Let the spectacle begin!
Has Roland Emmerich made any film in the past decade that hasn't been a superspectacular? There was "Stargate," "Independence Day," "Godzilla," "The Patriot," and 2004's "The Day After Tomorrow." I guess you can't fault the guy for not thinking big. I just wish he'd try thinking "good" for a change, too.
"The Day After Tomorrow" is all spectacle and little else. And for a while it works. But there is only so much one can take of watching buildings toppled and cities leveled. Somewhere in there we need a real story we're interested in and real characters we care about. Cowriter and director Emmerich managed to keep our interest in the tongue-in-cheek sci-fi adventure "ID4" and to a lesser degree in the historical action adventure "The Patriot." But in "The Day After Tomorrow" he merely wallows in the special effects his crew are able to put together and rather leaves his plot and characters to blow in the torrential winds.
This time he's after a disaster movie, but not an old-fashioned disaster movie about the mere sinking of a ship or the burning of a building. This time it's about the end of the world as we know it, a new Ice Age engulfing the entire Northern Hemisphere. Now, that's pretty disastrous.
Dennis Quaid plays a dauntless, grim-faced scientist, Jack Hall, whose studies on global warming lead him to the conclusion that if the polar ice caps melt, they will result in a cooling of the Gulf Stream, which in turn will result in the northern part of the world freezing over. I don't know about the accuracy of the science here, but in a fantasy it doesn't matter. What does matter is that when just such an occurrence does happen, it happens in a matter of days. Not years; not months; but days. Does it make sense? Perfectly, when you consider that the director had to compress a good deal of baloney into a two-hour time slot. No time for dillydallying over details like tension or suspense. Just get on with the destruction!
Anyway, the world does begin to freeze over, starting about the same time Jack's gifted son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal, looking more like Tobey Maguire every day), goes to New York City for a school wiz-kids competition. After Los Angeles gets blown away by tornadoes, it's New York's turn to be devastated. The movie's first hour recounts the events leading up to the final cataclysm; the second hour recounts Jack's exploits to reach his son while it's happening. And there isn't anything much more to the film than that, except the dubious delight of watching vast areas of civilization get pulverized.
Mostly it's as I said, all about special effects. Emmerich must have been so pleased that audiences liked the way he blew up cities in "ID4," he thought he'd build an entire movie around cities getting totaled again. We've got buildings knocked down, blown down, washed away, frozen, pummeled, flattened, and demolished by rain, wind, ice, snow, and tidal waves. You name the natural disaster, Emmerich throws it in. All the while, poor Jack is trying to save the teenage son he's neglected all his life because he's spent so much time on his career.
As you might expect, the government refuses to believe Jack when he first presents his ideas to the President and Vice President (who not coincidentally resemble George Bush and Dick Cheney). The government honchos, forever protecting big business and big oil, initially tell Jack to take a hike. Two days later half the world is under ice, and they're wondering how Jack can help them. It's laid on awfully thick, folks.
A couple of other people you might recognize show up along the way. Selma Ward plays Jack's wife, Lucy Hall, a medical doctor so devoted to her patients she won't leave without them to save her own life. So we've got the heroic scientist, the brilliant kid, and the noble doctor. We also have Ian Holm as Professor Terry Rapson, an expert on oceans and ocean currents who is among the first to notice the changes in water temperatures throughout the world. "Nothing like this has happened before," he explains. No kidding.
Before long, everything gets thrashed and torn apart, and everyone who isn't a star in the film dies.
I have to admit the special effects are awesome, and they could possibly sustain a viewer's attention for a good part of the movie; at least, if the viewer hadn't seen a hundred such disaster films before. I was struck by how similar this one was to the director's earlier "Independence Day." The setup, the coming calamity, the intercutting of stories and characters that eventually all merge, the melancholy music, and, of course, the noise and visuals; they're all the same as in "ID4." Unfortunately, there are none of the charismatic characters, none of the subtle humor or sly sci-fi movie references, and none of the thrilling sci-fi action of "ID4."
I also thought it was interesting in "The Day After Tomorrow" that everyone everywhere in the movie watches Fox News. What a coincidence from Twentieth Century Fox Pictures. But, hey, if you're going to indulge in product placement, it might as well be your own product.
The melodrama builds to soap-opera proportions as the plot unfolds. When a pack of wolves escaped from the New York City zoo and began to roam the streets, I lost interest entirely. What next, I thought, a kitchen sink falling on somebody's head?
Poor Quaid; it's bad enough his scientist character has almost no personality to begin with, but then he gets lost somewhere in the middle of the picture while Gyllenhaal's character takes over for a spell. However, never fear; Quaid returns to the plot for some climactic heroics. I had completely lost interest in any of the characters by this time.
The movie ends on an uplifting, but corny and sentimental note. You DID see "ID4," didn't you? What did you expect? Honestly, "The Day After Tomorrow" makes "Twister" look like a classic.
The picture is presented in a widescreen anamorphic ratio measuring about 2.13:1 across a standard television, but if ever a picture cried out for a high-definition transfer, this one does. Object delineation and detail are, in fact, only average for a good DVD, with the added problem of faces appearing rather bright, glassy, and reddish. Then, there's some faint grain and some minor line fluctuation, too, noticeable mostly in Venetian blinds and the like. I'm being picky here, but I expected better. Overall, the image is quite dark, probably an intentional characteristic of the original print.
The audio is available on the disc in both Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and DTS 5.1 Surround. In DD 5.1 it sounds great, no doubt the second-best thing (next to the special effects) this movie has got going for it. There is terrific separation from all five-point-one channels. The bass is extremely deep and will have the house rocking. And, needless to say, the dynamics are exceptionally strong to go along with the bass and shake the rafters. There aren't a lot of high frequencies on the soundtrack, but there are plenty of wind gusts and helicopter flyovers to keep any audio buff occupied.
The two primary extras on the disc are both audio commentaries. The first commentary is by director Roland Emmerich and producer Mark Gordon; the second is by writer Jeffrey Nachmanoff, cinematographer Ueli Steiger, editor David Brenner, and production designer Barry Chusid. In addition, there are a pair of brief deleted scenes and a featurette called "Audio Anatomy." This latter item is an interactive sound demo of one of the helicopter scenes, isolating the various audio tracks that went into composing it. You can click on any one of over half a dozen separate tracks or hear them in the final, composite mix. Lastly, there is a DVD-ROM link to over an hour of exclusive "making-of" footage that I did not access; thirty-two scene selections; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English and Spanish subtitles.
The DVD keep case is enclosed in a cardboard slipcase with a 3-D holographic picture on the cover. It's similar to the holographic picture that was included with the "Independence Day" DVD, and looking at it is at least as entertaining as watching the movie itself.
If a filmmaker is going to do a movie about the end of the world, one would expect the filmmaker to go after two things: the catastrophe, with its attendant anticipation and excitement, and the reactions of people facing the catastrophe. Emmerich, however, prefers to ignore both of these elements and go after special effects alone. The catastrophe happens so quickly, the audience hasn't a chance to worry about it; it's already on us before we know it. And the characters are so stereotyped, we can tell from the first ten minutes which ones are going to live and which ones are going to die. Beyond the often stunning visuals, I found most of the movie boring, worried it wasn't going to end until at least the day after tomorrow.