Whether he wants to admit it or not, Roland Emmerich is fast becoming known as the 'Master of Disaster'. With titles like Independence Day and Godzilla under his belt, Emmerich is showing no signs of satisfaction and craves yet more destruction of major cities around the world (showing a particular dislike for New York). However, in The Day After Tomorrow, planet Earth isn't under threat from iMac-using aliens or mutated super-lizards, rather Mother Nature herself. Yes, the entire Northern Hemisphere has been bitch-slapped by a storm of epic proportions with weather so bad that even Michael Fish could see it coming.
While the central premise of man meeting his maker through climate change is a fairly unused one, you'll be on depressingly familiar ground from the outset - Roland's recipe for disaster hasn't really been gifted with any new ingredients. There's the estranged father and son, played by Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal respectively. There's the caring hospital worker who won't leave her sick patients alone to die. There are the paper-waving scientists proclaiming The End Of The World and there are the stern-faced government officials who simply won't heed their advice. There are rag-tag groups of survivors who club together to overcome adversity and learn life lessons, and there's the mandatory romance amidst the backdrop of destruction. So far, so Emmerich, so dull.
People don't go to a disaster movie looking for heartfelt character development and subtext. People don't go in expecting a witty script and cutting-edge acting talent. People expect a disaster, and with The Day After Tomorrow, a disaster is exactly what you'll get. Granted, there's not a lot you'll see here that you haven't already caught snippets of in the numerous trailers and TV spots, but the mayhem unleashed is on a scale rarely seen on the big screen. Hailstones the size of footballs rains down on inner city Tokyo. Tornados rip through the streets of Los Angeles, tearing down entire buildings in seconds. A colossal tidal wave engulfs New York, and thanks to the human race's tardy approach to global warming and the environment in general, it freezes solid, leaving the heart of America several feet under frosty white snow. Sure, it's a collection of the finer elements of Deep Impact, Twister and several other disaster movies but mashed together in one unstoppable force of nature, it's an irresistible combination while it lasts.
The first hour flies by, with Emmerich wasting little time in getting to the meat of the story. Unfortunately, The Day After Tomorrow's second hour suffers because of this, and when the storm eventually dies down what you're left with is a number of predictable set pieces and Quaid's journey to be re-united with his son. CGI weather effects are all well and good and they're often put to excellent use, but once they've been exhausted, the action starts to flag. A scene involving CGI wolves is almost entirely unnecessary, sits uncomfortably in the third act and stinks of a 'just one more action sequence' demand from the studio.
As far as acting talent goes, no one particularly stands head and shoulders above the rest - Gyllenhaal and Quaid are amiable enough and love interest Emmy Rossum's smile is enough to melt even the frostiest of hearts, but Mother Nature is the true star here. In fact, there's not much character development on show at all, and the premise of Quaid walking on foot from Washington DC to New York amidst the planet's worst storm is, let's face it, a fucking stupid one. Europe and the rest of the world barely get a look in, but who cares about billions of deaths, when there's a sick little boy in a hospital ward with no parents? It's the HUMAN ELEMENT of the film, spelt with CAPITALS and shouted LOUDLY into your ear. Emmerich and friends will have you believe it's the heart and soul of the movie, but it feels like it was scribbled into the margin notes at the last minute.
What you're left with is a movie that's not daring enough to be different, but just about entertaining enough to cut it as a modern disaster movie. There are a few smart one-liners and neat uses of the effects budget (a gigantic tanker drifting aimlessly down the waterlogged streets of Manhattan being one particular highlight), and a refreshing, if heavy-handed, reminder that America isn't always right. After all, there are important lessons to be learned here kids; always recycle, respect the environment and if a scientific genius approaches you proclaiming the end of life as we know it, for Christ's sake, listen to him.