Cataclysmic Script and Catastrophic Direction

It takes all of 5 minutes to begin to see the lack of sense Roland employs with his script. We meet our hero Jack Hall (Randy Quaid), the first time ever that the hero mantle has been used on a paleoclimatologist–that is to say, a prehistoric weatherman. Jack’s job is to collect core ice samples from Antarctic regions and during one such expedition a section of ice the size of Rhode Island breaks off of the continent, with the crack cleaving straight through their base camp. Jack leaps across the gap to retrieve his samples and then he tries to jump back over with an armload of yard long steel canisters filled with ice. Tossing them to his coworkers before jumping unencumbered seems viable, but far less dramatic.

The mass of ice is the first sign of global trouble, and at an environmental conference Jack addresses the world’s leaders (actually the world’s political donors assigned to the conference) to warn them of climatic changes. Our Vice President is representing The States, but he also represents political inertia and avarice. It is no coincidence that he is a spitting image of our current Veep, and to drive the point home he is given copious amounts of screen time to the extent I had to say out loud, “Since when has anyone listened to a Vice President?” As for the leader of the free world he is limited to scenes doing little more than asking advice of everyone around him before perishing. This is Emmerich scripting according to Air America Radio standards.

It is also at this point that the movie takes a most curious turn as we are taught that everything that we have been promised to happen in this movie cannot possibly happen. This takes a remarkable gift that the writer/director does not possess; to detail how these are unrealistic scenarios, and then saying, “Here they are!” L.A. getting smacked around by tornados, and New York getting shit-hammered by a tidal wave–these are a visual treats in Emmerich’s hands, and the only money shots more significant took place in the seats during the screening for Fox executives. But as vile as the Vice President is depicted, one thing he gets right is pointing out how Jack was incorrect in his earlier studies. This occurs as Jack explains to the conference the trends indicate significant changes to the Earth’s climate sometime in the next 100 to 1,000 years.

Those changes then take place inside of seven days.

So we have two reasons not to listen to this paleoclimatologist but then we watch as everyone in authority turns to him as the planet is overhauled over night. The theory of global warming is a laborious process in which the Earth heats, the polar caps melt, the sea temperature is altered and an increase in atmospheric humidity produces a cooling trend that may or may not lead to an ice age. Here the Mason-Dixon line becomes the front ring of tundra by the close of next week.

Even as we revel in glorious footage of destruction you can’t shake the feeling of manipulation. Los Angeles is beset by half a dozen twisters simultaneously. One seeks out to destroy the Hollywood sign one letter at a time, and another targets the venerated Capitol Records building, doing more damage in 10 seconds than Napster had in ten years. In real life tornados seek out trailer parks and oak trees, but in reel life only famous landmarks are imperiled.

It was deemed necessary to have the action of this sequence described to us by a variety of television reporters. One cathartic scene had a live broadcast from the street as a reporter is obliterated on camera by a large piece of debris. This felt good because moments before he bellows into his camera, “If you look behind me…that’s a tornado!” I wanted to crack Emmerich in the chops after that non-revelation. Either he thinks we are really that dense, or this reporter was filing his field report for the Blues Clues News Network. Later a chopper report shows a city bus being tossed upside down onto a car trying to steer clear of its path, as the reporter comments that he hopes nobody was in that moving car. The people on the bus must have had it coming, we have to guess.

Next, New York gets beset by its tsunami, and again the visuals are a gas but the idiocy sweeps in behind quickly. Jack’s son Sam is a high school prodigy in New York for a scholastic competition with two friends–one a doe-eyed brainiac he’s been pining over. With the impending disaster they try to make it back home to D.C., but they become trapped in the Manhattan public library. In one gripping scene Sam braves chilly water to use a pay phone in the basement to call his dad, with this genius staying on the line until the rising water is practically over his head and he nearly drowns. Jack tells Sam to hunker down and not to go outside as no human will survive the impending cold. Jack then tells Sam he will go outside. He promises to reach him in New York, abandoning his tasks of helping save millions in order to…I guess prove he’s a good dad…maybe. Sam and a clutch of survivors bunk in front of a fireplace, tossing tomes on the fire to stay warm while the librarian badgers them about book burning, like they are Nazis and not desperate souls. At first I thought this was a bit of ham-fisted preaching, but she had a point. The edifice was lousy with wooden bookshelves and furniture, but the brain squad was content to stick with the kindling.

