Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow is one of those textbook disaster flicks where every recognizable element is in full swing: determined scientist, sure of his curveball theories that no one else buys, saddled with a dysfunctional family and a clock that’s quickly ticking down towards some looming cataclysm, in this case severely bat tempered weather. It’s cliche after cliche, but this is one of the ones that works, and I have a theory why. These days it seems like the formula for the disaster film is pretty dead, or at least doesn’t carry the same magic it did throughout the 90’s and early 00’s.
Stuff like San Andreas, 2012, Geostorm (shudder) just feel dead on arrival, and instead we go back and revisit things like Armageddon, Independence Day, and for me, ones like this. There’s a quality, a feel for time and place that got lost somewhere along the way as time passed in Hollywood, and this is one of the last few that serve as a milestone as to where that happened. The first half or so is cracking stuff, followed by a slightly underwhelming final act. Dennis Quaid is the scientist who gets all in a huff about an extreme weather front that’s apparently barrelling towards the east coast, threatening to give the whole region one wet day in the park. There’s an exaggerated halfwit Vice President (Kenneth Welsh) who scoffs at him, an excitable veteran professor (Bilbo Baggins) who eagerly supports him, and an estranged family right in the storm’s crosshairs who he must rescue. The special effects are neat when the maelstrom slams into New York like a battering ram, pushing over buildings with walls of water and chucking hurricanes all about the place. Quaid’s wife (Sela Ward) and wayward son (Jake Gyllenhaal) are of course stuck in this mess, as he races to find out what’s causing it, and how to escape. The initial scenes where it arrives are big screen magic, especially when Gyllenhaal’s girlfriend (Emmy Rossum) is chased down main street by a raging typhoon and barely scapes into a building, a breathless showcase moment for the film. The second half where the storm levels off isn’t as engaging, despite attempts to throw in extra excitement, such as wolves, which I still can’t quite figure out the origin of, despite watching the film a few times now. Holed up inside a library, it’s a long waiting game in the cold dark where the writing and character development is spread a bit thin for the time they have to kill, but what can you expect here. Should have thrown in a T Tex or some ice dragons to distract us from sparse scripting. Still, the film gets that initial buildup deliciously right, the nervous windup to all out chaos, the editing between different characters and where they are when the monsoon shows up, and enough panicky surviving to make us thankful for that cozy couch and home theatre system all the more. One of the last of the finest, in terms the genre.