The Day After Tomorrow

Roland Emmerich, the director behind summer spectacles like Independence Day and Godzilla is back, and this time he’s showering down an apocalyptic weather storm in The Day After Tomorrow. There’s almost a formula to Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster films. Some force (shrouded in mystery at the beginning of the film) appears and wreaks havoc, allowing Emmerich’s choice of special effects companies to destroy cities with impressive special effects. A group of people, usually played by has been or up and coming celebrities (presumably so Emmerich can spend less money on talent and more on special effects) face off with whatever the force is, and eventually save the day. The Day After Tomorrow is no different, replacing Independence Day’s aliens or Godzilla’s giant lizard with a giant weather storm.

Like Emmerich’s other summer spectaculars, The Day After Tomorrow has visual effects that surpass many other things out there. When New York is flooded by a massive tidal wave you believe it. Cars are tossed aside by the gigantic wave without cause or care, ice pelts down on unsuspecting businessmen, and helicopters crash, frozen in a terrifyingly believable manner. Just like it was easy to believe aliens were destroying cities in Independence Day, it isn’t hard to suspend disbelief and be dazzled and dismayed by the storm raining down on Earth. The visuals do have one downside though - the notoriously ugly CGI wolves. In the midst of a giant storm that floods all of New York City and then freezes everything instantly, a pack of wolves manage to survive and cause trouble for our heroes. I’m guessing they survive due to the fact that they are made up of horrid CGI that can withstand the storm. It’s amazing how special effects can believably destroy cities, but can’t make a pack of wolves look good. Wolves aside, if the movie was a two hour visual display of a storm wreaking havoc on the planet, this would be an excellent movie, although lacking of much in the way of plot.

Unfortunately the film’s spectacular visual effects come to a halt from time to time to show us the effect of these storms on the characters. The film attempts to not just be a special effects festival, but also a character piece as well. The problem is, the characters are never developed enough for this to work, so the film fails miserably. Yeah, we understand Dennis Quaid’s Jack Hall is concerned about his son and wife, but we never get a feeling for it, and we never get a real explanation of why it’s so important for him to travel miles and miles with total disregard to the few instructions he’s given his family - particularly the instructions to stay inside. We never bond enough with the characters to feel bad for what they’re going through, and unlike Emmerich’s other films, he doesn’t really attempt to help that.

There are a few characters added in to try and make you sympathize with their plight, but it’s so overt and manipulative it’s hard to fall for. One of my favorite moments of Independence Day is the president and his daughter sitting outside his wife’s hospital room. It’s a true moment of emotion that touches you with a consequence of the alien attack and allows an actor to shine for a moment. The Day After Tomorrow has no such moment. Here there are just lots of characters and all of them are facing challenges. Some live and some die, but it’s never the right ones dying. Often killing a character means introducing a new person so they can be killed, leaving the leading players out of true danger. This happens so often the whole movie starts to fall into Star Trek’s “red shirt” plague; If Jake, Emmy, and new character #37 go off to do something, you quickly know which character isn’t coming back. With no real danger to the main characters, the threat the visual effects press upon you is nullified, spoiling moments of tension and suspense.

The other huge problem with The Day After Tomorrow is that the antagonist is something that can’t be stopped. This is a giant storm, created by decades of humans abusing the earth. What could the characters possibly do to stop it? The answer is - “nothing”. This causes a bit of pointlessness in the character’s plight. Quaid’s character travels from Philadelphia to New York by foot to save his son... from what? What could this father possibly do to protect his son that he couldn’t do over the phone? The only intelligent course of action is given verbally early in the movie, making the rest of the storyline for Jack Hall a pointless, ridiculous effort in futility.

