The Day After Tomorrow. Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by Roland Emmerich. Written by Emmerich and Jeffrey Nachmanoff. Running time: 124 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for intense situations of peril). Starring Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sela Ward, Ian Holm, Emmy Rossum, Dash Mihok, Jay O. Sanders, Austin Nichols, Tamlyn Tomita, Kenneth Walsh.

Day After Tomorrow, The

The late Pauline Kael once wrote, "The movies are so rarely great art, that if we can't appreciate great trash, there is little reason for us to go." Roland Emmerich's latest disaster epic (he also directed the so-so Independence Day and the godawful Godzilla remake), The Day After Tomorrow, isn't great trash, but it is good trash. The film is nonsense, ridiculous and filled with plot holes, but the acting is good, it's hardly ever funny when it doesn't mean to be, and damned if it isn't a whole lot of fun. It also succeeds where so few disaster films do: we actually care about the characters.

Dennis Quaid is Jack Hall, a climatologist who has made a startling new discovery: the polar ice-caps are melting at an alarming rate, cooling down the Gulf Stream Current, causing a massive climate shift that will soon lead to a new ice age. He predicts that it will occur within the next 50 or 100 years, but not anytime soon. That all changes when Jack is contacted by Terry Rapson (Ian Holm), a British scientist who has discovered that the Gulf Stream's temperatures are plummeting now. When Jack goes to Vice President Chen...er, Becker (Kenneth Walsh) with his warnings, he is ignored.

Then disaster strikes, and the 30 minute centerpiece of the film commences. Huge tornadoes devastate downtown Los Angeles, and tidal waves drown Manhattan. The special effects are tremendous and seamlessly integrated into the film. Then the climate change hits and the whole city freezes. Totally ridiculous, and scientifically laughable, but it succeeds where it should: entertaining.

Stuck in Manhattan is Jack's son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), along with his prospective girfriend, Laura (the very pretty Emmy Rossum) and a group of survivors. Sam calls Jack, tells him that he's holed up in the library. Jack, along with two co-workers, immediately sets out in the storm to find his son. Why? Because he's an Overworked Dad who has Ignored His Son for Far Too Long.

Some of The Day After Tomorrow is just dumb, like the aforementioned character clichés, Sam's fight with a group of wolves and Jack's wife's (Sela Ward) sacrifice for a child afflicted with cancer. But more often than not, the film works. Jack's journey is often harrowing, and the sideplot with Rapson is legitimately sad. Still, where the film is an unqualified success is in Sam's story (except for the wolve's - let's just ignore that). This section is carried by Gyllenhaal, and he is more than up for the challenge, giving an performance that is uncharacteristically assured for a disaster movie. The relations between the characters in the library is genuine and believable. Moreso than any other character in the film, we want these guys (and girls) to make it.

Is The Day After Tomorrow great - or even good - art? No, of course not. It's pulp entertainment, designed to appease the masses and rake in the dough. But unlike all too many mass market releases, it is legitimately good fun. Go into the theater knowing what to expect; buy your popcorn - extra butter, of course - and jumbo soda, sit down in the seat and surrender yourself to the experience. After all, Pauline Kael was right.

© 2004 Matt Noller