ever was one.

The most significant change from the norm is that this time, the world is faced with a disaster that cannot be defeated or stalled; nobody flies up to Mother Nature with an Apple Macintosh and infects her with a virus. The characters have to accept the consequences, suck it up, and sit around trying not to die. It makes Tomorrow a lot more human and mature than the average movie of its sort, and justifies the implausible survival of the protagonists without going one step too far and having them save the rest of the world, too. It is easy to pass off the human-driven drama of the movie’s post-disaster phase as extraneous and juvenile – and admittedly, it is written that way – but at the end of all things, the actors do what they can considering the material they are given, and emerge with their careers largely unscathed.

The political messaging does not fare so well. (Note that I said “messaging” and not “subtext”. Messaging is overt, and subtext has already been discussed.) It is tellingly comical that The Day After Tomorrow is a hot-button topic in political circles when its grasp on how policymaking actually works is more of a children’s fantasy than its pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo. Basically, the movie is trying to tell us all that global warming will doom the human race, in the same way that every other movie back in the 1950s had nuclear fission heralding the environmentalist’s Cassandra. At one point it even dares to slip the K-word (rhymes with “Schmyoto”). This is not to say that the politicking is not at least somewhat intentionally tongue-in-cheek; there is, I kid you not, a mock newscast about an hour in that makes a passing mention of the President suddenly forgiving all Latin American debt. So much for your aid budget, Mr. P.

Notably, this is Emmerich’s first motion picture since Manhattan was actually sacked back in 2001, but it pulls no punches when it comes to tearing the island apart. If anything, the eponymous event of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 almost lends false credence to the reality depicted in Tomorrow, now that the images of unfortunate innocent extras panicking in the shadow of skyscrapers getting their windows knocked out are no longer as far-fetched as they once may have seemed. Some may call this penchant for picking on New Yorkers a demonstration of cinematic insensitivity, but this is a case where the circumstances enhance the experience.

The end product of The Day After Tomorrow proves to be a very watchable, albeit forgettable film that in many ways represents a high point for everybody’s favourite Hollywood sadist with a Lady Liberty fetish, but should not be seen for anything more than what it is: a disaster effects extravaganza that just happens to substantiate the theory that in the world of cinema, every story has already been told – by Casablanca, that is.

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