For a German expatriate, Roland Emmerich sure has a knack for making politically charged—and very cheesy—movies that coincide with American election campaigns. In 1996, as alleged draft dodger Bill Clinton ran for a second term against war veteran Bob Dole, Emmerich released Independence Day, in which aliens blow up the White House and the instinctively peace-minded President hops aboard a fighter plane to kick some serious butt. In 2000, when Al Gore and George W. Bush vied for the soul of the nation, Emmerich put out The Patriot, a B-grade revenge movie masquerading as a Revolutionary War epic. And now, as Bush defends his presidency against charges of short-sighted unilateralism, here comes The Day After Tomorrow—yet another disaster movie, but this time one that emphasizes international cooperation, rather than American triumphalism.

Dennis Quaid as Jack Hall

Dennis Quaid as Jack Hall

The film also has something to do with the environment, of course. The story, written by Emmerich and Jeffrey Nachmanoff, concerns a sudden, instant ice age that sweeps over the Northern Hemisphere as a result of global warming, and this freezing of the planet is preceded by hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and sundry other catastrophes. The one man who sees it coming, though not quite so soon, is workaholic climatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid), who theorizes the Ice Age of 10,000 years ago began very abruptly, and therefore the planet could be in for another flash freeze in the near future. But of course, the government will not heed his warnings. Vice President Becker (Kenneth Welsh) is especially skeptical, and says new environmental measures would be bad for the economy.

But never mind. The debate is cut short when the world's weather turns apocalyptic—snow falls in New Delhi, giant hailstones crush pedestrians and traffic in Asia, multiple tornadoes destroy downtown Los Angeles, helicopters freeze in mid-air over the British isles, and a rising ocean floods Manhattan, coming up to the Statue of Liberty's waist and sending tankers drifting between half-submerged skyscrapers. Among the many victims stranded by these storms is Hall's son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is in New York with a couple of high school classmates for an academic competition; fittingly, they hide with other New Yorkers inside the public library. There, they cope with wounds, a lack of food, flashes of cold temperature so sudden and extreme the frost seems to chase them down the halls, and even a pack of wolves that have escaped from the city zoo.

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Jake Gyllenhaal is a bit wet behind the ears

Jake Gyllenhaal is a bit wet behind the ears

However successfully these survivors may flee the special effects, they cannot dodge the lame writing or direction. Hall, who has been so busy with work his whole life he has never had all that much time for his son, braves the cold and heads north to find Sam. His credentials as a movie hero are established in his very first scene, when he leaps across a fresh new rift in an Antarctic ice shelf to retrieve his team's ice core samples. The film builds up to this moment with a breathtaking aerial shot, no doubt digitally enhanced, that suggests a spectacular sense of scale; Hall's base seems even smaller than you expect, against the incredibly vast frozen landscape. But after the crack in the ice shelf appears, and after Hall rescues his samples, and after the camera pulls back up for one last aerial shot, you cannot help but be struck by how ridiculously coincidental it is that this one fault line, which runs for miles, should happen to pass right through the middle of Hall's base.

The triteness of that scene surfaces in other moments where Emmerich tries to juxtapose the earth-shattering events of his film with its smaller, more personal dramatic moments. In one scene, Hall tells a colleague he hopes the nations of the earth will learn from their mistakes, to which he then adds, "I'd sure as hell like a chance to learn from mine." It takes Hall's colleague a moment to realize he is no longer talking politics or science, but has abruptly changed the subject to his own family, and his own track record as a mostly absentee dad. Emmerich might have thought this was a clever segue, but it just comes off as stiff and contrived, instead. The cast, which also includes Ian Holm as a British professor and Jay O. Sanders as Hall's partner in science, is certainly capable of better things, but they are never given much more to do than kill time between the money shots.

Manhattan in need of a snow plow

Manhattan in need of a snow plow

The movie's most amusing moments come from seeing conventional wisdom turned on its head. Americans fleeing the invasion of frost from the north are stopped at the Mexican border, and so begin illegally crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico; finally the American President earns the support of Latin American countries by cancelling their debt. And much to the shock of the resident librarian, Sam tells those hiding in the library to keep warm by burning books; his friend suggests starting with the massive tax volumes.

Alas, the film does not exploit as many opportunities for irony as it could have. One of the library survivors, an atheist, professes a love of Nietzsche, but is never compelled to re-think that philosopher's nihilism; the only retort anyone can muster is to mock Nietzsche's sexual preferences. This same atheist later clings to a copy of the Gutenberg Bible and refuses to allow anyone to burn it, not out of any respect for sacred scripture, but because, as the first book to be printed on a printing press, it represents the dawn of the Age of Reason; he goes on to say the written word is mankind's greatest achievement.

