Thursday, June 10, 2004

The Day After Tomorrow

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 June 2004 at AMC Fenway #4 (first-run)

Summer movie spectacles have become ordinary. Making a movie with massive amounts of special effects is not yet easy or cheap, but there is a sort of system in place, and massive computer-rendered mayhem is routine enough that we, as audience members and critics take it for granted. We look at a spectacle movie and say, so what? Where's the character development? Which is rather silly - it implies that all spectacle is created equal, and that creating something beautiful and terrifying isn't worthwhile for its own sake.

The Day After Tomorrow has solidly above-average destruction. Writer/director Roland Emmerich has had a great deal of practice in ripping large cities apart on-screen, and he hits all the right notes here. He uses relatively long shots, both in distance and time, to make the scope of what he's doing clear. He places everything in the right place on the screen (in terms of looking at it, if not necessarily in terms of real geography), and he manages the difficult task of making a frozen, snow-covered environment appear dynamic. The methods by which he unleashes his destruction are nicely tied together; when a helicopter's fuel lines freeze and it crashes, it gives the feeling that he and his co-writer Jeffrey Nachmanoff were actually thinking this through, that he was considering all the possibilities and just worked them all in.

Indeed, it's refreshing how seriously Emmerich takes his subject matter. The scientists in this movie are smart and have human foibles without being socially stunted, inappropriate wisecracks are kept to a minimum, and there's not much in the way of camp. Emmerich doesn't feel the need to soften the blow when bad things are happening; instead of going for a chuckle by having the special effects kill people in an ironic/darkly comic way, he just lets dangerous situations be dangerous without comment or deconstruction. It's a surprisingly effective technique, and deserves imitation.

That's not to say this is a perfect movie; much of the film's second hour between cataclysmic events seems too much smaller than the rest. There's also very little sense of human scale; when characters refer to something happening a couple days ago, it doesn't feel like a two days have past inside the film when only ten or fifteen minutes have passed outside of it. When Dennis Quaid's character hikes through the storm from somewhere just north of Philadelphia to Manhattan, we never get a real sense of exactly how dangerous that is.

And, of course, as is expected from a PG-13 movie, it's a rather bloodless affair. I'm not saying I want blood and guts, or even that it would be appropriate (the nature of the superstorm would mean that what bodies weren't buried would be flash-frozen and preserved), but too often it seems that the destruction affects mainly buildings and structures and things, as opposed to people.

The acting is decent for the main characters - pros like Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sela Ward, Adrian Lester, and Ian Holm are more than capable of selling what they're given (they are aided enormously by the science sounding vaguely reasonable and consistent); relative newcomer Emmy Rossum is a nice find. There's something of a drop-off when you get to the second-tier characters, like the folks who are holed up in the New York Public Library with Gyllenhaal's Sam; they don't rise much above serviceable that often.

There's alikeablee earnestness about the movie, though - Emmerich and company believe in its cautionary message, and as a result they seem to put more effort into it than is generally expected for the genre. The Day After Tomorrow doesn't transcend its genre, but is a good example of the disaster movie done well.

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