The world is going to end unless you stop using hairspray

Published: Tuesday, June 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 28, 2004 at 10:57 a.m.

2-1/2 stars

Global warming may be one of the great dangers facing our planet. But cliched scripts are still the No. 1 peril for the big Hollywood blockbuster.

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Twentieth Century Fox

The pitfall of shtick plagues Roland Emmerich's "The Day After Tomorrow," a spectacular but predictable science fiction movie about the cataclysmic consequences of planetary pollution, which causes a new Ice Age, no less. This often entertaining movie mixes grand, epic effects and amazing visualizations of catastrophe with a sappy family-in-crisis plot that would look hackneyed in a '60s Disney TV movie.

The hero and villain, in both cases, is director and co-writer Emmerich himself. A kind of Jekyll-Hyde of the spectacle movie, Emmerich executes his lavish disaster, action or monster movies ("Independence Day," "The Patriot," "Godzilla") with enormous visual panache and rich imagination - after providing himself with scripts and characters so thin, you sometimes have to ignore the stories to enjoy the films. Even if audiences don't mind - and they often don't - it's still a drag on his movies.

"The Day After Tomorrow," for example, has enough prodigious visual effects and scenes of carnage and destruction to haunt your dreams. With joyous abandon, Emmerich and his technical wizards show us Los Angeles devastated by multiple tornadoes that tear down the HOLLYWOOD sign, hurricanes surfing up Hawaii, and blizzards that bury New Dehli. Topping it all, he sends a huge wave battering past The Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, drowning Manhattan in flood waters, followed by another gargantuan blizzard - until eventually we see a runaway Russian tanker floating down Fifth Avenue past the people (including romantic leads Jake Gyllenhaal and Emmy Rossum as high school brains Sam Hall and Laura Chapman) trapped inside the New York Public Library.

Watching this is fun, and the movie also wins our hearts with its premise - a frontal attack on the reckless abuse of the Earth's resources and ravaging of the atmosphere and ozone layer. It is those corporate and governmental sins that cause all this chaos, after the world ignores the warnings of Sam's father, crack climatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid), who believes melting polar ice caps will trigger a shutdown of the Gulf Stream and radically alter the climate in 100 years or so.

Weather-wise, it's later than he thinks. Unfortunately, Hall's warnings fall on deaf ears - the deafest of all belonging to the pretty-boy U.S. President Blake (Perry King) and his sneaky-looking, corporate-loving vice president (played as an amusing Dick Cheney look-alike by Kenneth Welsh). So when the Northern Hemisphere's climate suddenly changes, the big storms hit and half of America begins fleeing to Mexico. Jack is left with an arduous task. He has to rescue his son and the others trapped in the library, who have by now been reduced to burning books for warmth.

Considering his high government connections, we wonder why Jack undertakes this rescue with two buddies, snowshoes and backpacks in a van - instead of, say, finding a plane to fly above the storm. And as Jack races to the rescue, his wife, Dr. Lucy (Sela Ward), is involved in simultaneous heroism, saving bed-bound patients in an abandoned D.C. hospital. More amazingly still well, we'll leave the rest to your dramatic imaginations, which are probably at least as good, in this case, as Emmerich's and co-writer Jeffrey Nachmanoff's.

Quaid, Gyllenhaal and Rossum are not bad despite their roles, and there is far too little of Ian Holm as wizened Professor Rapson. But the best non-visual parts of the script are the slyer, funnier ones - such as Glenn Plummer's turn as Luther, the homeless man who sneaks his dog into the library, and Welsh's satiric turn as V.P. Becker. Just as amusingly, the cable TV channel broadcasting all these global warming disasters is "fair and balanced" Fox News Channel. (The film's distributor is 20th Century Fox.)

Emmerich is an environmentalist and Green Party voter, and if he heightens any consciousness, more power to him. But one wonders why he doesn't get co-writers as imaginative as his visual technicians. As a disaster flick, "Day" is smashing. But you only have to compare it to a more modest world-disaster movie, Val Guest's 1962 "The Day the Earth Caught Fire" (one of Emmerich's favorites), to know what's missing: wit, psychology, dramatic tension, characters to captivate us as much as the catastrophes. "Day" needs to be as good at patching up families, or making us smile, as destroying the world.

"The Day After Tomorrow"

Directed by Roland Emmerich; written by Emmerich, Jeffrey Nachmanoff; photographed by Ueli Steiger; edited by David Brenner; production designed by Barry Chusid; visual effects supervised by Karen E. Goulekas; music by Harald Kloser; produced by Emmerich, Mark Gordon. A Twentieth Century Fox release; opens Friday, May 28. Running time: 2:02. MPAA rating: PG-13 (intense situations of peril).

Jack Hall - Dennis Quaid

Sam Hall - Jake Gyllenhaal

Laura Chapman - Emmy Rossum

Dr. Lucy Hall - Sela Ward

Vice President Becker - Kenneth Welsh

Terry Rapson - Ian Holm

Jason Evans - Dash Mihok

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