Cool stuff we haven’t seen before
The IMDb is currently running a banner ad for Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow which consists of an image of the Statue of Liberty being engulfed, and the huge tagline, ‘Watch Lady Liberty Get Wiped Out’. And that’s entirely as it should be.
The Day After Tomorrow is a much older film than it might pretend to be. Its appeal distills even the appeal of the traditional disaster flick to a single idea: See cool stuff that you haven’t seen before. Though that’s always been a big part of the grammar of disaster movies, once upon a time they had a little more too. The studio system, or the starry remnants of the studio system, would typically throw together a huge cast (cf. The Towering Inferno), a grab-bag of slightly desparate appeal to the audience. One of the principal questions running through the narrative was then: Which of them will survive? And, in a neat bit of meta-level narrative, whether they lived or died (and, indeed, exactly how they died) was typically a measure of their star-status — a better measure indeed than the ostensible billing.
Emmerich’s film is having nothing of that. The narrative is really very simple, and the cast pleasingly un-starry. Dennis Quaid as the lead? Of the two of them, who would have imagined that he’d end up being both better preserved physically and longer-lasting in Hollywood than the what-has-she-done-to-herself Meg Ryan?
There are really no surprises, because there really aren’t any questions asked of the audience which might then be given surprising answers. Quaid’s character (in one of Emmerich’s favourite themes — there’s something to be written about him as a frustrated scientist) has given his life over to climate science, estranging both his wife and son. When his model becomes the key to understanding a sudden climate change, we know this will be the moment of redemption for him and his family — and so it turns out. When his son becomes trapped in New York, and Quaid sets out to rescue him, we know he’ll succeed — and so it turns out.
It’s the thinnest strand from which to hang the story, but, amazingly, it works, because the cool stuff that you haven’t seen before is very cool indeed. It’s essentially one of those Imax films which pretends to have a narrative, but is really a kind of gosh-wow 3D ViewMaster show. As usual, it’s Manhattan which bears the brunt of Emmerich’s destructive tendencies, and that’s fair enough (though there’s a shot in which a man looks in the rear-view mirror of a bus to see the world behind him being destroyed that’s lazily an exact repeat of ones in both Godzilla and Independence Day). It’s not a New York thing. He just knows very well that Manhattan is more than a city. It’s the city. It’s citiness.
He gets away with the flimsy narrative — the lack of any compelling story-level questions — because of the meta-level questions, the most significant of which is: What is that going to look like? What’s it going to look like when Manhattan is submerged? What’s it going to look like when the whole of the northern hemisphere is covered with ice? We ask these questions not as participants in the story, but as detached viewers. Cannily, Emmerich gives bit-parts to astronauts in an orbiting space station, solely so that we get to see the spectacular views that they see.
Film is always reinventing itself, going back to redo what it’s done before with new technology. It doesn’t seem so very long since Tim Burton’s Batman busted blocks everywhere, and yet a new generation of Batman films is on the way. This is less to do with how completely Joel Schumacher and Akiva Goldsman fucked up the old generation, than it is to do with the freedoms given by new techniques. Burton’s world was still a world of big sets, models and matte paintings. Christopher Nolan’s world, like Roland Emmerich’s, can be anything he chooses.
This might be cause for dismay if it weren’t more or less where film started. At first, compelling narrative came after seeing cool stuff that you haven’t seen before, and it will again.