Sunday, June 06, 2004

Movie: The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

An amazing cinematic experience. Not because it’s good. God, no. And not because it’s bad. I’ve seen plenty of worse movies, including every previous Roland Emmerich epic (STARGATE, INDEPENDENCE DAY, GODZILLA). But because it somehow manages to be both, and in two discrete chunks.

The first half of this movie is, to invert the phrase, entertainingly ridiculous. Maybe the delusion that this environmental horror show is actually about something allowed Emmerich to accept his inner schlockmeister at last. His movies have always been ungainly hybrids of ‘50s talking-head sci-fi (“Atomic energy is measured in units called Roentgens”) and ‘70s disaster flicks, the clichés from both genres pumped up with a secondhand suburban realism cribbed from Spielberg. But at least in the opening half of TOMORROW, Emmerich doesn’t try to gussy up what he’s doing. He establishes every chestnut with loving care then sells it for all it’s worth. And for a while, the movie has a surprisingly spry energy. Emmerich gives good gobbledygook, which sounds even better coming from actors like Dennis Quaid and Ian Holm. Holm’s scenes in particular are a treat; he’s constantly saying something profound just before a vital piece of technology fails. You’d think his coworkers would gag him so they’d have a chance of living a while longer. And the catastrophe set pieces, especially the twister barrage that erases L.A., are done with verve.

But then, about 70 minutes in, something happens. It’s as if the movie has been caught in the superstorm it’s trying to get us worked up about. The air goes out of the theater, the pressure shifts, and suddenly the forecast includes a 100% chance of the movie sucking. All of the stupidity that Emmerich has done a semi-decent job of holding in abeyance begins erupting everywhere. The laws of nature change on a dime and the occasional idiocy of the characters begins to run rampant. The wolves are at the door and the gloves are off – literally. Frankly, I’d love to know how Emmerich did it. It’s not like he shot the movie in sequence, one day throwing his hands up and saying, “To hell with this. I give up.” A good deal of the blame has to lie with the spectacular miscalculation to have the climactic climatic villain be bitter cold. Hypothermia doesn’t exactly lend itself to strong visuals. During the movie’s last hour I was reminded of Homer Simpson’s first Mr. Plow ad, in which he dispatches Old Man Winter with the immortal line, “Take that, you lousy ... season!” You’d think Emmerich would know that the audience can’t leave humming the snowstorm.

As for the controversy generated by the movie, I can only chalk that up to the fact that it’s summer and we’re none of us thinking clearly. Some critics have taken Emmerich to task for playing fast and loose with science and having the new ice age paralyze the globe in a matter of weeks. I’m sorry, but I just don’t think there’s much of an audience for a film depicting the alteration of weather patterns over the course of centuries and the resulting slow, inexorable death of most species on the planet, even if it starred Brad and Angelina and featured plenty of igloo love scenes. Others have said that the film cheapens the perceived threat of global warming. If there is such fallout, Al Gore and other environmentalists only have themselves to blame for piggybacking on the movie’s gargantuan publicity budget. Nobody claimed this was a documentary. As for the none-too-subtle digs at Bush/Cheney, it’s interesting that they’re in a Fox production that showcases the company’s conservative news network prominently. I’m just happy to see Perry King, who plays the President. It’s been a while since RIPTIDE.

Even in big-budget crap like this, there are occasional isolated moments that seem genuine. You have to savor those. New York is flooding and the camera falls on a businessman muttering, “I won’t have it. I won’t have it.” He pounds on the door of an out-of-service bus and presses $200 on the driver to let him and his friends aboard. As they walk toward the back he says, “I love buses. This’ll be great.” The sarcasm is a brief, authentic taste of New York. Naturally, the character has no more lines and gets killed soon after.

Movie: Bruce Almighty (2003)

Forget Jim Carrey. Steve Carell is God.