Living through a global crisis is not unfamiliar, but still thankfully rare. Whether it’s world wars, or a geologically caused catastrophe, or an economic collapse, or as is the case right now a pandemic, the planet at one point or another tests the strength of it’s people and despite a lot of hardship in the process, we emerge out of it. Though it’s a distressing time when living through it, Hollywood will often look at crises in hindsight and find it to be great fodder for movies. The disaster movie in particular has been a favorite among epic movie makers, because of the larger than life aspects of the ordeals that the characters go through. Often these movies are showcases for visual effects, with massive budgets and a cast of hundreds. For the most part, there is an understanding between the audience and the filmmaker that it’s all about the entertainment value of the experience, and that is why so many disaster movies are not afraid to be a little cheesy sometimes. The movies of Irwin Allen in the 1970’s are a great example, like The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974) which were star-studded extravaganzas that took place within structural disasters. For the longest time, apart from the all-star casts, the biggest draw of these movies would often be the grand scale destruction, especially if it involved an iconic structure. And for the most part, these movies would retain it’s sense that it’s all just a movie, and that none of it’s supposed to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, the world works very differently, and silly old disaster movies suddenly don’t feel so harmless once an actual real life disaster happens. That’s why you sometimes see periods of retreat for these kinds of films, so that it won’t appear that Hollywood is exploiting a tragic moment in any way. Eventually the periods of reverence recede, and it becomes okay to treat disasters as popcorn fare again. It may take decades like getting our romantic Titanic movies when nobody is left alive to complain, but it always happens. The only time when it doesn’t feel right is when a filmmaker who works solely within this type of genre continually exploits disaster sized imagery to make his own half-cooked points about the here and now.
Enter Roland Emmerich, best known as the “king of disaster movies” among film critics. German born Emmerich has made a career out of making movies that seemingly are made solely to see landmarks destroyed. This was certainly the case with his breakthrough sci-fi epic Independence Day (1996), which won an Academy Award for it’s ground-breaking effects, depicting an alien invasion that destroys many of the world’s largest cities. The kind of grand-scale destruction that was found in Independence Day captured the imagination of it’s audiences, especially when seeing the Empire State Building and the White House being vaporized in a colossal fireball. But, Emmerich was able to make that work in sci-fi, because it fell within the understanding that Hollywood and audiences have always had; it’s all just a movie. He continued the same principal to lesser effect in his Godzilla remake in 1998. And then two things happened after that. In 2000, Emmerich broke away from his sci-fi pedigree and made for the first time a period set war film called The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger. Garnering some of the best reviews of his career, Emmerich took this as a sign that it was time to become a more serious filmmaker, while at the same time working within the genre that he knew best. From this, he set out to start writing a script centered around the theme of global warming, and it’s disastrous effects on the world, complete with the catastrophic destruction he had previously imagined in his sci-fi pictures. And then came the second pivotal moment, which was the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The kind of destruction that seemed so trivial and popcorn fodder in Emmerich’s previous films was now so very tragically real and traumatizing for most of America, and to return to that mode of film-making no longer seemed sensible anymore in Hollywood. For Emmerich, he too would refrain from delving back in to his old ways, but that lasted little over a year, as the king of disasters went right back to his old ways by starting production on The Day After Tomorrow.
Pretty much every thing you can hate about Roland Emmerich’s style can be found in The Day After Tomorrow, and it marks the point in his career when his film-making sensibilities really began to devolve into self-indulgence. One thing that can account for this is that The Day After Tomorrow was his first movie working solo after breaking from his partnership with co-writer and producer Dean Devlin. Devlin, who himself has a penchant for loud, disaster filled action movies, for the most part was a grounding influence for Emmerich, helping to give his movies a more tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. Mainly, Devlin helped to shape the tones of Emmerich’s scripts, giving them more of a sense of what they could be rather than what Roland wanted them to be. This includes shaping the characters and the world to better service the plot and visuals, which were always Emmerich’s bigger strength. But, without Devlin there to reign him in, Roland was more or less left to fill his movie with all sorts of his haphazard ideas, without any sense of how to make them work into a cohesive story. At the same time, Emmerich was also developing a more politically conscience mind during this time, which also was a bit half-baked to say the least. Like many surface level thinkers, Emmerich has opinions, but not the knowledge to translate those opinions into a workable story. And the result ends up being a movie that tackles a serious subject and unfortunately trivializes it, causing the opposite effect that it was intended to have. In this case, the issue is global warming, something that was indeed a hot button issue at the time when Emmerich was drafting his script during the 2000 presidential election. Though the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing wars that followed took the focus away from the issue, it nevertheless remained a part of the discussion even up to the premiere of The Day After Tomorrow in 2004. Around that same time, presidential candidate Al Gore appeared in the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth (2006) which drew more attention to global issue. And the reason why a documentary like that raised such an alarm is because of the catastrophic way that movies like The Day After Tomorrow failed to do the same.
