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Apocalypse Pretty Soon

But is 'The Day After Tomorrow' the wake-up call the world needs?

By Dorothy Woodend 4 Jun 2004 |

Dorothy Woodend has been the film critic for The Tyee since 2004. Her work has been published in magazines, newspapers and books across Canada and the US, as well as a number of international publications.

Dorothy worked with the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Whistler Film Festival and the National Film Board of Canada. She is a member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Alliance for Arts and Culture in Vancouver. Dorothy is also the Director of Programming for DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.

Reporting Beat: Film.

Dorothy's Connection to BC: Born in Vancouver and raised in the wilds of the Kootenay, Dorothy's favourite spot is her family's farm on Kootenay Lake.

Twitter: @dorothywoodend

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It's not nice to mess with Mother Nature.

Roland Emmerich's new take on that oldest of stories presents us with a world that slowly freezes to death. But in the real world, destruction won't come from cold, but from heat. Mark Lynas, author of High Tide: News from a Warming World, tackled the real implications of global warming in an article published in The New Statesman. "Deep under oceanic continental shelves right around the world, from Peru to Norway, huge quantities of methane are stored in 'hydrate' form, kept solid by a combination of low temperatures and pressure from the water and sediment piled above them. It has been estimated that this methane hydrate store contains 10,000 gigatonnes - that is, ten thousand billion tonnes - of carbon, more than double the world's entire combined fossil-fuel reserves. Like carbon dioxide, methane is a greenhouse gas - in fact, it is 21 times more potent than CO2. If even a small quantity were to escape into the atmosphere, runaway global warming might become inevitable. This nightmare, scientists say, is increasingly likely. Warming ocean temperatures will destabilise the hydrates, allowing them to bubble up to the surface. This new methane will increase temperatures further, leading to still more release from the sea floor in a potentially unstoppable spiral."

Thus the world ends with a huge fart.

The Day After Tomorrow opens with a pan over glaciers and zooms in on some teeny tiny scientist types, lead by Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) who is drilling ice core samples looking for evidence of prehistoric climate change. But the film isn't as much interested in science as it is people falling in big holes which is what happens when a continental ice shelf breaks off and threatens to swallow Dennis Quaid. Cut to an environmental conference in New Delhi, where it's snowing outside and inside Dr. Jack Hall is trying to convince world leaders that something terrible is about to happen, but none of the climatologists seem to register that a blizzard in New Delhi might be a little odd. That's when you start looking around you, thinking "am I here all alone?" Everyone seems pretty much oblivious to the obvious.

Hello? The world just ended

Pity poor Kenneth Welsh, with the weasely demeanor only a mother could love. After playing rapists and other assorted lowlifes, he reaches his lowest ebb by playing the U.S. Vice President. Can it get any worse? Of course it can. He is fitted with lines like "the environment is fragile, but so is our economy." The film, hard enough to take seriously, is filled with Canadian character actors Kenneth Welsh, Sheila McCarthy, and a whole bunch of people from CBC. It's even harder to take seriously when you're thinking, "Hey, wasn't she in Street Legal?"

The film follows the standard routine, ominous warnings ignored by those in power, a band of plucky survivors, but it fails in so many critical ways. I like end-of-the world movies, but there's so little to care about here. Other than Sam Hall (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his girl friend Laura Chapman (Emmy Rossum), no one else even gets much to say. A wall of water obliterates New York City, and the few who take refuge in the public library complain about their cell phone service. The rich boy who has been searching for his little brother doesn't bother to worry that his brother is probably somewhere underneath ten tonnes of water and debris, instead he tells Sam to go after the girl he likes. Huh?? Umm…hello, the world just ended, everyone seems bizarrely unaffected, like the predicted deep freeze has already reached their brains.

There are little kids with cancer, noble doctors, brave librarians and saintly scientists (played most notably by Ian Holm) but any evidence of genuine human feeling never really has a chance. When the big money shot in the movie leaves you strangely unmoved you know you have a problem. Billions die, but the titular American heroes remain unvanquished. Canada, Europe and the rest of the world basically bites it in the opening preamble and no one so much as blinks. After spending a fair amount of time with three snowed-in Scottish scientists, the filmmakers leave them with a bottle of Scotch and never even revisit their fate. It goes without saying that they're dead. But American lives is what it's really about.

Film after 9/11

Armageddon has come and gone, but disaster films still pack in the punters and that's because these films have power. But so often it's wasted with sloppy storytelling and lazy movie-making. Although it wants to be an important film, raising an important issue, The Day After Tomorrow is undone by its own ineptitude. At the theatre there were a few desultory claps when the lights came up and the credits rolled, but most people climbed out of the seats, looking utterly unaffected.

Yes, it's just a movie, but you can't watch a disaster film anymore without feeling echoes of the real world, and you can't watch the real world without comparing it to some cheesy CGI generated explosion.

Some critics have voiced their opposition to Emmerich's film by saying they won't see it simply because no one wants to watch New York laid waste again. In an interview Norman Mailer gave to The American Conservative in December 2002, he cited the very cinematic implications of 9/11: "That may be at the core of the immense impact 9/11 had on America. Our movies came off the screen and chased us down the canyons of the city."

Which is exactly what happens in The Day After Tomorrow, but also may very well happen in real life as well. Research done by the Benfield Hazard Research Centre cited by Mark Lynas "suggests that if enough methane hydrate is released, entire continental slopes could collapse in enormous submarine landslides, triggering tsunami waves of up to 15 metres in height - enough to level entire coastal cities." Good bye New York!

Might do more harm than good

On CBC's The Early Edition, Dr. David Suzuki argued that if the film helped to raise the public's attention about climate change, that was a good thing, but I would argue that the mere existence of this film is enough to shut down all interest in global warming. Like Dr. Suzuki said "It's only a movie!" But it's not a very good one and therein lays the catch.

Hype kills. And absolute hype kills absolutely. Far from raising any real or genuine interest in its subject, it attaches itself succubus-like to an idea and sucks it dry. And then it just sucks, the film that is, and no one even wants to think about global warming anymore. It's consigned to the slagheap of pop culture. Disaster films can have some impact, think to the 70s staple of anti-nuke films (The Day After, The War Game, If You Love this Planet, Testament) which raised the specter of nuclear devastation and sunk deep into people's psyches. But they were actually good films.

2003 was one of the warmest years in recorded history, and in B.C., the worst forest fire season of all time has been predicted for the coming months. European heat waves, rising sea-levels and Atlantic hurricanes... with all these signs staring us in the face, does it take something as dumb as Hollywood to observe the obvious? Perhaps.

The one thing the film gets right is the sense that maybe we deserve our fate. We made this world, and now it will unmake us. Mother Nature is one pissed off Mother and she's going to give us a licking we'll never forget.

Dorothy Woodend, who writes for various international publications, reviews films for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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