It’s been a long year, friends. We are near its conclusion and we all hope you’re staying sane, safe and well out there. To even the most casual Midwest Film Journal reader, it will be no surprise that we love puns around here almost as much as we love thoughtful, entertaining criticism and monthlong series that can highlight some of our favorite creators and creations. We thank you for another great year with us here at MFJ. So in that spirit that we hope makes you smile, our December ode to one of our favorite sibling duos: Deck the Gyllenhaals.
The Day After Tomorrow (2004) is an American disaster film directed, co-produced, and co-written by Roland Emmerich. Based on the 1999 book The Coming Global Superstorm by Art Bell and Whitley Strieber, the film stars Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ian Holm, Emmy Rossum, and Sela Ward. It tells a story that is pretty scary because it sounds like it could happen: a series of extreme weather events cause serious disruptions in North Atlantic Ocean circulation, resulting in catastrophic climatic effects that usher in global cooling on a massive scale ~ in other words, a new ice age. The Day After Tomorrow was released in the United States on May 28, 2004, and was a commercial success (it was the 6th highest-grossing film of 2004). Despite that popularity, it received mixed reviews, with critics praising the film’s special effects while criticizing the writing and scientific inaccuracies. Oh, come on. Seriously, critics, why’d all y’all take this movie so . . . literally?? It’s s a futuristic disaster movie. Disaster films, especially futuristic ones, are supposed to scare you, but they’re not really supposed to be scientifically accurate. Good grief!
I’m not a big fan of disaster movies, but I liked this movie when I saw it, despite my ever-constant dislike of “cold weather” and drowny-underwater-stuff movies. I’m scared of drowny-underwater-stuff in real life and I hate real-life cold weather, so I don’t really want my “escapism entertainment” to include either. Still, I liked this film. I didn’t see it on the big screen, but all the special effects must’ve been even more scary looming up over your upturned face ~ they were scary enough for me on my medium-sized TV screen.
The story is pretty simple, if you just snore through the science stuff. Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) is an American paleoclimatologist, and he and his colleagues Frank (Jay O. Sanders) and Jason (Dash Mihok) are drilling for ice-core samples in the Larsen Ice Shelf for the NOAA. Suddenly the ice shelf begins to split off from its anchoring landmass. Jack tries to warn the world at a United Nations conference in New Delhi, saying his research shows that climate change could cause a new ice age. US Vice President Raymond Becker dismisses Jack’s concerns, but Professor Terry Rapson (Ian Holm), an oceanographer of the Hedland Centre in Scotland, bonds with Jack over their shared belief in an inevitable climate shift. When several buoys in the Atlantic Ocean show a severe ocean temperature drop, Rapson knows Jack’s theories are correct. Jack’s and Rapson’s teams work together with NASA meteorologists to build a forecast model based on Jack’s research.
Here comes all the bad science (snore away): a massive storm system develops in the Northern Hemisphere, splitting into three gigantic hurricane-like superstorms above Canada, Scotland, and Siberia. The storms pull frozen air from the upper troposphere into their centers, flash-freezing anything caught in the hurricanes’ eyes, with temperatures below −150 degrees Fahrenheit. The weather worsens all over the world. Tokyo gets hit with a giant hailstorm. In mere seconds, Nova Scotia gets hit by a 25-foot storm surge. Three helicopters rescuing the British Royal Family from Balmoral Castle in Scotland crash because all three choppers’ fuel lines freeze. Los Angeles is devastated by a series of tornadoes. The President of the United States issues an executive order for the FAA to ground all air traffic across the USA.
Meanwhile, in New York City, Jack’s son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), and his friends, including Jack’s love interest Laura Chapman (Emmy Rossum), have been participating in an academic decathlon, but the weather becomes progressively more violent. The streets are flooding with icy ocean water, and then a massive tsunami-like storm surge inundates Manhattan (that’s the huge wave on all the posters and promo material for the film).
Sam’s group flounders around NYC outrunning storm-caused disasters, Laura accidentally cuts her leg, but they make it to shelter in the New York Public Library. Other survivors are finding shelter there, too. Cellphone communications are down, but, using a working payphone (hey, they probably still existed here and there in 2004!) Sam contacts his dad Jack and mom Lucy (Sela Ward). Jack tells him to stay in the Library and promises he’s coming to rescue him. (Lucy, a physician, stays at her job in a hospital, caring for bed-ridden children; she and her patients are eventually rescued by authorities.)