Emmerich’s films often share one characteristic, and it’s the allure of the conspiracy. He is an avid conspiracy theory enthusiast, and has often used it as fodder for many of his movies; often exploring them with complete disregard to the actual truth. Some of it is harmless enough, like theorizing what went on at Roswell (Independence Day) or who built the ancient pyramids (Stargate) or were the Mayans right about doomsday (2012, and no they weren’t). Then there are some conspiracy theories that he indulges that are more insidious and irrational like the false one about the authorship of William Shakespeare’s plays (Anonymous) because some of it’s arguments stem from imperial nationalistic hate groups. Not that Emmerich prescribes to some of these more extreme conspiratorial beliefs, but the fact that he indulges many of them is something that is very irresponsible as a story-teller with immense sway within the industry. What’s especially problematic with The Day After Tomorrow is the fact that Emmerich’s conspiracy thinking mixes in with actual science, and takes a very real problem like climate change and turns it into something as convoluted as one of his zany theories. What was especially fool-hearty about his attempts to legitimize his vision was that he called in actual experts from the field of climate science to observe his movie and give it their thumbs up. The plan did not go as he expected, as scientists from NASA were especially critical of the “made-up” science of the movie and the agency even barred them from even speaking their mind about the movie any further, critical or otherwise. Many other scientists called the movie “silly” which probably did not please the director, who wanted to be taken more seriously at this point. In the end, Emmerich went ahead with his vision of a world overcome with sudden climate change, and the end result is no where close to real science nor towards a comprehensive narrative.
First of all, it’s clear that the science was never going to matter to Emmerich. He just wanted to show cities being destroyed again, and doing so with a grand scale event like a natural disaster made sense to him in a post-9/11 age. One thing that climate scientists will tell you is that global warming and climate change are two different things, with one resulting from the other. They will also tell you that it is a gradual process that just doesn’t manifest overnight. But, in Roland Emmerich’s eye, global warming means extreme weather happening without warning in places that it shouldn’t exist. It’s clear from watching the scenes of destruction that Emmerich just wants to destroy landmarks, as they seem to be suspiciously prone to attracting natural disasters in this movie. We see the Hollywood Sign and the Capitol Records building being blown away by tornadoes. Why those specifically? Because people who aren’t from Los Angeles will recognize them right away. Also the Hollywood Sign being blown apart by a tornado is scientifically absurd to begin with, because tornadoes can’t climb mountains; they only manifest on flat terrain. There is also the storm surge that floods the city of New York, which supposedly happens because of a week’s worth of constant rain. Again, the science here is so nonsensical, because storm surges are cause by a rush of water brought in by a hurricane or tsunami, and not a long-running rain storm. The flooding of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 is the most recent example, and it didn’t nearly flood the city up to the armpits of the Statue of Liberty like it does in this movie. Emmerich clearly saw the time tables of the effects of climate change and felt they were too slow and too minimal for what he imagined. The problem is, when you put that kind of rushed thinking into your movie, you give the audience the wrong impression of what actual climate change is going to be like, and that makes the job harder for climate scientists to give their own informed and researched warnings.
What’s also a problem with the movie is that the story itself is also fairly flimsy. Emmerich’s movies typically center themselves around a nerdy loser who somehow stumbles across the key to saving the world. You see this with Jeff Goldblum’s character in Independence Day, Matthew Broaderick’s in Godzilla, John Cusack in 2012, and of course Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow. There’s not much we learn about with Quaid’s character, other than he knows that an imminent natural event caused by global warming is about to destroy most of the Northern Hemisphere. The only other aspect that we learn about him is his estranged relationship with his son, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal’s character was originally written to be 12 years old, but was changed when the rising actor expressed interest in the movie, and became a teenager instead (Gyllenhaal was 24 at the time by the way). As a result, this becomes the focal point of the movie, which otherwise would have been a aimless globe-trotting series of different disasters hitting the planet with unrelated characters all witnessing the destruction. In some ways, you could have gotten away with this arrangement of characters had they been quirky enough, or charming, like those found in the ensemble of Independence Day. But the characters, even the ones played by Quaid and Gyllenhaal, are so generic that we can’t connect with them on any level. So, when the movie calls for them to be witness to a cataclysmic event, all we see in the audience is exactly what is on the screen; disinterested actors staring at a special effect. It makes it all the more ridiculous when the movie can’t even hold it’s own logic together. Supposedly, the massive storm at the end of the movie, which causes the city of New York to go into an immediate deep freeze, can destroy infrastructure and envelope interiors killing everything in sight. And yet, our main characters can survive in a solitary room with a working fireplace? This ludicrous logic exists solely to give us one of the most justifiably mocked moments in the movie, where “climate change” is literally chasing the characters down a hallway, like a monster. Suffice to say, this movie is dumb.
