Release Date:  May 28, 2004
Rating: PG-13 (for intense situations of peril)
Genre: Action/Drama/SciFi
Run Time: 124 minutes
Director:  Roland Emmerich
Actors:  Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Rossum, Dash Mihok, Jay O. Sanders, Sela Ward, Austin Nichols

What is it about end-of-the-world scenarios that fascinates everyone? Aside from the thrills, I guess it’s interesting to see how people react when their survival is at stake.

In Roland Emmerich’s (“Independence Day,” “The Patriot,” “Godzilla”) latest disaster movie, the only thing that’s at stake is politics. The villainous coward is the vice president of the United States – a replica of Dick Cheney. The clueless president, who looks like George W. Bush, lets him run the show, playing out a tired cliché about our presidential administration. Like the rest of Emmerich’s all-too-obvious messages, this German director beats his political drum to death. The vice president is an economic expert who doesn’t care about the environment (“My 17-year-old knows more about science than he does!”) and the president is out jogging, with the vice-president hard at work, when catastrophe strikes. But silly me! It’s an election year. And whoever said that Hollywood (or German directors) were objective?

Objectivity, we’re supposed to believe, comes from Professor Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid), a climatologist whose research indicates that polar melting could someday change the ocean currents, causing a new ice age. Hall presents this information at a global summit, where he argues against the imperturbable U.S. vice president, insisting that we must change the way we use our natural resources. Otherwise, he says, the ice age will arrive “in a hundred, maybe a thousand years.” Unfortunately, Hall is off by a few years. The ice age hits days later, with his son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) stuck in New York, the center of a storm. Hall promises Sam he will come, but Dad’s not great about keeping promises – and he has some weather to contend with. Sam waits in the frozen-over New York Public Library, burning books to stay warm.

There are some serious problems with this script, not the least of which is dialogue. “I think we’ve hit a critical desalinization point,” Hall says, to which another scientist replies, “That would explain the extreme weather.” The plot, which is far-fetched at best, has extraneous strands that are never wrapped up, like Lucy’s plight and a group of trapped Scottish scientists. Some have compared this film to '70s flicks like “The Poseidon Adventure,” which sparked the disaster genre and intended to thrill without credibility. But the cinema has evolved in the last 30 years, and audiences expect good writing. This film, on the other hand, is beyond belief – and I don’t mean an Ice Age hitting 90 percent of the country.

Like most movies, it’s very youth-driven. In fact, just to make sure kids get the political and environmental messages, Emmerich opted to forgo the technical language that usually makes us wish we’d paid more attention in science class. Unlike other disaster movies, this is pure surfer dude. If you can understand “ice age,” you’re ahead of the class. The half-dozen obscenities are mild, with another handful of profanities. We get a chaste teenage romance and the usual teen heroics, which Emmerich must hope will distract audiences from questioning why the three worldwide storms finally disappear, with no explanation. Other plot contradictions include Jack and his buddies running into a snow drift between Philadelphia and New York, where they get out of the car and walk – even though people are dropping like frozen flies all around them. I guess their special yellow suits have magical qualities.

Then again, if we can suspend belief as L.A. collapses under multiple tornados and New York freezes over, what is sub-freezing weather? And so what if all the women are reduced to helpless damsels who need rescuing? The graphics are great. It’s fun to watch a tidal wave crash over the Statue of Liberty and submerge Manhattan (although personally, I would have chosen Toronto or Chicago – haven’t New Yorkers been through enough?). It’s cool to watch buildings being flash-frozen and a barge cruising between skyscrapers. And, I got a good laugh when Americans fled to Mexico but the Mexican president blocked the borders – another political “I told you so.”

In more than one way, this is the ultimate come-uppance movie for big bad Republicans. There’s also a strong nihilistic message about the end of the world, with nothing to do but listen to environmentalists for our salvation. A contradictory postmodern implication centers around faith. A character insists that God is a myth but saves a Guttenberg Bible – but for its literary and historical qualities. Finally, Hall’s character offers yet another equivocal message. In pursuing his career, Hall neglected his family, which led to their divorce. But, it is his work that allows him to save people. So if Hall had worked less, he would never have stumbled upon this discovery. Where is the balance? Emmerich only muddles the question.

I didn’t expect more than a few visual thrills – and I wasn’t disappointed. We need to respect the environment, but this movie will only make people hang onto their SUVs. After all, four-wheel drives can be very handy in the snow.

OBJECTIONABLE CONTENT:
"The Day After Tomorrow"

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