Jack and his wife, Lucy, are the clichéd happy couple now that they are divorced. In a useless subplot Lucy is a doctor a little too concerned with the fate of a young cancer patient. As her hospital evacuates from the weather she decides to stay put because the boy needs an ambulance, not a mere vehicle, to escape. So she is content to stay by his side and face certain death as they read “Peter Pan” for the 80th time. Then in the eleventh hour a search team happens to find them, and it happens to be driving an ambulance. But if this smacks of deus ex machina, just you wait.

The water has risen so high in Manhattan that at one point a freighter drifts down the street and comes to rest right outside of the library. We have to ignore the ship would need at least fifty feet of water in order to float, (as the cast stares up at it from about the second floor) and that a helicopter shot shows the ship had to travel about two miles before coming to rest, without so much as clipping one building along the way. Conveniently when Sam’s love interest is in need of penicillin it is found in the ship’s medical room. This external device also leads to what I can only surmise is a chase scene, involving cold.

That’s not a typo—Sam and his cohorts have a harrowing stretch where they actually have to outrun an advancing cold snap. We are told there is an anomaly taking place where the temperature is plummeting at a farcical rate of 10 degrees per second, flash freezing anything in its path. This is illustrated as a descending sheath of ice crystals that is rapidly enshrouding the Chrysler building and exploding windows in the process. Sam’s gang has to hightail it from the ship and get back to their cozy fire, looking back in fear at—the cold. And it gets worse, as we get treated to a camera angle from the point-of-view of the cold air as it chases the characters around the halls of the library like a serial killer, almost reaching them as they slam shut the doors to the room housing the survivors.

And what of Jack’s quest to find his son? As he embarks his two coworkers decide to join him because they both—oh, who the hell knows what they were thinking? This trio marches into the teeth of the fatal storm for no discernable reason. In one gut busting scene they plow their truck into a snow bank and only then does the driver think of snapping on his bank of roof lights to see what they could have avoided if the lights were on. They now have to snowshoe it to Gotham, and along the way a pup tent protects them from the fatal cold. They also made a wrong turn on the way, because even as they strike forth from Philly—nearly due west of town—we see them approaching the Statue of Liberty from the east.

But Jack’s quest is heroic as he finds the library, searches for his son and, and—he sits with him by the fire. Granted he lost a best friend in the trek, and we see in the next scene he could have waited one day as the sun comes out and helicopters arrive in town to pluck survivors, but this is still a damned heroic effort. Do not ask why he did it.

But do ask why there is all this heated turmoil about a silly disaster movie–a solemn and important life-lesson of a silly disaster movie. Emmerich has the distinction of preaching to us while at the same assuming we are too dumb to grasp his message, so he fills the second half of the movie with childish platitudes and no action. Millions are perishing outside and he thinks we are going to care about a pair of high school kids dry-humping by a fireplace. We are expected to ruminate at the ironic significance of Americans crossing the border to Mexico and to not ask if the tens of thousands of acres of land in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona were off limits. And as the promoted Vice President apologizes to the world for our wasteful behavior we have to assume we are the only country that drives cars and operates factories.

Al Gore was asked about how he liked “The Day After Tomorrow” and he described it as “Extremely enjoyable—beyond the message.” I first had to wonder if he saw the same snooze fest as I, but then I thought about it. This is Al Gore we are talking about, a man who can make Keanu Reeves appear animated by comparison. He would probably get excited by the scrolling credits. And that is where the real excitement rests with this movie, the audience anticipation for the credits to come up and release us from Roland’s clutches. After that gnarly tidal wave scene it is the best part of this movie.
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Posted on June 15, 2004 in Features by

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