[Screen It]

(2004) (Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal) (PG-13)

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Drama/Action: Various people try to survive a sudden and massive climate change that spawns tornados, floods and blizzard conditions that threaten to kill everyone.
Professor Jack Hall (DENNIS QUAID) is a climatologist who, with the aide of assistants Jason Evans (DASH MIHOK) and Frank Harris (JAY O. SANDERS), has come to the conclusion that long term global warming is going to disrupt the world's weather patterns so much that it will create another ice age. Fellow professor Terry Rapson (IAN HOLM), who works with his small team in a remote reporting station, has verified Jack's beliefs and warnings. Yet, no one, from Jack's boss Tom (NESTOR SERRANO) to Vice President Becker (KENNETH WELSH), will believe their findings.

As Jack's physician wife Lucy (SELA WARD) cares for a sick boy and their 17-year-old son Sam (JAKE GYLLENHAAL) heads off to Manhattan for an academic competition with teammates Laura Chapman (EMMY ROSSUM) and Brian Parks (ARJAY SMITH), little do any of them anticipate the massive climate change that's about to sweep over the world. As tornados devastate Los Angeles, and a massive tidal surge sweeps through Manhattan, the northern hemisphere's climate rapidly begins to cool down.

Sam and his friends first take cover with academic competitor J.D. (AUSTIN NICHOLS) in his father's penthouse, but then end up stranded in the city library along with various other people, including Luther (GLENN PLUMMER), a local homeless man. As the weather conditions worse and the storm's vortex threatens to pump ultra-cold air over the region -- instantly freezing anyone caught outside -- Sam and the others try to survive, all while Jack and his team set out from Washington toward New York on a rescue mission.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
People love natural disasters. Okay, perhaps love is too strong of a word for it and those affected by such occurrences certainly don't look upon them fondly. Yet, you can tell by all of the media coverage that they get, as well as the juiced-up feeling when something big is approaching that there's an innate fascination when nature flexes its muscles.

I'll admit to it, and from growing up in the '60s and '70s when Irwin Allen was at his prime, I also have a particular fondness for disaster films like "Earthquake," "The Towering Inferno" and the best of the bunch, "The Poseidon Adventure." Such films have come and gone over the years and are generally broken down into three categories.

There are those where the big event occurs at or near the beginning, others where the disaster continues throughout the film, and the rest where the pivotal point arrives, or at least threatens to do so, at the end. Each has its own advantage (starting things out with a bang, keeping the intensity constant throughout, or building tension over the pending event), but none are innately better than the others.

These sorts of films also arrive in the form of pure exploitative and escapist entertainment or message flicks where the errors of mankind lead to the cataclysmic event.

"The Day After Tomorrow," the latest film from Roland Emmerich, the director of those other disaster films, "Independence Day" and "Godzilla," has the big event happen just about halfway through the picture, while the overall effort definitely falls into the latter message category. Both pose their own sets of problems.

For one, having such films be cautionary tales is a gamble at best. After all, people don't come to big disaster films looking for a message, let alone a sermon, but this one increasingly feels like the latter. I'm all for being concerned about the possible effects of global warming, but this effort bludgeons the viewer with it far too much and too often, resulting in the effort feeling preachy.

In a better film and during Oscar bait season, that might work, but it doesn't particularly jive in a big budget summer offering. With no extraterrestrial villains to battle, the filmmakers have also resorted to making the White House administration come off as the bad guys, a point that probably won't sit that well in this particular political climate.

To the other point, the film's special effects are clearly the big attraction and I must say I was impressed with the tidal surge racing through downtown Manhattan. While I seriously doubt that anyone could outrun what's essential a tidal wave, it's a pretty cool-looking sequence. Of course, scientific or physics-related accuracy usually isn't these sorts of films' strong suit, and everything must be taken with a grain of salt and/or heaping dose of suspension of disbelief. But hey, it's a disaster flick so we're obligated to cut it a little slack in such regards (not much, but a little).

Yet, like many such films, more dollars and attention obviously went into generating such spectacular effects than in creating equally impressive characters and/or a story. In short, the film looks great and contains some fun moments, but in the end, we don't really care about the characters and/or their plight.

Although the film starts off with various storylines -- like most any such effort -- it really boils down to two after the Atlantic arrives in the Big Apple like an obnoxious tourist who won't go back home. One features Dennis Quaid ("Far From Heaven," "The Rookie") -- appearing in his second, less than spectacular blockbuster in a row after "The Alamo" -- playing the alarmist who, I kid you not, states that he'll walk from Washington, DC to NYC to save his son.

On a warm, sunny day with a good pair of sneakers, that would take, oh I don't know, sixty hours if you didn't ever stop to tie your shoe. To be fair, he only walks from Philly to Manhattan, but does so in the equivalent of trudging through the artic on a really bad day. And it looks like the Jersey Turnpike is pretty well jammed. But I digress. Thus, his part of the film concerns that difficult journey -- he's accompanied by Jay O. Sanders ("Along Came a Spider," "Tumbleweeds") and Dash Mihok ("Connie and Carla," "Basic") -- but beyond one harrowing moment, it's not particularly interesting.

The other surviving plotline features Jake Gyllenhaal ("The Good Girl," "Moonlight Mile") -- a.k.a. just about the last performer you'd associate with a high stakes studio disaster film -- being holed up in the public library with his academic teammates, including the girl of his dreams -- played by the becoming Emmy Rossum ("Mystic River," "Songcatcher"). They briefly have a Poseidon Adventure type moment with rising waters, but otherwise are pretty much trapped with nothing to do but chat about this and that.

Sensing that potentially troublesome sedateness, Emmerich and co-writer Jeffrey Nachmanoff (making his feature debut) concoct a bit where -- yes, you're reading this right -- Gyllenhaal and his two new buddies have to board a Russian freighter that became landlocked -- or is it city-locked -- in downtown. They're searching for medicine to fix up Rossum, but encounter escaped zoo wolves that have just so managed to pick the same abandoned Russian freighter parked closest to the public library to look for human food. Wow, imagine the coincidence.

Meanwhile, Sela Ward ("Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," "54") is stuck playing a medic in a scene ripped off from TV's "M*A*S*H" where she stays behind by herself to tend to a sick patient who can't be moved. Instead of the North Koreans approaching, however, it's the ultra cold air from the troposphere that freezes anything instantly.

Speaking of chilly receptions and foreigners, the other occasionally serviced plotline has Kenneth Walsh ("Miracle," TV's "Eloise at the Plaza") playing the stern, Cheney-esque Vice President who must run things from south of the border (and I don't mean the tourist stop on Interstate 95). The terrific Ian Holm ("The Sweet Hereafter," "Alien"), alas, gets only a small part before turning into a human popsicle, while Glenn Plummer ("The Salton Sea," "The Substitute") plays a homeless man of the kind only found in the movies.

Those various separate but related storylines make the effort feel very much like a standard issue disaster film or at least a similar made for TV mini-series. Yet, save for a few moments here and there, none of it's particularly engaging or interesting. As a result, we end up being far more interested in the effects and what might be coming next, rather than with the characters and whether they survive. Alas, even those slow down as if affected by the cold just like the surroundings. And don't even get me started on the deus ex machina that makes sure things end, at least to some small degree, on an up note.

Neither the worst disaster film nor the best, "The Day After Tomorrow" is okay escapist entertainment as long as you can turn off your mental processing and don't mind the clunky dialogue, preachiness, lack of compelling characters, physics or logic. Feeling generous due to my fondness for the genre, the film rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed May 26, 2004 / Posted May 28, 2004

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