Until, at least, “2012” came out, “The Day After Tomorrow” was the undisputed holder of the critical-existential-threat-to-all-life-on-Earth-trivialised-by-hysterical-pseudo-science movie championship (the trophy is enormous) and while it may have added fossil fuel to the fires of ignorance over the conceptual dissonance of global warming and climate change, it also managed to tap into not just environmental fears, but touched older cultural nerves like ruined harvests and nuclear winters.
Basically, it’s high concept, low science premise is that changes in the flow of ocean currents caused by melting glaciers brings about rapid and radical climate change. After a few signature bouts of landmark destruction (Los Angeles is ravaged by tornados, Tokyo gets pummelled by gigantic hailstones and it absolutely pisses down in New York), director Roland Emmerich really lets loose as three cataclysmic storms form in the northern hemisphere, joining together to become one global superstorm which Elsas the entire world and while nobody wants to build a snowman, stepping outside means you risk becoming one.
As a scientific treatise on the environmental impact of man-made climate change, it’s too stupid to effectively make its point (regardless of how heavy-handed its dialogue to that effect may be at times), as an acting showcase, its par for the course with Jake Gyllenhaal, Denis Quaid and Emmy Rossum earning their disaster movie survival stripes as they hunker down in a frozen New York library but as a special effects showcase, it’s still, fifteen years later, pretty damned impressive. The inundation of New York is a memorable finale to the first hour of the film, which is pretty much high-quality VFX disaster porn interrupted only by the minimum required exposition to set up the second hour which replaces spectacle with survival drama as surely as the flooding of New York is followed by the deepest of freezes.
Along the way, we bid farewell to the peripheral characters, such as Ian Holm’s climatologist as the film seeks to underline just how unsurvivable the storm is, adding tension to the small band of survivors huddling around the fireplace in New York’s public library and to Dennis Quaid’s cross-country trek to get to his son. In fact, so many people die and the stakes are repeated so often that it makes the film’s denouement somewhat laughable when, after everything our heroes have been through and only a handful of them have survived, that dozens of other survivors emerge on the rooftops of New York’s many skyscrapers.
Since we’ve barely made any progress whatsoever as a species coming to grips with the impact of man-made climate change since this film was released, the film still retains its topical relevance, its message more timely than ever, despite its hyperbolic interpretation of the risks. As a disaster movie, it may lack dramatic credibility but makes up for it with a likeable cast and an eye for memorable visuals.