THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW understands that its premise, a cataclysmic climate change that happens in less than a week, is hard for even the most sympathetic audience to swallow. It thoughtfully has its characters mentioning that its all very odd and to be suitably surprised by it all. Given that expositional permission, the audience is then free to wallow in the sublime kitsch of it all.
Things start with a bang, with a chunk of glacier the size of Rhode Island snapping off its shelf and into the ocean, thereby weakening the oceans salinity, and, of course, raising the sea level. The repercussions of that are explained in lay terms in the next sequence, when snow falls in New Delhi during a conference on global warming. The irony is piquant, especially when the American Vice-President (Dick Cheney impersonator Kenneth Walsh) dresses down maverick meteorologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) for his alarmist theories on the impending ice age as part of that explanation. The worlds economy, the Veep rumbles, is far too fragile to deal with anything as theoretical as that, and besides, isnt it global warming, not an ice age thats coming up?
For this sort of film to work, its important for everyone involved to be more or less stupid, or problems will be headed off too soon and, hence, no story to fill the two-hour running time. The nice twist here is that it quickly becomes apparent that there is no solving this problem, as ocean currents are re-routed, hail the size of cantaloupes falls in Japan, and helicopters in Scotland freeze in mid-air due to the super storms forming all over the northern hemisphere. Not to worry, though, people are still more or less stupid. For example Hall, who is, to be precise, a paleo-climatologist, and should know better than to decide to walk from Philadelphia to New York in the middle of the North American super storm in order to find his son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is trapped there. What hes planning to do once he gets there, what with New York being under several dozen feet of ice at that point, is not explored. Nor should it be, seeing how it would take screen time away from the completely fabulous scenes of ecological destruction that are splashed with melodramatic panache before our dazzled eyes. Nor should the filmmakers have wasted time with the egregious subplot involving Jacks doctor ex-wife (Sela Ward), playing surrogate mother to a critically ill child as the rest of Washington D.C. is evacuated south ahead of the swiftly moving ice age.
None of that compares to the gaggle of tornadoes that play havoc with Los Angeles, or to the giant wave that washes across New York, sweeping down streets with people running in terror just ahead of them. Well, most of them. In one of the many nice touches that balance the clunky dialogue and rampant bad character motivations, there are some people who actually stop to take pictures of whats about to clobber them. Another is the homeless guy whos taken refuge from the elements in the New York Public Library along with Sam and his team of whiz kids who had come to New York for an intellectual super bowl. The guys surprisingly well-groomed and lucid, which comes in handy when he offers tips on finding food in the garbage and keeping insulated with paper torn from books once the super cold sets in. Theres also his dog, who barks on cue to let us know things are happening, like that nifty shot of the Russian ship sailing up Fifth Avenue on the flood tide. Best is the scene of gringos tearing down the fence along the border with Mexico and sloshing across the Rio Grande in order to illegally immigrate away from the frozen tundra that the United States has become. Theres a wonderful punch line to Mexicos terms that will put world economics in bright shiny new terms for many in the audience. It almost makes up for the rampaging pack of timber wolves, escaped from the Bronx Zoo, of course, that were the one step too far into the realm of overkill.
In a film that doesnt need to worry about performances other than having the actors hit their marks and then move on, Gyllenhaal rises above the half-hearted conviction of most of the other players. As a lovesick seventeen-year-old watching the object of his affection being wooed by someone richer, more suave, and technically more attractive, hes a sweet little puppy dog with soulful eyes and a crooked smile. Hes good with the panic, too, as he races ahead of a sub-orbital layer of air thats flash-freezing everything in its path.
As I often say about films such as THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, we dont go to see them expecting Shakespeare. No, we flock to these effects-laden epics to see the amazing and the awesome play out before us on the big screen. And in that, this film succeeds very tidily.