Fossil fuels contribute to global warming. Global warming melts polar ice caps. The fresh water from that massive thaw “desalinizes” the North Atlantic current, which in turn wreaks havoc on weather patterns, creates catastrophic storms and paves the way for a new ice age that should wipe out the earth’s population in, oh ... about two weeks. That’s the setup for the action-packed disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow, the latest effects-filled summer blockbuster from the makers of 1996’s Independence Day. But this time it isn’t aliens wiping out our national icons. We have no one to blame but our ecologically ignorant selves, though separating the movie’s science from its science fiction may be easier for some viewers than others.
At the center of the story is Professor Jack Hall, a world-renowned paleoclimatologist, whose close call in Antarctica steps up concerns about global warming. The end is closer than he thinks. And it just so happens to coincide with a trip Jack's brainy teenage son, Sam, takes from Washington, D.C., to New York City with friends (including Sam’s secret crush, Laura) for an academic competition. During their visit to the Big Apple, everything goes haywire. Japan gets hammered with massive hail. L.A. is overcome with tornadoes. A tidal wave leaves Midtown Manhattan in need of the world’s biggest sump pump. So Sam calls his father and Jack pledges to locate his son. Jack and two colleagues set out for New York while most of the country migrates south. Meanwhile, the temperature is dropping dramatically. Can those who have survived the natural disasters outlast the bitter cold?
Some disaster films introduce characters just to knock them off. Not this one. Sure, casualties occur, but the main characters have a moral core that makes us root for their survival and appreciate their noble, selfless behavior. [Warning: Some Spoilers] Jack leaps over a broadening ice gorge to recover vital research. Realizing that his rescue is sure to cost colleagues their lives, a man in peril sacrifices himself. Laura races to help strangers in the flooded streets of New York City. Sam puts himself in danger to save Laura, both in the face of a tidal wave and by braving the elements to procure medicine. During an evacuation, a doctor elects to stay behind to comfort a terminally ill child who would be forced to die alone.
People facing death are challenged to decide what matters most in their lives. Family. Friendships. Philosophies. By extension, the audience is given numerous take-stock moments. “If the world goes down, you’re forced to take a look at your life. Audiences know that when they watch a disaster movie,” says director Roland Emmerich. “They have to think about their life and they have to make decisions like what they really want and who they love. It’s scary and exciting at the same time.” True. The fact that Emmerich embraces virtues that Christian viewers (for the most part) will agree with makes it work that much better.
Jack and Sam Hall share a loving, yet tense relationship, in part because of Jack’s workaholism. Now separated from his son and aware that he is in mortal danger, Jack risks life and limb to reach him (two of his co-workers insist on going, too). Jack says when things look dire, “I made my son a promise; I’m going to keep it.” Sam reminisces about a vacation that stranded him in the middle of nowhere, yet turned out to be a precious time alone with his dad. Sam heeds his father’s advice to stay indoors, even when conventional wisdom leads others to evacuate and take their chances in the storm. (Listening to Dad saves his life and others’.)
A pair of conversations find men contemplating how quickly children grow up, and the need to redeem every day because we never know how much time we have with our kids. A homeless man has valuable insight into methods for staying warm and finding food, proving his value to the group. A rich prep school boy invites students from a rival school—displaced due to inclement weather—to take shelter in his father’s apartment.
The filmmakers take their environmental lobbying a bit far, but the basic appeal for people to be better stewards of the earth and its resources is positive. A humble speech by the Vice President (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Dick Chaney) preaches personal responsibility.
An atheist (who calls Nietzsche the greatest thinker of the 19th century) refuses to let a Bible be burned for warmth. A girl asks him, “Do you think God is going to save you?” He replies, “I don’t believe in God” and explains that, to him, the book is an icon, a publishing milestone that represents the dawn of man’s reason. Jack’s advice for imperiled people includes prayer. Still, he seems to remove God from the cosmic equation with the statement, “Mankind survived the last ice age. ... It all depends on what we can learn from our mistakes.”
A man and woman make out on a couch and are interrupted as he begins unbuttoning her sweater. While not sexual per se, a shivering Sam stripped of wet clothes (down to his boxers) is embraced by Laura for warmth. Later the teens kiss.
Nature’s wrath wipes out a significant portion of the earth’s population. Very few deaths are shown in intimate detail. Most are either lost amid the chaos of mass destruction (a wall of water washes through the busy streets of Manhattan) or implied (three men at a remote weather station brace for the eventuality that they will freeze to death, which we assume happens since they’re never heard from again). Killer twisters in Los Angeles tear buildings in half. A piece of flying debris sweeps away a TV reporter. Cars bounce around on the freeway. A bus squashes a guy in a sports car (seen from high above). Heavy winds rip homes from their foundations. Floods wash others away. Turbulence batters planes, pitching them violently and knocking several from the sky (wreckage shown). Hail the size of cantaloupe pelt Tokyo, striking several victims on the head. A sudden drop in temperature causes choppers to crash and one survivor is “quick-frozen.” An ice shelf in Antarctica crumbles beneath people.
Elsewhere, a man falls to his death. (The camera doesn’t linger on him, but focuses on the shocked expressions of his friends.) Bodies are found covered in snow. Ravenous wolves attack a teen. One bloodies the boy’s leg before his friends drive it off. Another wolf has a door slammed in its face, leaving a blood stain on the window. Desperate for food, a young man smashes the window on a vending machine.
Crude or Profane Language
Fewer than 20 profanities. Nearly half are exclamations such as “good god,” “my god,” “for the love of god,” etc. There are two s-words.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Men facing death dust off a bottle of 12-year-old Scotch.
Other Negative Elements
Some viewers may be put off by the film’s environmental lobbying, which vilifies stubborn politicians for refusing to make radical policy changes (“You didn’t want to hear about the science when it could have made a difference”). It treats global warming as an imminent danger and uses sci-fi hyperbole to promote its agenda.
Ever since Irwin Allen upended an ocean liner, set a high-rise on fire and unleashed killer bees in the 1970s, modern disaster films have sought to create roller-coaster thrills that make sociopolitical statements while tapping into audiences’ innate fears. Lately they’ve focused on abuses that have ravaged the planet, causing it to strike back or just plain shut down. Remember The Core? Like that film, Armageddon, Volcano, Deep Impact and others, The Day After Tomorrow combines wild special effects, the threat of mass destruction and, let’s face it, dubious science.
“As a climatologist, I’m concerned that [a] putative backlash could be caused by scientific nonsense,” wrote Patrick J. Michaels. As he itemized the film’s meteorological flaws in his Washington Post article “Apocalypse Soon?,” Michaels noted that politicians are already capitalizing on the fears exploited in this populist popcorn flick, and worries that leaders with an environmental agenda will “exaggerate this largely benign truth into a fictional apocalypse.” He’s just one of many experts who advise viewers to not take The Day After Tomorrow too seriously.
Really, though, how could we take a film seriously that includes wild breakdowns of logic unrelated to Gulf Stream circulation and barometric pressure? For instance, men trekking into the teeth of a subzero blizzard walk from Philadelphia to New York City in just a day or two. And what, exactly, do Jack and his buddies expect to do after they find Sam? Anyone bright enough to understand killer weather patterns should realize they would be just as stranded and equally doomed as anyone they might find alive. There are a few other plot holes large enough to drive a snowplow through, but I dare not give too much away. A lot of teens and adults are eager to see this fun, forgivable adventure.
Implausibility aside, The Day After Tomorrow is an exciting, morally grounded summer thrill ride full of noble characters that knows how to balance spectacle with virtue and restraint.