One has to wonder what director Roland Emmerich has against Manhattan. In Independence Day (1996) he pulverized the city with lasers from an invading alien armada. In Godzilla (1998) he demolished a significant portion of the mid-town region with the tussle between a giant lizard and the military. Now in his latest film, the eco-disaster The Day After Tomorrow, he submits the Big Apple to first a tidal wave that floods its streets and then the freezing conditions of a new ice age.
Scientist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) is convinced that global warming of the polar icecaps could result in a catastrophic change in the climate. However, since his predictions indicate that the change would probably occur not with in the immediate future, he has problems getting anyone in the government to listen to him. However, after a Rhode Island sized chunk of the Antarctic shelf drops off into the Atlantic Ocean causing damage to the temperate weather providing North Atlantic Current, Hall sees his theories coming to frightful life. Mass storms start brewing across the northern hemisphere, which combined with plunging temperatures, threatening to plunge North America, Europe and Asia into a new ice age. To complicate matters, Hall’s son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) is currently in Manhattan, the center of one of the super winter storms, taking refuge with others in the Manhattan Public Library. Determined to rescue his son, Hall and two colleagues set off on a dangerous trek from Washington DC to New York City.
Emmerich is no stranger to staging spectacle and there is plenty of that on display here. The decimation of downtown Los Angeles and the flooding of Manhattan are both visually stunning segments. (Though, perhaps in deference to 9/11, no buildings in New York City are knocked over by the wall of water and no bodies are seen in the aftermath of the flood.) But the spectacle isn’t the be-all of the film. In fact, with the exception of the two big disaster set pieces mentioned above, the film’s action is a little smaller and more personal in scope. In the past Emmerich has often lost track of the human element in his stories, allowing the events to overtake the characters’ own stories. Here, he actually allows his characters a little breathing room, letting them exist a little more dimensionally then in his previous features. While we’re certainly not talking Merchant-Ivory style character drama, it is an improvement.
Unfortunately, not all characters get equal service in the screenplay. Emmerich and co-writer Jeffrey Nachmanoff, have overpopulated the screenplay to an extent that the characters that don’t get as much attention to them come off as flatter than others. Also, some plot points, such as the fate of the president and one character’s illness brought about by an infected injury, seem to be dealt with off screen and are only resolved through a line or two of dialogue. There are also a few humorous moments to offset the drama and tragedy. As with all large-scale disaster movies, The Day After Tomorrow has one of those “message moments” where a character talks about how the human race will endure whatever catastrophe has rained down upon everyone for the last several reels of the film. This time, it is a rather well done piece wherein a librarian explains why, no matter how cold the weather would get, he would not allow anyone to burn what could very well be the last intact Guttenberg Bible. It’s a nice combination of writing, acting and direction that makes the scene much more powerful then the President’s overly jingoistic “Today is our Independence Day” speech in Emmerich’s Independence Day.