More chill than thrill

Times Staff Writer

Have we lost our appetite for cinematic destruction -- for watching our world shatter into smithereens? I ask because in two of his previous films, “Independence Day” and “Godzilla,” Roland Emmerich laid waste to the world -- leveling its great cities and zapping the White House -- with the unbounded glee of a rampaging puppy. In his latest special-effects onslaught, “The Day After Tomorrow,” the filmmaker again wipes out enormous swaths of humanity and real estate, but this time the overall tone is funereal, sober. It’s the end of the world as we know it and no one feels fine.

It’s no wonder. The last two times we went up in flames in an Emmerich extravaganza, the blame lay with alien invaders and a big angry reptile (true, we did drop a bomb on Godzilla); now, though, the fault rests squarely on us and our fossil fuel-burning ways. As ace “paleo-climatologist” Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) warns a convention of internationally concerned citizens and one congenitally sneery U.S. vice president (Kenneth Welsh channeling Dick Cheney), global warming means that the planet will soon be swallowed up by a new ice age, give or take a few hundred years. Without serious policy change, he warns, disaster looms. “Our economy,” snaps the vice president, perhaps thinking upon the Kyoto Protocol, “is every bit as fragile as the environment.”

The vice president will soon learn the folly of his words, not least because Emmerich has the very latest and undoubtedly the very coolest f/x technology at his disposal. The economy may be fragile (and uppermost in the administration’s collective consciousness), but it doesn’t have the entertainment value of cataclysmic hurricanes. That’s why Emmerich, a master of epic ruin, wastes little time in putting Jack’s warning into play. The director may be an environmentalist (he makes sure we see that the good guy drives a hybrid), but his idea of saving the planet involves wiping out many of its inhabitants as fast as possible. So, after the usual furrowed scientific brows and ominously bleeping computer screens, the director takes out his CGI toolbox and gets furiously to work.


It took God six days to create Earth; it takes Emmerich about an hour to smash it to pieces. As Jack, based in Washington, D.C., and his British-based colleague, Terry Rapson (Ian Holm), surf statistics and trade their respectively whacked-out data, Mother Nature starts kicking up her heels. Oceans churn, clouds swirl, winds scream. In Japan, chunks of hail rain down like pachinko balls, knocking out salarymen, electrical signs and racing motorcycles. (It’s as if Godzilla were tossing spitballs.) Tornadoes flatten Los Angeles, and nobody seems to shed a tear; somewhere over Scotland, helicopters fall from the sky, their fuel frozen solid. Meanwhile, in New York City -- Emmerich’s favorite target -- rain pours from the sky as if from God’s own spigot. In town for an academic decathlon, Jack’s son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) casts a nervous eye toward heaven.

Too bad he can’t see what God -- and we -- see. Emmerich has destroyed New York twice before, but never as beautifully. As dark storm clouds surge, the water surrounding Manhattan rises up, then devours the city. Keeping the camera high and pointing down on his digital cityscape, Emmerich gives us a bird’s-eye view of the water swelling above the city’s buildings and flooding through its narrow corridors. Eerily lifelike and mesmerizing, this protracted scene -- shaded in tones of steely gray -- carries undeniable, surprising force. Fair or not, it was impossible to avoid thinking about Sept. 11 during this deluge. Now, though, because this is unmistakably, uncontrovertibly fiction, because there are no falling bodies, no burning towers, it is possible to see the catastrophe as spectacle, to revisit the scene of the crime without the heartache of its victims.

In all likelihood, Emmerich just hoped to wow us, to top his previous efforts, not take us back to Sept. 11. The screenplay he and Jeffrey Nachmanoff have cobbled together -- two parts 1970s disaster flick, one part cable television meltdown -- certainly aspires toward heft, what with the environmental scolding, the scientific mumbo-jumbo and all the male foreheads corrugated with worry.

But the story is too silly, too woefully underwritten, to stake a claim on seriousness. It doesn’t help that Quaid, who acquits himself well enough, has automatons playing his son and estranged wife. Even smack in the middle of all this severe weather, neither Gyllenhaal (who does little beyond exercise his inner puppy) nor Sela Ward (yet another iteration on the Anne Archer/Bonnie Bedelia stoic-mom type) so much as stirs the air, much less your emotions.

Surely it says something that the most moving performance in “The Day After Tomorrow” comes from a digital city. The performances in Emmerich’s movies are generally only as good and committed as his actors, but the movies are usually energetic, lively. However changed by history and time, the image of the White House torpedoed by aliens in “Independence Day” was a brilliantly witty bit of pop schadenfreude. We laughed because of what it represented but also because we weren’t inside.

The great secret of a good disaster flicks is that it’s always somebody else -- the square in the airplane, the fat lady in the topsy-turvy ship -- who has to make it out while we’re safe in our seats. Somehow it just isn’t as much fun when we can imagine that it’s us trying to make it out alive.



‘The Day After Tomorrow’

MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense situations of peril

Times guidelines: Extreme weather, dead people, child-parent separation

Dennis Quaid...Jack Hall

Jake Gyllenhaal...Sam Hall

Emmy Rossum...Laura

Dash Mihok...Jason

Jay O. Sanders...Frank

Twentieth Century Fox presents a Centropolis Entertainment/Lions Gate/Mark Gordon Company production, released by Twentieth Century Fox. Director Roland Emmerich. Writers Roland Emmerich, Jeffrey Nachmanoff. Story Roland Emmerich. Producers Mark Gordon, Roland Emmerich. Director of photography Ueli Steiger. Production designer Barry Chusid. Editor David Brenner. Music Harald Kloser. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.

In general release.