The film is obviously set up as a social/ecological commentary. The events in the film are possible, although it would take centuries for them to transpire, as opposed to the days within the film. Emmerich kind of acknowledges this subtlety - the massive weather events happen tomorrow, the survival and recovery happens the day after tomorrow. Since tomorrow is always a day away, the events are always hovering there in the future. I’m all for science fiction films based in fact, but Emmerich’s tale has all the subtlety of a Michael Moore film in its ecological message - we’re screwing up the planet and this is what could happen. Not to beat a dead horse, but it’s too bad that message is undercut because Emmerich didn’t add any emotional value to that message by making us care about the characters up on screen.

The Day After Tomorrow is probably a more enjoyable film on DVD. Sure, you lose some of the impact of the huge visuals unless you happen to have a ten foot screen in your home theater. You do get the benefit of being able to fast forward or make fun of the dramatic scenes though, and that’s worth losing that big scale. The better thing to do would be just to watch the trailer for the film which includes all the big visuals without the mindless characters and plot. Of course, you won’t find that trailer on the DVD, which is representative of the entire problem with this DVD - what is included on the DVD is mediocre, but it’s what’s not included that really hurts this release.

So what is on the DVD? There are deleted scenes which more appropriately should be called alternate scenes. Both scenes (yes, there are only two) show alternate or extended versions of scenes that are actually in the movie. Neither scene is different enough to justify presenting a different version of the scene. One connects some of the minor characters we briefly see (those “red shirts” I was talking about) and the other offers a little more dialog between Quaid’s character and his team. As deleted scenes go, these are pretty pointless inclusions.

There are two separate commentary tracks for the film. The first, between Roland Emmerich and producer Mark Gibson is an example of everything a commentary track shouldn’t be. Gibson dominates the conversation, praising every single person who was involved with the film and continually calling Emmerich a genius. As he calls out what’s happening in the film, Gibson also gives his opinion on other stuff they should have done, planned on doing, or didn’t do despite his opinion. You get the impression Gibson was brought on to help finance the film, and he never went home. Oddly, neither Emmerich or Gibson seem to be aware the film is a dud, and heap praise upon even the worst parts of the film, including the dreadful CGI-wolves. The second commentary track is between co-writer Jeffrey Nachmanoff, DP Ueli Steiger, Editor David Brenner, and Production Designer Barry Chusid. These behind-the-scenes people offer a more interesting look at the production of the film without the brown nosing of the producer. Between the two commentary tracks you begin to realize how much of the film consists of green screening and completely digital shots, from what appears to be a fly over of the ocean (completely digitally rendered) to Quaid and Gyllenhaal driving around (green screened). If this is representative of summer blockbuster filmmaking, the days of practical effects are over. That’s not to say digital effects don’t have their place, it’s just a shame to see everything over taken by CGI. Again using the example of the wolves, it really would have made the movie stronger if they had been organic rather then digital. Of course, the way the wolves look did help distract from the fact that they hadn’t frozen to death or drowned, so maybe there was an advantage in that choice.

What really would help show how the film was made would be some behind the scenes documentaries. Unfortunately, with the exception of an “audio anatomy” scene, there’s no behind the scenes material to be found. Actually, it is there to be found - if you have a DVD- ROM drive and an internet connection (preferably high speed). The disc provides a link to over an hour of online behind the scenes footage. This is a disaster as far as extras go, putting something that should be a standard inclusion as something you have to access online. Taking into consideration most people don’t use DVD-ROM material, this behind the scenes footage will be unseen by most people. Even if you do use a DVD-ROM to watch the movie, you’re only able to access the material if you’re using a Windows based PC. Macintosh and Linux users can’t access the material. Since I use a Mac, I can’t tell you how the online footage is, but if the DVD itself is any indication, I’d say it probably isn’t convenient and doesn’t cover as much as you’d like it to.

I give the folks at Fox credit for trying something new with the online “making of” footage, but as a whole this DVD release is as big a disaster as the events in the film. If I had to make a prediction, I’d guess another release of this film is just around the corner, trying to make up for the lack of quality behind the scenes material on this disc. With poor extra material, and a sub-par summer popcorn flick, I’d suggest passing The Day After Tomorrow by.