The Day After Tomorrow (Two-Disc Special Edition) Review
It’s always interesting to see how filmmakers judge the mood of a nation following a traumatic moment in its history. After any traumatic period in a country’s life the people need time for grief and adjustment, and it is often a good indicator that this period has passed and the nation as one has decided it’s time to move on when the first films depicting such an event begin to surface. Some peoples find it more difficult then others – it’s only now, for example, that Germany is beginning to feel comfortable enough to make its own films depicting Nazism, more than half a century after the events shown, while America, true to its opinion of itself as a nation of solidarity, only needed half a decade after the end of hostilities for the first significant Vietnam pictures to appear. It has taken an even quicker time for the shock and pain of 9/11 to pass by, at least as far as popular culture is concerned, with the appearance of Roland Emmerich’s latest disaster flick, The Day After Tomorrow, which unleashes bedlam in New York (and Los Angeles) less than three years after that dreadful day.
Having said that, it is noticeable that the Big Apple fares rather better than the City of Angels in the film. The story, about a catastrophic change in the planet’s environment leading to cataclysmic weather patterns, gives ample opportunity to reek havoc, bringing in elements from Twister and The Perfect Storm before magnifying them by a factor of ten. And yet, while Los Angeles is literally torn apart by numerous vicious tornadoes that strike simultaneously, New York just has to cope with a (very) severe flood and subsequent freeze. In Los Angeles Emmerich goes back to his big Independence Day trick of attacking famous landmarks – the tornadoes have enough of a sense of the dramatic to know they have to rip up the Hollywood sign and tear in two Capitol Records’ headquarters - whereas New York’s landmarks get off comparatively lightly. While the Empire State Building’s windows don’t survive the natural onslaught, the building itself remains intact, becoming the equivalent of a defiant popsicle, while the Statue of Liberty, too, defeats the odds, stubbornly remaining standing despite her lower half ending up buried in the snow. If one was going to read too much into it, you could say that there was a message there somewhere.
I don’t think, however, Emmerich has that much time for messages. Rather like a particularly exuberant little boy, he just likes causing as much chaos as possible and creating a big mess where he really shouldn’t, just to see what happens. He certainly goes to town here, unleashing all sorts of mayhem, whether it be in the opening scene in which an entire ice floe breaks free, the football-sized hailstones that smash into Tokyo or newscasters coming to a sudden sticky end. He’s a latter day Irvin Allen, gleefully rubbing his hands together as he tries to outdo his last spectacle. His cinematography is similarly enthusiastic, taking full advantage of his disaster-day scenario, the camera lovingly swooping round the tornadoes as they plunder the city or following the lines of ices as they speedily freeze Manhattan. The LA section is the highlight, the camera achieving a fluidity and momentum that places the viewer in the heart of the action. This feeling of what it would be like is vital, and Emmerich does it well - we are left in no doubt what it is like to stand on a street corner while a hundred-foot tidal wave is bearing down on you, or to open a door only to discover the rest of your building has gone missing. There are a couple of moments he cribs from earlier films – the opening scene has a shot that we’ve seen everywhere from Blade Runner to The Phantom Menace - but overall he manages to give a fresh, and authentic, look to these situations.
This is more than helped by the special effects, which are in the main absolutely stunning. Until you see the documentaries on the disk, you cannot comprehend quite how much of what is seen on screen is entirely computer-generated, it looks that realistic. From the opening aerial tracking shot of the Arctic ice field, though to the scenes of waves washing through the streets of New York and the freezing of the Empire State, the line between reality and fiction is so blurred as to be almost undetectable. The only sequences which disappoint are when the CGI wolves appear (they are, to be kind about it, not as good as they could be) and during the Los Angeles section, which at moments has the appearance of a particularly well-designed video game – despite the fact it’s the most exciting point in the film the tornadoes in some shots do look slightly as though they have been cut ‘n’ pasted in. The rest of the time the effects are scarily convincing, though: there is a pleasing tangibility about them – the moment when a pilot sticks his head out of his craft’s window and it freezes instantly looks entirely right, while the interior freezing of the New York Public Library, complete with characters just ahead of it racing for their lives, is carried off far better than you would expect.
