by Marty Demarest

The Day After Tomorrow is a disaster picture. You know, you go to the movie, you meet some people, you watch them nearly die, then you get on with your life. These films are melodramatic joyrides through "Well, it could always be worse" territory. In disaster movies, it always is worse.

This time, it seems, the sun has attacked. Or the earth has decided to warm up. Either way, a few minutes into the film, the camera pulls back to reveal a big crack in Antarctica leading straight toward the sun. It's a good image - and as villainous as global warming is ever likely to look.

Unless you count the American vice president. Because while we don't actually see any people consuming fossil fuels or using aerosol products, we do get to witness a white-haired, arrogant veep talk imperiously about "the economy" as Dennis Quaid, the scientist who almost fell into the crack, tries to warn him. Clearly, somebody at the White House missed the previews for The Day After Tomorrow and doesn't know what a tidal wave hitting New York looks like.

Which brings us to the main reason to see this movie. Don't worry about the rinky-dink politics, or the potentially-imaginably-possibly-realistic science. Enjoy the special effects. Seeing twisters annihilate Hollywood is a pure summertime treat, and director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) sets a new standard for lavish special effects and the landscapes they destroy.

He certainly does a better job than the last time he walked a disaster into America (Godzilla). Here, Emmerich knows that he's never going to show the defeat of the world's newest threat, so he makes sure that everyone has multiple disasters to deal with. (A group in NYC faces wolves; a six-year-old cancer patient is trapped in a hospital.) The effect is either ludicrous or exciting. Either way, it's entertaining -- and it takes you a while to realize that Emmerich shows very few onscreen deaths. Despite the destruction, he saves his most credible risks for the characters we know best.

As far as they go, the actors do a decent job. Poor Dennis Quaid, with his lips pursed and eyes averted, is shorn of his smiley charisma. But Jake Gyllenhaal, perhaps realizing that only action stars try to outrun the weather, takes advantage of the fact that while snow isn't the scariest threat, it's certainly one of the most romantic. The rest of the cast is resigned to acting in two-minute vignettes, showing us people leading recognizable lives right before they die. The movie dips into a brutal shorthand for these scenes, cramming as much detail and emotion onto the screen as possible. (Onscreen TVs often show the progress of the storm.) But as hackneyed as these scenes can be, the clich & eacute;s ring true more often than they don't, creating a sense that something bad has actually happened. It makes the ending - you know, when you walk out of the theater into the real world - seem that much better. What more can you ask of a disaster?

Publication date: 06/03/04

Vandal Summer Cinema Series

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