What it also reveals is a hubris on the part of Roland Emmerich that is also the hubris of many others in Hollywood. What The Day After Tomorrow and most other Emmerich movies reveals is the worst kind of Neo-liberalism that ends up trivializing so many important issues that should be given a more serious examination. Roland Emmerich believes that he is a liberal thinker, that his movies are doing a lot to help left-wing causes that mean a great deal to him. But, as is the problem with a neo-liberal mindset, he is only interested in the surface level aspects of such causes. His movies are all about tackling the soft targets, like politicians and industrialists, but never actually takes addresses the larger societal problems that also contribute to the rise of global warming, such as consumerism and increased human activity. He never wants to point a finger at the audience themselves to make them consider what they could be doing differently to help slow down the rate of climate change. No, instead he presents an easily identifiable antagonist that we can all project our disgust on, putting the responsibility on the individual and not on the masses. This is shown through the portrayal of the vice president character, played by Kenneth Walsh, who repeatedly ignores the warnings of Quaid’s character. Walsh was clearly cast because of his resemblance to the then VP Dick Cheney, and it’s Emmerich’s lame attempt to win some political points by picking on his straw man representation of the divisive politician. The problem is, Emmerich is no where near clever enough to make this political parody work so it comes off as petty. This kind of neo-liberalism is often referred to as “limousine liberalism,” meaning it’s a political mindset that claims to be progressive but is formed within a bubble of comfort that has no connection from the actual plights of the world, and as a result minimizes the arguments that the subject is trying to make. This unfortunately leads to right wing forces in opposition to progressive causes having more fodder and reason to dismiss the arguments of the other side. Emmerich probably doesn’t know how counter-productive his half-baked arguments are to actually solving the problem that it intends to address, and that is probably The Day After Tomorrow’s biggest crime of all. It, probably more than any other film, set back the progress this country has made in fighting climate change because it gave the other side of the argument the perfect example of the kind of overblown exaggeration that they always claim is coming from the environmental side.
Suffice to say, there is much to dislike about the movie, from it’s mediocre script, to it’s bland characters, to it’s self-indulgent direction. But the fact that it bungles it’s important message so fiercely that it may have set back the environmental movement at a time when we need them the most is probably it’s greatest crime. Emmerich is clearly out of his league as a social commentator, and his attempts to make a statement on the politics of this issue and point fingers at certain people doesn’t do anything to help what actually needs to be done. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth did so much more to address the actual problem and what needs to be done to solve it than Roland’s movie ever did, and that was because it didn’t let it’s audience off the hook. It’s not a simple good vs. evil story-line; it is man vs. nature and about bringing balance back into the world, which calls upon us to change a lot of our own behavior. The Day After Tomorrow just whittles the issue of climate change down to a simple series of experts vs. skeptics arguments and some big budget mayhem that seemed to be his main goal in the end. Emmerich’s main problem is that as much as he wants to be a serious filmmaker, he never will able to be, because it’s not his strength. He’s a loud, bombastic filmmaker who excels at portraying destruction on screen. And as often the case, his attempts at making a profound statement often get drowned out by the sophomoric indulges he puts in whenever he fears he’s losing the audiences attention. He has to understand, he is not a serious filmmaker. It is okay being genre man, and indeed, he can find moments of truth even within something as outlandish as Independence Day. But with The Day After Tomorrrow, he is only further poisoning the discourse, which should always be focused on delivering the cold hard facts about the realities of climate change. It may not be Emmerich’s worst made movie, but it is certainly his most irresponsible, and should stand as a reminder of what it looks like when a filmmaker’s own self-interest ends up doing a disservice to the very issue it is trying to solve. It seems appropriate that a movie like The Day After Tomorrow would in itself prove to be a destructive disaster.