Here's the detail that reveals everything anyone needs to know about The Day After Tomorrow: As a climatological catastrophe destroys the world, the film frequently checks in on a noble doctor who's unwilling to abandon her post even as the situation grows hopeless. (In fine disaster-movie tradition, she's played by Sela Ward, one of about half a dozen B-listers—including Perry King as, uh, the president.) Ward keeps vigil by the bedside of a single remaining patient, a wide-eyed kid suffering from leukemia. Director/co-writer Roland Emmerich could have stopped there, but, apparently believing that there might still be room for ambiguity, he has the kid clutch a copy of Peter Pan and comment that, though his eyesight has failed, he remembers the story well enough that just holding the book is enough. By comparison, a giant tidal wave hitting New York seems subtle.
The Day After Tomorrow is Emmerich's first film since The Patriot, and it carries on his bizarre tradition from Independence Day and Godzilla, which celebrate American virtues while destroying the nation itself. It also carries on their tradition of not being particularly good. Emmerich now directs entirely in watered-down Spielbergisms, and his storytelling skills, never strong, have gone slack. His talent for stretching a concept that can be described in 10 seconds into a feature-length movie, on the other hand, remains impressive.
In The Day After Tomorrow, the concept is an environmental disaster that ushers in a new Ice Age. Looking admirably unembarrassed, Dennis Quaid plays a climatologist loudly warning anyone who will listen—including a Dick Cheney look-alike vice-president—about the looming crisis. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Quaid's mildly estranged son, who finds himself stranded in New York when disaster strikes.
As for the disaster itself, no established etiquette exists for such things, but it's pretty hard to watch New York get destroyed again: A sheet of water doesn't have much in common with al-Qaeda, but it still feels a bit like cultural scab-picking. Fortunately, the film's irrepressible dull-wittedness helps neutralize any discomfort. How, for instance, do the tornadoes that hit Los Angeles know to zero in on the city's most famous landmarks? And is Quaid supposed to seem noble, or just stupid, for walking across hundreds of miles of frozen wasteland to find his son when he can't offer him any means of escape? All would be forgiven if The Day After Tomorrow were the fun kind, and for a while, it is. Then it becomes the dull kind of bad. After the storm passes and the freeze hits, the film is only half over and already out of tricks, although viewers with a yen for watching characters huddle around fires won't be disappointed.