“The Day After Tomorrow” and Disaster Flicks as Political Polemic

The Day After Tomorrow Jake Gyllenhaal in Roland Emmerich's 2004 disaster film "The Day After Tomorrow." (FOX)

Fifteen years after its release, Roland Emmerich’s environmental disaster film is no less corny, but its warnings about climate change ring depressingly more urgent.

The majority of disaster films depend upon a central conflict: Man vs. Nature. Typically, nature cruelly disrupts humankind without our control, like in Volcano or Deep Impact. Sure; we control how we confront the oncoming cataclysm but said disasters rarely originate through human means. However, every once in a while, a disaster film solely predicated on humans’ unnerving idiocy comes along. These rarities often posit humans as the main cause of our own demise, with outside forces only facilitating said destruction. Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, celebrating its 15-year anniversary this weekend, falls into the former by warning us of the most extreme case of our environmental waste in a bid for political change.

In The Day After Tomorrow, a climatologist named Professor Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) warns of a “far-off” consequence for our burning of fossil fuels. He posits a new Ice Age caused by a disruption of the North Atlantic Current through melting ice caps. Originally predicted by Hall to occur in a hundred, maybe even a thousand years from now, the film obviously accelerates the destruction to take place over the course of 7-10 days.

During the film’s first hour, rarer and rarer volatile weather systems impact the world: In Japan softball-size hail falls, in L.A. tornadoes roam across Hollywood Boulevard, torrential rain causes extreme flooding and a massive tidal wave to hit Manhattan, and temperatures drop to the point of immediately freezing people where they stand.

If these events sound fantastical, well, they are. Most scientists pushed back against The Day After Tomorrow’s basic premise in 2009. “I’m not losing any sleep over a new ice age, because it’s impossible,” said climatologist Andrew Weaver of Canada’s University of Victoria around the film’s release.

However, while scientists may know… well science, they’re probably not the best people to influence the general public. If they were, the seriousness around global warming would be heighted. Instead, The Day After Tomorrow doesn’t purport itself to be a grand scientific treaty. The film teaches us the necessary lessons through our most common language: pop culture.

Pop culture makes for fantastic and easily understood parallels. In the case of Emmerich’s film, the ineffectual President (Perry King) and Vice President (Kenneth Welsh) bore a significant resemblance to the then-recent Bush/Cheney administration. Bush, a former oilman, didn’t admit to the significant damage caused by fossil fuels until the end of his final term (of course, when it was too late for any significant change).

In The Day After Tomorrow, Vice President Becker ignores several warnings from Professor Hall. Instead, he uses the condition of the world’s economy to justify his willful ignorance. “The Kyoto Treaty would affect our economy in a negative way,” stated Bush in 2001 when explaining why the U.S. wouldn’t take part in the far-reaching environmental agreement. Said agreement was a key campaign promised by then-Vice President Al Gore, which later spurred his groundbreaking documentary: An Inconvenient Truth (2006, two years after The Day After Tomorrow).

The film’s temporal parallels don’t stop there: Hall’s research relies on past climate events to build a model of what will happen. The majority of those climatic occurrences date to the Ice Age, drawing upon the truism of history repeating itself as a teaching tool for humans.   

Emmerich’s film also understands what truly affects humans: the moving image mixed with familiar surroundings. By the conclusion of The Day After Tomorrow, a tornado tears apart the Hollywood sign and a tidal wave wraps around The Statue of Liberty (and later, covers the national emblem in ice and snow).

Most would assume Emmerich’s choice to amplify individual disasters around landmarks as empty entertainment, but when the director came under fire for depicting a nearly-destroyed New York, just a few years after September 11th, he explained “I said that I was very sensitive and that I didn’t want to destroy New York again.” While some thought Chicago also made for a suitable location, Emmerich wanted the world’s familiarity with New York (sorry Chicago) for maximum impact. The director understood how bad events surrounding familiar and cultural objects hit our deepest psyche. For political change, such props are a necessity.

In fact, the only escape for half the country (those above the Mason-Dixon Line) is escaping to Mexico. In a simple twist of fate, Mexico closes her borders to the United States. Once again seizing on familiarity, the film almost acts as a warning to Far-Right Conservatives of their deepest darkest fears.     

The Day After Tomorrow’s most potent lesson arrives in the form of the central father-son relationship between Professor Hall and Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal). The two share a strained relationship, with Professor Hall devoting his time to his work. Broken promises marks their relationship more than fond memories. The broken promises by an older generation to the younger mirrors how past politicians have put their current needs ahead of the future.

The Hall/Sam parable reminds us of the most vulnerable in “our” pursuit of wealth in lieu of environmental consciousness. The simple message: If we don’t change something, our children will pay the price — permeates throughout the film.

Much like The Towering Inferno, another disaster flick predicated on our idiocy, The Day After Tomorrow couches itself in both the political and moral. They’re excessively created, yet grounded in simple storytelling techniques to say something more about our present and future. Though the possibility of a scenario at the center of The Day After Tomorrow remains impossible, the very real effects of climate change have only become more urgent.

With each passing year the severity of blizzards, heat waves, droughts, flooding, tornadoes, and hurricanes increases. Nevertheless, as recently as 2016 the Trump Administration pulled out of the Paris Agreement (another far-reaching environmental treaty). Much like Emmerich’s film, history repeats itself to our detriment. And like his Vice President Becker, after 15 years, we can’t say we weren’t warned.            

The Day After Tomorrow Trailer:

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