Not so convincing, unfortunately, are the character arcs we are presented with. No matter how good your effects are, at the end of the day a disaster picture only truly works if you are given a group of characters who you can emotionally invest in. It is admittedly not always easy to present fully-rounded individuals in this genre, but it would have been nice to get something a bit more interesting than the clichés we are asked to care about here. Of the leads, Dennis Quaid is the Scientist No One Believes, Jake Gyllenhaal his Estranged Son Whom He Will Have To Rescue and Emmy Rossum is The Girl Jake Likes, while around these three fly secondary peripheral characters that are all, bar one, very undeveloped. Ian Holm, in particular, is wasted, his character spending the majority of the film in a small weather station in Scotland with two other scientists before, two thirds of the way through, being completely forgotten about. In the film’s one stab at political commentary, there is a Dick Cheney lookalike playing the Vice President, a man who refuses to believe anything is up even after Los Angeles has been torn apart. Like Cheney, this VP is accused of putting big business’ interest before the good of the environment but annoyingly Emmerich botches this satire at the end when the man becomes President (his ineffectual predecessor being one of the storm’s casualties) and makes a stirring speech. Indeed, the only subplot that comes close to tugging at the heart strings is that of Quaid’s wife, played by Sela Ward, who has to care for a young boy with a brain tumour in the midst of all the action. Although this is yet another hoary old chestnut, it is also the most convincing simply because there are no heroics, no happy endings with a miracle cure, just simple dedication to duty on the doctor’s part, leading to the best scene of the movie – a simple moment when she reads to him in an otherwise deserted hospital while they wait for an ambulance that may never come to arrive. If Emmerich filled his movies with more moments like that he would make infinitely more involving pictures. Of the other actors, only Rossum shines with a natural charm - Quaid is a little nondescript, sounding like Harrison Ford and acting like Sam Neill’s character in Jurassic Park while Gyllenhal, whose passive inscrutability was an advantage in Donnie Darko, doesn’t fair particularly well, not showing any great levels of charisma on screen.
The other major criticism that was thrown at the film on its release, besides the CGI wolves, was the flat ending, but it’s not actually that bad. True, the film’s best sequences appear in the reverse order to how they should be with the best, the LA segment, coming first and the weakest, the youngsters being chased by wolves, coming last. But it’s difficult to say exactly what could have been done differently, given how the weather patterns had to develop. It’s certainly true you could turn off the movie with half an hour to go and be able to say exactly how it all ends, but there is no real objection to watching it play itself out. As said previously, the only part that grates slightly is Dick Cheney winning through – it would have been far more satisfying (although, I guess, unacceptably controversial) if he had gone down instead of the President, punished for his own refusal to pay heed to the warnings.
You get exactly what you expect with The Day After Tomorrow. You know going in what you’re going to see, and those purely interested in the rollercoaster ride of the disaster movie will be well satisfied. There is more than enough bang for your buck, and no film has ever come as close to this to seeing what it would be really like if we entered another ice age (although the science is, as you would expect, complete nonsense – the timescale being all wrong if nothing else). Fittingly for what is unquestionably a popcorn flick, it’s enjoyable on the surface but its core is hollow, with boring characters we’ve seen a thousand times before. Diverting for a couple of hours, but it’s hard to imagine that, the day after tomorrow, you’ll remember very much about it other than the tornado ripping through the Hollywood sign.
The first disk opens with a selection of trailers for I, Robot, Garfield and The Simpsons DVDs as well as a FACT piece and two of those adverts where people have great fun eating Maltesers. I don’t mind trailers at the beginning of a rental disk but it is a bit galling in a retail one. It contains the main feature, the two commentaries (obviously!) and the Alien vs Predator piece, all of which are subtitled (including the commentaries). The film is presented in a 2.35:1 print with both a 5.1 and DTS audio mix. The menu is designed to mix a satellite-readout look with sequences from the film, all of which are bathed in blue. At least one clip gives away an amusing moment in the film, showing the fate of a news reporter. The second disk has the remainder of the extras. Menu design is the same, and there is a further detailed submenu to be found under the option “Inside the Day After Tomorrow”, which holds all the documentaries about the actual making of the film. Everything is subtitled, including the two commentary tracks.
Very nice transfer that doesn’t suffer from the excess of white onscreen at times. The blue pallor that comes across is natural, and there is no sign of any digital artefacting.
Two delicious tracks that allow the viewer to be even more immersed in the mayhem. Although the DTS is the one to go for, the 5.1 is no slouch either, and with the gales blowing, helicopters swooping and waves crashing about you, you’ll be reaching for your mackintosh in no time at all…
There are two commentaries for the film. The first has Roland Emmerich and producer Mark Gordon exchanging reminiscences. Gordon takes the lead, and is a little annoying at times – his casual use of expletives is tiresome given the film’s rating, and comments like “It’s only a little thing, who cares?” don’t really endear him to the listener. It’s still an interesting commentary to listen to but is also vaguely annoying.
The second track has co-writer Jeffrey Nachmanoff, cinematographer Ueli Steiger, editor David Brenner and Production Designer Barry Chusid chatting away. This is a bitty track and a little dull in places, but okay.
The Science of Tomorrow
Hour-long serious documentary about global warming. Scores of scientists (some from the pleasingly named “Union of Concerned Scientists”) and politicians discuss the causes of the problem, tracing the steps back to when industrialisation began to have a serious effect on the environment before before going on to debate what can be done about it. For a mainstream release, this is a surprisingly critical documentary which doesn’t pull its punches in the opinions expressed, with the American government coming in for particular criticism.
An encyclopaedic look at the various Severe Weather Patterns that have happened over the last century, illustrating the increasing effects of Global Warming. Divided into five categories – floods, tornadoes, storms, hail and anomalies – each section has several examples of recent occurrences of the pattern it’s describing. The descriptions are only a paragraph long, with no visual media to complement them (the clips that illustrate the faux computer screen being generic) but it gets its point across, even if the heavy, doom-laded music accompliment, suggesting an inexorable march towards disaster, is a bit heavy-handed.
