Sneezy the Squid:
Ahhh, you know that summer has truly arrived when the
first disaster movie rolls into the multiplex. Usually right around Memorial Day
there's a film where we all get to watch the digital fury of Mother Nature smash
sets and character actors to pieces in great bouts of digital effects. Twister,
The Core, Deep Impact, Armageddon, The Perfect Storm, Volcano,
and many others.
Jason Myers: Don't forget Dante's Peak. I can't, though I wish I
could. Boy, what a giant blowhole of a movie that was. But long the digital revolution,
there was Avalanche, Cave In!, City on Fire, Cyclone, Deluge, Earthquake, Fire!,
Flood!, Hurricane (three versions), Meteor, The Night the World Exploded,
The Poseidon Adventure, Tidal Wave, Tornado!, and Towering Inferno,
most of them during the late 70s and most of them starring either Ernest Borgnine
or Leslie Neilsen.
What you learn by examining these films is that the disaster film continues
to thrive not because the special effects have gotten better (they have), and
not because the plots and characters have gotten better (they haven't), but
because for every crusty adult who loved the old Irwin Allen disaster movies
and proclaims "they don't make 'em like they used to" (even, though, in fact,
they make them exactly like they used to), for every guy like me who was blown
away by Independence Day but got bored around the time of Volcano
or The Perfect Storm there are at least two wide-eyed neophytes who will
walk out of the latest disaster retread believing that they've witnessed a landmark
It's like when NBC was promoting the hell out of their reruns by saying, "If
you haven't seen it, it's new to you." I can't believe I'm saying this, but
there's an undeniable Zen logic to that.
Sneezy: Most of disaster movies are fairly disposable, but they're
usually decent enough eye candy for a lazy summer matinee. They usually have
weak plots and bad science that sounds good in the theatre and justifies the
ensuing mayhem. In most cases, however, once you leave the theatre, you go,
"Wait a moment... that's crap!"
Even so, I really enjoy a good disaster film.
The recent masters of the disaster film are Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich,
who brought us the disaster films Independence
Day (Will Smith & Jeff Goldblum save the world with attitude and a Powerbook)
and Godzilla (Mathew Broderick vs. Giant Iguana.) Whether these films
are about disasters or are disasters themselves I leave as an exercise for you
readers. (Personally, I still enjoy watching parts of ID4 every now and
For reasons I am not aware of, Roland went solo for this latest flick about
Mother Nature being pissed, The Day After Tomorrow. This time, she's
a cold bitch.
It turns out that global warming is going to cause an Ice Age. Yes, I know,
it sounds like a paradox, and the movie does try to explain exactly how this
works through our hero Dr. Jack Hall (Dennis "My bro died in ID4" Quaid).
It seems that Dr. Hall, a paleoclimatoligist, believes that if enough of the
polar caps melt, the inrush of cold, melted freshwater could take the heat out
of a major ocean current and plunge our temperate climate into the deep freeze.
Like the science of all disaster movies it sounds plausible at the time, but
later makes you go "Huh?"
Disaster films all have a pretty set sequence of events and plot beats that
they follow, and DAT is no exception. You have to start with a minor
prelude of the coming danger, in this case a huge piece of the Antarctic ice
shelf breaking off right under Dr. Hall's feet. Then you have the unheeded warnings,
this time ignored by Vice President Dick Cheney... er Becker (Kenneth Welsh).
Then there is the elder scientist who believes Our Hero, this time Dr. Terry
Rapson (Ian Holm).
Then there is our hero's troubled family life, which drives him to take even bigger
risks to save them and adds needed drama. This time it's that Dr. Hall is a bit
of an adrift dad to his ex-wife Dr. Lucy Hall
(Sela Ward) and son Sam (Jake "Donnie Darko" Gyllenhaal). I have no idea why,
but the filmmakers seemed to do their best to make Sam look like a pensive Joaquin
Phoenix. I kept waiting for him to either scream out "Are you not entertained?!"
or start swinging a baseball bat at aliens. Anyway, Dr. Hall promises his son
that he'll come for him, so he heads out from D.C. to NYC during the worst of
the storm to prove that he's a good dad... and to put him at ground level of
said storm so we get a good look at it.
Jason: I guess this would be an appropriate time to mention one very
concrete reason why I believe The Day After Tomorrow is less engaging
than Independence Day. (I mean, aside from the fact that one movie has
spaceships and aliens and dogfights and the other movie has... really cold weather.)
That reason is the characters. While Ian Holm, Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal
are arguably better actors than Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum and
Randy Quaid, the characters in ID4 are much more vivid and memorable.
DAT's characters are perhaps more realistic (though not more complex),
but they're so vanilla, so noble, so reasonable and so soft-spoken that they're
Sneezy: After the set-up, DAT follows the disaster film recipe of character
beat, disaster, character beat, bigger disaster, character beat, major disaster,
noble sacrifices, climax, and aftermath where humanity is humbled/awed at nature's
power, overcomes/survives the events, and then Learns a Lesson.
Speaking of learning a lesson, I still have a nice little bruise on my forehead
from the end of the film, where Emmerich makes sure that we get his point (pollution
I also thought that the end climax was a bit... well, not too thrilling. In
fact, I thought it was a bit silly, but I won't spoil it. The effects are interesting,
but I just sat there thinking "Oh you've got to be kidding me, they're going
to outrun THAT?"
