I'm a fan of disaster movies. I love getting to watch mass destruction without guilt. I enjoy the cheesy scripts, which almost always result in the disaster taking a backseat to the reconciliation and/or reunion of a romantic couple, or a parent and a child. And I savor the stereotypes, from the authority figure who just won't listen to the colorful sidekicks that stick doggedly to the hero, even if it costs them their lives.
It's important to be forgiving with a disaster movie, because it really is hard to pull one off. You need a splashy bit of destruction early on to whet the viewer's appetite. Then you need an earnest scientific type to spell out the looming major disaster ahead, so that dread/anticipation can build in the viewer and so that the authority figure will get a chance to just not listen.
The main disaster comes next and it needs to be eye-popping and to last as long as possible. State-of-the-art special effects are a big plus, but not essential, because in this kind of movie, the intent is more important than the execution. A good disaster filmmaker knows the big whammy works best when intercut with numerous shots of extras freaking out and a few shots of at least two principal cast members almost getting killed.
Then comes the daring rescues section, where we see people of divergent types (cop and meth dealer, screaming queen and fundamentalist minister, Letterman and Leno, etc.) setting aside their differences to work for the greater good. During this section, the hero makes a few daring rescues, one of the sidekicks dies and the authority figure that just wouldn't listen gets injured or trapped by the disaster.
Finally, after one last jolt (an aftershock, smaller asteroid, overlooked explosive device, etc.), the humbled authority figure indicates that from now on, he will listen, and the hero and the separated spouse/friend/partner/child/parent hug. The camera pulls back for a final look at the jaw-dropping wreckage, the orchestra (or power ballad) kicks into action and the credits roll.
So, how did Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla) do with The Day After Tomorrow, the mega-hyped end-of-the-world spectacular?
He gets some of it right. Emmerich follows the disaster movie template fairly well, he has his clichés in place and his visuals are amazing. But he makes some mistakes that sap some of the juice from the film, particularly in the second half.
The cause of the trouble this time is global warming, as scientist Dennis Quaid tells everyone, including the arrogant vice president, a Dick Cheney clone (played by Kenneth Welsh, Agent Cooper's nemesis Wyndom Earle in Twin Peaks) who just won't listen. Dennis' wife, Sela Ward, is a doctor toiling away on a little cancer patient. She wishes her husband would keep his promises to spend more time with his son. The boy, Jake Gyllenhaal, heads for NYC to compete in a major academic smackdown. He wishes his dad would keep his promises to spend more time with him.
Fine. The clichés are set and the dialogue is sufficiently wooden (this is important, because if the script makes us feel too much, then we can't fully enjoy the disaster), so we can move on to the destruction. With state-of-the-art computer effects, Roland offers the break-up of a polar icecap, extraordinarily large hail, tornadoes, a tsunami and massive flooding, a rapid super-freeze and hungry wolves on the loose.
The two major money shots are of tornadoes tearing apart Los Angeles and a tsunami flooding New York. One works and the other doesn't. The L.A. images are visually dazzling, but I found myself watching the segment rather than feeling it. Emmerich distances us from the disaster by using too many aerial views and not enough man-on-the-street shots. Worse, he repeatedly shows the tornadoes on TV screens, further muting the impact.
According to soundtrack and scores buff Dave Lichty from AMC Castleton Arts, the music is wrong as well. "Beautifully designed shots of three tornadoes wiping out the L.A. area were scored with music better suited to scenes of gathering clouds," he explained. "The music conveyed a measured, building dread, not the adrenaline and impact of a big, destructive event. It sucked the astonishment right out of those spectacular shots. In the trailers, the same scenes were backed with punchier stuff and they were exciting enough to make my seeing the movie a no-brainer, even though I thought they would probably be decorating a dumb picture."
The New York segment is considerably more effective because, along with the expected shots of the massive approaching tidal wave, Roland gives us lots of shots of mayhem on the streets. Cars flipping, a newsman wiped out by a big piece of debris - now that's how you do a disaster movie.
Alas, the last portion of the movie drags. Dennis takes off on a long distance trek to meet with Jake in New York - because he promised! - accompanied by two sidekicks, natch. The journey is fraught with peril, but nothing we haven't seen before and certainly nothing that comes close to matching the earlier knockout imagery. Even sadder, Roland forgot to give us one last big blast near the end. An earthquake triggered by the sudden deep freeze would have been nice, but he apparently believed Dennis' big walk through the frozen urban tundra was enough.
One last thing. In the weeks prior to the release of The Day After Tomorrow, a lot of ink has been spent arguing over the potential impact of the movie's anti-global warming message and its jabs at the Bush Administration. As if anyone would take their political or ecological cues from a movie made by the brain trust behind Independence Day and Godzilla. How ridiculous.
It is ridiculous, isn't it?