A bit of a silly feature, this consists of a world chart with eight of the major cities in the world – Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Tokyo and Sydney. When you click on one, you watch a picture of the city get covered in snow. And that’s it. Amusingly Moscow, which we are used to seeing in snowy conditions anyway, has to be nearly completely covered in the stuff before it seems like anything is wrong. Pointless.
Once again Aliens vs Predator rears its head with a featurette about Amalgamated Dynamics Inc, the company responsible for the physical creature effects. Why is this film being pushed on so many DVDs recently? It’s almost as though there is concern about the final film…
Inside The Day After Tomorrow
This consists of three sections – pre-production, production, and post-production – all of which have their own submenu with different featurettes.
“Prevising”, as Visual Effects Supervisor Karen Goulekas calls it during this five minute featurette, is when a team renders a visual sequence on a computer based on the director’s storyboards, enabling him to see what it will look like in action and decide what camera moves he wants to use. The interesting thing here is that nearly all the time is taken up contrasting the computer renders with the final version while Goulekas, who seems to be having a blast, reminiscences about working on the picture – although I’m still a bit unclear why they kept doing it “until two weeks ago” given it's largely a device used before shooting begins.
Highlights from what appears to be the initial pre-production main meeting, with all department heads present. Taking place in a huge room, the sound at times doesn’t carry so well (subtitles are helpful, especially at the beginning) and indeed at one point everyone rearranges their chairs and tables so they are closer – Karen Goulekas pops up again, playing to the camera (she must be a frustrated thespian). Looks like it was a fun meeting, and illuminates how films like this start off.
There are storyboards for eleven major scenes given, with literally hundreds of pictures within, showing how Emmerich envisaged his movie was going to look.
Concept Art Gallery
Seventeen individual pictures giving a more detailed idea of how various locales in the picture are going to look. Some very striking artwork here with a lot of attention to detail, these wouldn’t be out of place in a comic book.
Eye of the Storm: Filming The Day After Tomorrow
Extremely thorough look at the actual production period of the film. Clocking in at an exhausting seventy minutes, this has footage from all the major scenes being shot, as well as some of the lesser ones. “We shot over one hundred days on this movie,” we’re told near the end, and boy does it feel like it. Extremely nice to have, but one to sample in short doses.
Ten sequences cut out, coming with optional commentary from Emmerich and Gordon. The scenes are interesting, both for what was cut out (a subplot about a rogue trader being the most noticeable) and also to see the uncompleted effects work – green screens, unfinished model shots, visible wires, and visual cues such as “house flies away” all feature. The commentary is good value as well, with the director and producer explaining succinctly why each scene was cut.
Pushing the Envelope: Visual Effects
Half an hour look at how the four hundred plus visual effects shots were put together. As said in the main review, it’s quite a revelation seeing exactly how much of the film was purely CGI – Emmerich certainly achieved his aim of managing a photo-realistic look – and this is an informative documentary, even if we're familiar with some of the techniques used from other similar documentaries in the past. And there’s good news for Karen Goulekas fans – once again the jolly Visual Effects Supervisor features prominently.
Ten minute featurette watching the score being recorded at the Newman Stage at the Fox Studios. The majority consists of film of the impressive orchestra simply playing the score, with appropriate (usually) footage from the film shown in an insert in the bottom right corner of the screen. This is only interesting if you particularly liked the score, although it does serve as a reminder of the musical quality that goes into any film’s score. Every so often we cut back to the recording booth and hear the composer, Harald Kloser, giving instructions. This feels a little random (plus, the crazy camera angle almost makes it feel like we’re spying on him) but is compensated by some captions that come up detailing either his work or a fact about the Stage itself. An odd, slightly unsatisfactory featurette, which doesn’t illuminate much about the score itself, although the atmosphere of the orchestra does come across nicely.
Nine minute look at the sound editing team working on one of the film’s sequences. Reveals how intricate the process of aural editing can be, it’s an interesting look at an aspect of film post-production that is often forgotten. Also included is a chance to watch the sequence itself with any one of the eight tracks that were eventually used for the scene. This is nice, showing how the layers all come together, my only complaint being it would have been nicer to be able to actually mix in the various tracks yourself.
Although the film itself is a decent entry into the field of disaster films what elevates this set above the norm is the excellent array of extras. An exhaustive look at every aspect of the making of the film, from first production meetings through to the polishing of the visual and audio effects, even the most demanding fan of the film will be well satisfied, and even for those of us less enamoured with the picture there is much to be enjoyed here, presenting as it does a complete picture of how a big-budget picture like this is made – it’s difficult to think what more could have been included (aside from an odd omission – no trailer). Added to this the superb hour documentary that explains the fact behind the fiction and this is an exemplary model of what a 2-disk set should be like. Not worth a purchase if you don’t like the film, but certainly a good rental.