Palaeoclimatologist Jack Hall (Quaid) fears that global warming could eventually precipitate another ice age but the US government won't listen. Fools. Hall is not only right, the ice age happens so fast that his estranged son (Gyllenhaal) gets trapped in NY's public library, and only his dad can save him...
Roland Emmerich, as even his critics would concede, has a flair for destruction. Independence Day, and to a lesser extent his whole canon, from Stargate through to The Patriot, is an expert exposition of the slow build/big bang theory of devastation. Emmerich can be relied upon to prolong the inevitable cataclysm, steadily cranking up the tension as dead-meat mortals struggle to understand forces that the audience already knows will consume them - the "money shot", after all, is always in the trailer.
The problem with ID4, and to a greater extent Godzilla, is that when the storm finally passes and the fight-back begins, Emmerich appears to lose interest, as if the German only really came to America to tear down the White House. The second half of those movies, which should theoretically contain all the surprise, issue none. With The Day After Tomorrow, DAT if you will, Emmerich does not exactly correct this imbalance (the movie clearly climaxes with the New York tidal wave familiar from the trailers), but he does find a genre which provides an even better showcase for destruction and sustains his interest until the bittersweet end: the disaster movie.
DAT cleaves much closer in structure and spirit to The Poseidon Adventure (Emmerich's personal favourite disaster movie) than to ID4. It is, in effect, The Poseidon Planet, and once disaster strikes with an incalculable cost to off-screen human life, the raggedy bunch of comically mixed survivors must simply hold out long enough for the rescue helicopters to arrive.
DAT may willingly, and often knowingly, reheat the hoariest chestnuts of the disaster genre, but mercifully survival-by-clichÚ never threatens to occasion the kind of flag-waving, grandstanding jingoism that so spoiled ID4. Indeed, divorced from American producing partner Dean Devlin, Emmerich finally reveals his true colours here ù jabbing the red, white and blue until it bleeds bright green.
Disaster movies have always been an implicitly political genre. They flourish, as they did during the early 1970s, during times of economic uncertainty, and serve to expose hubristic mankind's misplaced faith in technology - and, by extension, capitalism itself. In that sense, DAT, a project that the writer-producer-director developed himself away from studio interference, is as much a personal picture as a cookie cutter blockbuster, and the green European could not have chosen a better time to land a blow against American arrogance.
Of course, just because the director takes his politics seriously - the Kyoto Accord is name-checked in the first five minutes - doesn't mean that we have to, and the level of political debate on display in Emmerich's phoney UN conference is hardly more convincing than the shonky scientific explanations cribbed from that famous authority, alien abductee Whitley Strieber. Luckily, Emmerich has always cast actors rather than stars, and here he is well served by his B-list leading men. Character moments still represent thin ice for the director, but with Quaid spreading grit and gravitas and Gyllenhaal gamely skating the comic margins of the material, the movie just about keeps its footing as it slides inexorably towards the holy devastation we all came to see.
Three truly unmissable sequences - the tornados tearing through LA, the drowning of New York and the final superfreeze - set the benchmark for the summer of special effects and create a template for the onslaught of CG-driven disaster movies that will doubtless follow. The CGI may not always be entirely photo-realistic, but these sequences have sweep and power and, in places, an almost eerie beauty. And it is here that the director finds himself on surer ground, finding space amid the mayhem for the deft touches and cruel wit so often lacking from the dialogue scenes. Everybody is good at one thing, they say; for Emmerich, it's destruction.
Arguably Emmerich's best movie to date, this is a summer spectacle with a chilling subtext.