Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun May 30, 2004 9:56 pm 
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Roland Emmerich says he's not as naïve as his movies. Are we?

[Published on CineScene]

Despite MoveOn’s leafleting efforts at its nationwide openings, The Day After Tomorrow hasn't got the best chances of galvanizing the movie masses against the Bush administration’s junk science anti-ecological policies. After all, to state the obvious, Roland Emmerich is a disaster blockbuster director and this is a disaster blockbuster. Such movies provide a crude form of catharsis, the "pity and terror" Aristotle described as essential to tragedy. They're not designed to instruct.

Though the German Emmerich says he’s always voted Green, he came to this topic -- sudden, cataclysmic climate change -- not directly through ecology concerns but via science fiction. His movie idea, he says in an interview, “was taken from the book, The Coming Global Superstorm, by Art Bell and Whitley Strieber. . . I started reading science magazines articles, which talked about everything leading to an imbalance, which leads to this worldwide storm, which leads to an ice age.”

The studio didn’t want to use the term “global warming” in its advertising, but the movie’s conceit, based on the book, is precisely that global warming, by melting the polar icecaps and spewing too much fresh water into the mix with the oceans’ salt water, could lead to a global freeze that would endanger the world population -- and that this would happen much faster than anybody but a sexy, Type A paleoclimatologist (Jack Hall, played by Dennis Quaid) could have imagined, so fast it’s already started happening when the movie begins.

The ecological message of the movie is weakened by the fact that The Day After Tomorrow’s cataclysmic shift could happen as a wholly natural phenomenon: ice ages of the past weren’t mankind’s fault. Manmade pollution is doing very real damage that could be irreversible if things go on as they are now, but that it is within human power to reverse now. Only that’s just not as sexy.

Unfortunately the reality of the situation -- that pollution of the oceans and the air, the rising of the seas, the breakup of the ozone layer, higher temperatures, greater extremes of weather, storms, and other natural disasters are very real manmade changes damaging to the conditions necessary for life on earth -- isn't flashy enough for a blockbuster disaster movie.

The movie does have a message, but coming from within the world of pop art, it doesn't arrive with the best context. The trouble is that Emmerich has already done much sillier movies in which the continent -- and New York -- were spectacularly trashed. It was aliens and a Japanese lizard; now it’s weather. The progression makes the seriousness of his environmentalism look a bit suspect.

Nonetheless there’s no doubt about the political gibes Emmerich got away with, which may explain why the Bush administration doesn't like this movie one bit. Everybody notices that it's a Cheney look-alike Vice President in denial (Kenneth Welsh), claiming the US economy is more “delicate” than the biosphere and (like the Bushies before and just after September 11th), first fostering the disaster, then making it worse by failing to take any of the necessary steps when it starts happening. And then (what got the biggest cheer from the audience when I watched) we see Mexico turning back US emigrants at the border. The only trouble is that when the movie’s message comes in the VP’s abject apology (from the US embassy in Mexico) for not heeding warnings about our over consumption, the audience only tittered.

As a gorgeous pop movie – that is, a mass of brilliant special effects with touching close-up looks at a few people played by recognizable stars, The Day After Tomorrow isn’t ineffective, though it reads as a mélange of other movies, from Planet of the Apes to Touching the Void.

The plot’s silliness is almost too obvious to go into and is, in a real sense, irrelevant. We just need some people to care about while the special effects whirl around us. We enjoy watching cozy Ian Holm (as a Scottish weather watcher in a remote, ultimately fatal, location) have tea and aged single malt scotch, and the audience cheers when Jack Hall's son Sam's (Jake Gyllenhaal’s) girlfriend (Emmy Rossum) hugs his naked torso to prevent hypothermia (following a sequence that owes a lot to Titanic). We may (though it’s a stretch) enjoy seeing Sam's mom (Sela Ward) save a little ET-esque boy with cancer, or root for Dennis Quaid as he pulls out a cohort who’s fallen through the ice.

When Quaid, as the expert who understands the disaster better than anyone else, decides to go by car and foot to a totally frozen Manhattan just because his son is holed up in the New York Public Library, the plot’s irrelevance is intolerable, but we get the heartwarming moment. Jack Hall knocks open the great frozen door and young Sam hugs his dad.

We get to see Manhattan fill up with a tidal wave of freezing water; we see skyscrapers freeze solid from the top down. Cars and busses float down streets. Eventually a boat comes. Yes, the images are spectacular at times and the sound effects are effective; they don’t bludgeon you. There are a good many terrifying moments. Perhaps most touching is the elegiac one when Ian Holm and his coworkers know they’re doomed. Being holed up in a library isn’t the most dramatic of situations, but the writers get some mileage out of it, forcing a choice of what books to burn (“Not Nietzsche! He was the greatest thinker of the nineteenth century!” “But he was a creep in love with his sister!” Then somebody finds a whole section of tax regulation volumes and they’re saved these choices; a head librarian hugs a Guttenberg Bible). So we’ve got a reference to Fahrenheit 451 while we wait for Fahrenheit 9/11 to arrive.

In German interviews Emmerich has been a bit more outspoken. I don’t know if the world can take another season of Bush, he says. If there is one, “that may be the best time to move out of the country.” He has houses in England and Mexico. “I am not as naïve as my films,” he bluntly says. He has a few laughs at the Hollywood guys who wanted to have Bruce Willis in the movie coming in to "fix" the weather with a giant laser cannon. But if he’s going to make a special effects blockbuster, he admits, he’s going to have to dumb it down to bring back the $125 million it costs to make it. So he told the Germans.

Emmerich isn’t as naïve as his movies. Are we? Can the crude catharsis of a disaster blockbuster really teach us an eco-message?

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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