Jason: Well, they have to outrun something, or it wouldn't be a disaster
movie. It's the classic conflict of Man vs. Nature, only in disaster movies
it's more of an Olympic Games than a conflict. And the main event is the 200-meter
dash. They take their positions, hear the starter pistol, and they're off!
Turns out that people can outrun walls of water, tornadoes, lava, and pyroclastic
clouds. I've never seen anyone actually outrun an earthquake. I mean, that'd
be just too stupid for words, right? But somewhere, in some film I just haven't
gotten around to watching, the conscientious scientist is sitting in his gas-electric
hybrid, the pedal to the metal, managing to stay just ahead of the rolling wave
of concrete that's bearing down on him as it expands outward from the epicenter
of The Big One.
Sneezy: DAT's minor characters are the standard cast of hundreds
, thumbnail sketches who are supposed to stand in for the mass of humanity.
Most of the time these are character actors; we're supposed to care enough about
them to hope they survive but not be so attached that it crushes our spirits
when they snuff it.
We have the homeless guy (a staple of Emmerich's,) some friends of Sam's, other
scientists, politicians (including a president who is definitely a riff on Reagan),
news people, weathermen, and so forth. They are all disposable. We cut back
and forth between them all as the disaster rages on so there is some "human
drama" to hold the SFX extravaganzas together. And the human drama is OK, but
it's just a bit melodramatic for my tastes. "Will Sam tell the girl he loves
her? Will the ambulance make it in time to save the sick little boy?" Bah. I
must just be a jaded old man, or a callous freak, because I just wanted the
storm action to continue.
The effects in DAT are very cool (pun intended), and we get a bunch
of them. Unfortunately, a good chunk of them were in the previews. I am really
getting tired of previews that show, and thus ruin, all the cool bits in movies.
It's almost enough to make me swear off watching previews.
Emmerich has a very good eye for special effects and the destruction sequences
are very well done. We see tornadoes rampage through downtown L.A., hailstorms
in Hong Kong, and tidal waves in NYC. It's in NYC that the last main requirement
of a disaster movie comes through: The top half of the Statue of Liberty is
indestructible. The lower half may be mangled, buried or destroyed, but her
head and torch arm are always (mostly) intact and upright. She has survived
Planet of the Apes, ID4, and now this. Liberty is one tough lady.
Jason: Yes, the effects are top notch. There are some great moments,
but I can count on one hand the number of times my brain went from "mildly entertained"
to "truly engaged." SPOILER WARNING: A bus gets tossed on top of a car; military
helicopters freeze and then crash and burn; New York gets flooded; a huge boat
pulls up alongside the New York Public Library; and the Statue of Liberty freezes.
All spiffy stuff, but the rest of the loud disaster mayhem was pretty rote.
Sneezy: Story wise, Emmerich's a weak director. He makes sure to pound
every plot point at us so we don't miss setups for future bits. "Oh look, she
cut her leg! This is gonna be IMPORTANT!" or "The wolves are loose! This is
gonna be IMPORTANT!"
Jason: Frankly, you're scraping the bottom of the peril barrel when you're
relying on wolves who've escaped from the Central Park Zoo to ramp up the tension.
In spite of all the flash-frozen people and the wanton destruction and the "haughty
Western civilization finally gets its come-uppance" subtext, DAT is just
too pleasant to inspire any real awe or fear. Even as ice shelves the size of
Rhode Island crack and the world turns into a popsicle, the obstacles that the
main characters face aren't much more gripping or urgent than the ones that would
be faced by people in a G-rated Disney adventure movie about a family getting
stranded on a mountain or a young teen embarking on her first marathon dog-sled
Not that I'm out for blood (OK, I am), but in DAT the gruesome deaths
are (almost without exception) handed out to grown men, while the world remains
safe for mistreated homeless people, dogs, school girls with pretty smiles,
mommies, and cute kids with cancer. What's more, for the main characters the
outcome is never in doubt. It's as pat and predictable and comforting as a romantic
comedy. Hey, I'm not against happy endings, just happy endings that feel as
inevitable as the Harlem Globe Trotters beating the Washington Generals.
Of course, the Harlem Globe Trotters prove that you can be predictable and
still be unbelievably entertaining. The Day After Tomorrow is both predictable
and a little bland.
The most recent disaster movie before DAT was The
Core. DAT, I'm sure, made more money in its opening weekend than
The Core made in its entire run. Still, as much I gave (for good reason)
The Core a hard time, I think The Core is a slightly better movie.
It's like, who would you rather spend time with, the dumb, loud, clueless guy
who can be gloriously fun, or the nice guy with slightly-above-average intelligence
and no discernible personality?
Sneezy: The film does work in some places, the eye candy is excellent,
and there are a few really funny bits. ("There is a whole section on Tax Law
down here."). But in the end, it is just as disposable and flimsy as most other
disaster flicks. It's good for one or two viewings, but not something you'll
have to own on DVD.
If you like disaster flicks or big set pieces of destructive special effects,
and can turn off your brain for the run time, Day After Tomorrow is an
enjoyable film. If you want a serious sci-fi look at the perils of mankind's
short-sightness, go read some Asimov.
Sneezy's Rating: 7 out of 10
Jason's Rating: 5 out of 10