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A tornado destroys the Capitol Records building in Hollywood

A tornado destroys the Capitol Records building in Hollywood

This marks an interesting departure from earlier disaster movies, such as Daylight, Deep Impact and Armageddon, which went out of their way to include religious symbols, however superficial, that signified salvation in the midst of suffering. But the disaster movies released since September 11—and yes, the studios do hope audiences will pay to see even more national landmarks destroyed at the multiplex, even though these monuments might very well be terrorist targets in real life—are of a more skeptical, humanistic breed. Last year's The Core also included a single reference to God, mainly to emphasize that no one should bring him up; now The Day After Tomorrow follows a similar path. Between this, the dull writing, and the hypocritical message—it waves an anti-consumerist flag, yet the disaster genre is itself all about the spectacle of consumption—this is one film viewers might want to put off until some time long, long after the day after tomorrow.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Do you think God would allow—or even cause—a disaster of this magnitude? Why or why not? If disasters like this happen, are they just accidents? Or do they sometimes mean something more? (See Isaiah 45:7, Luke 13:1-5, and the biblical accounts of the Flood, etc.)

  2. If you knew your world would come to an end tomorrow, what would you do differently? What would you do the same? How attached are you to this world? How attached should you be?

  3. What do you think is mankind's greatest achievement? What significance should the Age of Reason have? Is mankind's trust in its own reason perhaps responsible for the sorts of problems on display in this film? What role does reason have in our faith? How does faith inform our reason?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

The violence in the film is pretty much all of the accidental or natural variety—wolves chasing people, people falling through holes in the ground, people and so on. In one scene, a teenaged girl huddles close to a boy to share her body heat with him, but nothing sexual transpires. There is also a four-letter word or two, but remarkably few for a film of this genre and rating.

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What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 06/03/04

The environmentalists were right. The President and his administration were wrong. That is the premise of The Day After Tomorrow. But Roland Emmerich's blockbuster action movie is much more a special-effects extravaganza than it is a scientific argument. And in spite of the participation of such fine actors as Dennis Quaid (The Rookie), Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko), and Ian Holm (The Lord of the Rings films), most critics say the movie is just a frail echo of Independence Day, with bad weather taking the place of the aliens in the role of wreaking devastation upon historical landmarks.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Last year's The Core also included a single reference to God, mainly to emphasize that no one should bring him up; now The Day After Tomorrow follows a similar path. Between this, the dull writing, and the hypocritical message—it waves an anti-consumerist flag, yet the disaster genre is itself all about the spectacle of consumption—this is one film viewers might want to put off until some time long, long after the day after tomorrow."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "While the actors gamely give it their all … [they are] eventually swept aside by the overwhelming sensory overload that Emmerich dumps upon us. The film's major flaw is in its overt politicizing of the environmental issues that supposedly lie at the heart of this film. The movie's depiction of the political administration is a blatant condemnation of the Bush presidency and its arguments devolve into an overly simplistic 'I told you so' rationalization unsupported by scientific fact."

"In more than one way, this is the ultimate comeuppance movie for big bad Republicans," reports Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk). "There's also a strong nihilistic message about the end of the world, with nothing to do but listen to environmentalists for our salvation." But is the movie worth seeing? "I didn't expect more than a few visual thrills—and I wasn't disappointed. We need to respect the environment, but this movie will only make people hang onto their SUVs. After all, four-wheel drives can be very handy in the snow."

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Mike Furches (Hollywood Jesus) says it "may be the summer's biggest letdown. The one thing this movie forgets is that we as an audience want to care more about people than we do special effects. We see so many characters in this movie that we would like to know more about, but, unfortunately, only get brief glimpses of them."

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) catalogs the film's illogical events. "Men trekking into the teeth of a subzero blizzard walk from Philadelphia to New York City in just a day or two. There are a few other plot holes large enough to drive a snowplow through." And yet, he concludes, "Implausibility aside, The Day After Tomorrow is an exciting, morally grounded summer thrill ride full of noble characters that knows how to balance spectacle with virtue and restraint."

But Brett Willis (Christian Spotlight) implies that the film is meant to influence the political convictions of the viewers. "In addition to the lasting effects of the scariness, impressionable teens and preteens will of course carry away the implied belief system, and those issues should be discussed. Even some 'post-teens' will be swayed by the message, and could be influenced at the ballot box in November. I wonder if this film's budget needs to be counted in the campaign spending limits set by the Federal Election Commission?"

Mainstream critics are classifying it as yet another empty and forgettable summer movie.

The Day After Tomorrow
Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for intense situations of peril)
Directed By
Roland Emmerich
Run Time
2 hours 4 minutes
Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emmy Rossum
Theatre Release
May 28, 2004 by 20th Century Fox
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