The storms worsen worldwide, and Rapson and his team perish. Jack advises the President to order the southern states to evacuate into Mexico. The President orders the evacuation. Since they now know the northern half of the US is going to be quickly and severely hit by the superstorms, he orders a warning to be issued to those parts of the country: seek shelter and stay warm. When the storm reaches Washington DC, the President’s evacuating motorcade is caught in it and he dies, making VP Becker the new President.
Against the odds and through perilous adventures, Jack, Jason, and Frank make their way to New York. Keep in mind that this “land” is now multi-story-buildings-heights higher due to solid snowdrifts and ice. With snow and ice storms raging, the three men tie themselves together like mountain climbers so no one will be lost. In Pennsylvania, Frank falls through the skylight of a now-snow-covered mall, dangling perilously. In an act of sacrifice so his friends won’t be pulled to their deaths, Frank cuts the rope and falls to his death.
Meanwhile, in the New York Library, most of the people who’ve sought shelter there decide to head south when the floodwaters outside freeze over. Sam warns them not go, knowing the already-freezing temperatures will drop even further. They don’t listen to him, and they leave. A few people in the Library take Sam’s advice to stay, and they all huddle around, burning books to stay warm. The temperatures plunge, just as Sam predicted (the ones who left are later found frozen to death by Jack and Jason). Laura develops blood poisoning from her injury. Sam and two of his friends scour a Russian cargo vessel that has drifted into the city (just roll with it, okay?); it is now stuck in the ice outside the Library. Sam and friends search the ship for penicillin and fend off a pack of wolves (that have apparently escaped from Central Park Zoo).
The eye of the North American superstorm hits New York, and Manhattan freezes solid just as Sam’s group make it back inside the Library. At the same time, Jack and Jason take shelter in an abandoned New York restaurant. Days pass, the superstorm dissipates, and Jack and Jason finally reach the Library, where they happily find Sam’s group is still alive. They see Becker in his first televised address as President, which he makes from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico; the new POTUS apologizes for ignoring the scientific warnings and vows to send rescue helicopters to find survivors in the northern states. Jack and Sam’s group are picked up in Manhattan, along with other people who have survived. The film ends as astronauts on the International Space Station gaze in wonder at the Earth’s transformed surface, its northern hemisphere now covered by ice sheets.
So, yeah, not the greatest disaster movie ever made, for sure, and certainly not one that makes much sense scientifically. Of course, there’s the larger drama in the lesson to humanity about what happens when politicians do not listen to science. All of that humanity stuff works in this movie’s favor. There’s a lot of human drama that works in favor of the movie because without it, you’d just have a couple hours of special effects. There’s drama between Jack and his family, Jack and his colleagues, Jack and the politicians, and between Sam and Laura and their friends. Going back and forth between the “grown-ups with real jobs” and the “younger generation still in school” is also effective. Grown-ups are responsible for some disastrous climate changes, but a few of them are still trying to save the world from the ones who won’t take seriously the science behind climate change. Jack’s character represents the best of the film’s grown-ups; he’s trying to save people, and it’s not his fault that some of them don’t listen. The younger generation doesn’t know everything and some of them don’t listen “to science” any more than do their elders. Sam’s character represents the best of the film’s younger generation. Like his father, Sam’s trying to save people, and it’s not his fault that some of them don’t listen.
As for the cast: unfortunately for all involved, the dialogue is worse than the science, and so the film suffers crushingly under a tsunami of bad writing, if you’ll pardon my thematic pun. Quaid’s portrayal of Jack is believable, for the most part — nothing to write home about, of course, but he has a few good moments of sincerity battling the elements. The delightful Holm is woefully underused in this film, but, as always, every moment he’s onscreen is a good moment. The ever-boring Ward adds nothing to the film. At least Rossum adds some luminosity (hush up, I adore her in The Phantom of the Opera, which was released in the same year), and she adequately handles the nearly impossible task of making her character’s dialogue and ridiculous blood poisoning stuff sort of believable.
The most memorable actor is Gyllenhaal. He was 22 or 23 years old during filming, and he easily emotes the physical and emotion tolls taken by the film’s human dramas and sub-sub-sub-zero weather catastrophes. Gyllenhaal’s got a face that cameras love to float their lenses across, caressing its angles and planes, and his dark eyes mesmerize audiences. It’s unfortunate that this film didn’t use Gyllenhaal’s physical presence to better advantage (watch 2007’s Zodiac or 2014’s Nightcrawler for that), and it’s really unfortunate that he didn’t have a better script to work with because what a difference a good script can make: one year after The Day After Tomorrow, Gyllenhaal gave the world his timeless portrayal of Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain.