May 28, 2004

This Glacial-Paced Flick Can Wait 'Til The Day After Tomorrow

Oh No!
It's Time for Yet Another Installment of ...

Today's Film: "The Day After Tomorrow"

OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS, it seems those in charge of promoting various movies take pride in the scenes which earn their films restrictive ratings from the Motion Picture Association of America. True, they don't generally go over the top in such matters; we have yet to see a ratings warning trumpeting the very hot love scene between Actor A and Actress B. However, "The Day After Tomorrow's" warning still has that breathless feel to it: rated PG-13 for INTENSE SITUATIONS OF PERIL.

The hell they were. Gawd.

Never has a disaster movie portrayed the end of the world as we know it in such a lacksadasial manner. It was as if the entire cast and crew got doped up on Xanax before filming, and then transferred that lovely feeling of sedation onto the silver screen. This laid-back feeling wasn't limited to the human actors in the movie, either; the two true Scenes O' Destruction could be best described as underwhelming and uninspired.

Of course, the disaster scenes weren't entirely disappointing. Seeing tornadoes erase a good portion of Los Angeles was cool, although only because we got a chance to look for our former residence near Venice Beach. A decent job was done with the tidal wave hitting Manhattan, although we must say we remain amazed at how actors are able to outrun even the fastest-moving natural disasters.

"It's like my stock options after the tech bubble burst." In this scene from "The Day After Tomorrow," Sam Hall (Jake Gyllenhaal) really regrets his decision to leave General Electric for a job on Silicon Alley. (PHOTO CREDIT: Twentieth Century Fox)

Anyway, here's the plot. Dennis Quaid plays Jack Hall, a climatologist for the U.S. Government who traipses around the world doing research. When he's not doing this, he spends his days annoying high-level Government officials and making dire predictions at United Nations climate conferences. Normally, this would get him shipped back to McMurdo Station in Antarctica, but a giant storm conveniently breaks out in the interim. This gives him a chance to further harangue said top-level officials.

Meanwhile, Scottish researchers are doing all the heavy lifting. They figure out the Gulf Stream is shutting down, which is leading to havoc all over the globe. They last long enough to get this critical data to the Americans, who then analyze it and realize the world is in deep trouble. However, they conveniently arrive at this conclusion too late to save New York or Los Angeles. This sets up the stage for Jack to undertake a quixotic quest to save his son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is holed up with a few fellow survivors of nature's fury at the New York Public Library.

But wait, you ask. If Hall is a climatologist, and has reason to believe the world is in deep trouble, why would he have let Sam go on a trip to New York with classmates from school? Other reviewers have also asked that question, and our answer is: beats the hell out of us. Also, to be fair, it wasn't entirely clear the world was going to hell in a handbasket when Sam's folks signed his permission slip.

Here in New York, though, there are Subplots Aplenty: such as scenes dealing with Sam's crush on classmate Laura (Emmy Rossum), an argument over which books to burn for warmth (leading to the best lines in the film, we thought) and so on. In short, it's all very contrived, but they get a few good lines out of the whole deal.

But the fact it's so contrived also leads to the question: why the devil is the movie so bloody slow?. Good Lord. All the good stuff is over an hour into the film, and the second half doesn't even come close to carrying the burden of stupid dialogue, outrageous plot points, and everything else which the filmmakers forced onto it.

The really damnable thing about "The Day After Tomorrow" is how bloody laid-back it all is. That's what really does it in.

Look, we don't think it's too much to ask for a little bit of insanity to break out among the characters portrayed. Western Civilization is, after all, ending; and as such, one would expect a good portion of the populace to riot and loot, to say nothing of running around screaming in terror. Yet this was the most orderly civilization-shattering destruction ever seen on screen.

The true scope of how pathetic it all was really comes to light when one compares "The Day After Tomorrow" with "The Midnight Sun," an old episode of "The Twilight Zone."

The thing which Rod Serling got -- and which Roland Emmerich still hasn't -- is that generally speaking, people don't hold up too well under these types of circumstances. They just don't. As an example, here's one scene from "The Midnight Sun" which puts it all in perspective. Norma and her landlady, Mrs Bronson, are listening to the radio in Norma's apartment:

NORMA (to Mrs Bronson): I think I was the calmest person in the store. One woman just stood in the middle of the room and cried. (pause) Cried like a baby; pleading for someone to help her ...

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, this is station WNYG, coming on the air to bring you essential news. First, a bulletin from the Police Department: keep your doors locked, and prepare to protect yourselves if necessary with any weapons you might have. The majority of the police force has been assigned to the crowded highways outside this deserted city, and citizens remaining in New York may have to protect themselves from the cranks and looters known to be roaming the streets.

From the weather bureau ... the temperature stood at 110 degrees at 11 o'clock this morning. Humidity 91 percent. Forecast for tomorrow ... forecast for tomorrow ... hot. More of the same, only hotter -- I don't care! Who are they kidding with this weather report stuff?

Ladies and gentlemen! Tomorrow you can fry eggs on sidewalks, heat up soup in the ocean and get help from wandering maniacs if you choose! What d'you mean, panic? Who's left to panic? Heh. Ladies and gentlemen, I'm told that my departing from the script might panic you, and -- let me alone! D'you hear me? Let me alone! Let go of me!

(instrumental music)

The entire episode is full of things like that, and it's an accurate portrayal of what happens to people when catastrophe strikes. It is not flashy or showy or preachy. There are no amazing scenes of destruction. But it is very well done.

Interestingly enough, aside from one major twist at the end, "The Midnight's Sun's" plot is exactly the opposite that of "The Day After Tomorrow." It is a shame that statement can be applied across the board in comparing the two. For had things been different, "The Day After Tomorrow" could have been a pretty good movie. Instead, it was so poorly received that once it finished, people bolted for the doors; and a couple of folks even got up and left before it was over. Perhaps they just wanted to go outside and enjoy a few minutes of the sun.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at May 28, 2004 07:19 PM | TrackBack

Ben, your blog has reached a critical desalinization point! Get out now! For the love of God, run, while there's still time! It's too late for me -- I will burn books until my dad's 400 mile hike through the tundra is over.

Posted by: Matthew S. Schwartz at May 31, 2004 12:57 AM