Roland Emmerich, the director of such Manhattan-wasting disaster epics as “Independence Day” and the noisy 1998 “Godzilla” remake, recently conceded that disaster epics have changed: “You have to be a little sensitive after September 11.”
Nevertheless, New York City is the chief target in his latest, “The Day After Tomorrow,” which imagines a tidal wave engulfing the Statue of Liberty and flushing through the streets leading up to the Manhattan Public Library. As the temperatures drop to well below freezing, a gang of survivors makes a bonfire of the books in order to avoid frostbite.
Should they send Nietzsche up in flames? Should they torch the tax law books? Or should they read the books to solve their problems? These are the kinds of questions that could only turn up in something as deliciously cornball as an Emmerich movie. Fortunately, he’s got a cast that knows what to make of lines like “This is so retro it would be cool if it were on purpose.”
That observation (so gloriously appropriate in the context of this movie) is delivered by Jake Gyllenhaal, whose snarky performance as Sam, the somewhat estranged 17-year-old son of a crack climatologist (Dennis Quaid), carries much of the picture past its absurdities. Not the least of these is dad’s heroically crazy quest to reunite with Sam, even while the world is literally falling down around them.
“Unpack the snow shoes,” he tells his loyal assistant (Dash Mihok). “We’re walking from here.”
Global warming, which is not recognized as a threat by a Cheney-like American vice president (Kenneth Welsh), leads to an instant Ice Age that freezes most of North America and Europe and delivers skyscraper-demolishing tornadoes to Los Angeles. Melting polar caps wreak havoc with the ocean currents, leading dad to claim that this one storm will change the face of the planet.
Satellite views from space show massive, ominous clouds covering the Earth, though there are more immediate disasters on the ground. A ship sails up the street to the library, wolves break loose from their zoo cages, helicopters are downed when their fuel lines freeze, and evacuated refugees fight snow drifts to cross the Mexican border.
The contrast between this worldwide catastrophe and the central characters’ more intimate problems, among them Sam’s crush on another student (Emmy Rossum) and his dad’s testy relationship with his mother (Sela Ward), quickly becomes a rich source of humor, most of it unintentional.
The more Emmerich tries to ground the story in credible relationships, the more irrelevant the characters become. Still, Ian Holm has a few wry moments as a Scottish weather expert, Jay O. Sanders has one strong scene as dad’s self-sacrificing colleague, while Quaid and Ward manage not to look entirely silly.
Gyllenhaal stands out because he doesn’t take himself or the material seriously. “The Day After Tomorrow” is a special-effects showcase, and the best way the actors can compete with the visuals is to bring a sense of fun to the adventure.