TCS Daily

What Impact Will "Day" Have?

By James Pinkerton - June 3, 2004 12:00 AM

"The Day After Tomorrow" is a disaster, and while that may not be a good thing, it's definitely a profitable thing. The film had the misfortune of going head-to-head with "Shrek 2" in the theaters, and yet it still managed to pull in $86 million at the box office in its first weekend. So if "Day" is making all that money, how could it be a disaster? Well, there are other factors to consider, such as accuracy. Indeed, one might even wonder whether the film's biggest cheerleaders, the Greens, have correctly calculated their cheering. "Day" will make money for its makers, but will it really score points for environmental advocates?

But first, one might ask, why do regular folks love these disaster movies? The 1912 sinking of the Titanic spawned eight movies, culminating in the Leonardo di Caprio biggie of 1997; the James Cameron retelling of the Titanic's tale still ranks as the highest-grossing movie of all time. Of course, the annals of disaster-amas include not only sinking ships, but crashing airplanes and burning buildings, plus earthquakes, plagues, tornadoes, tidal waves, hurricanes, tornadoes, asteroid strikes -- all the way to an onslaught of killer rabbits in 1972's "Night of the Lepus."

But what's the appeal, exactly? The movie director James Cameron once told me, "People go to see disaster movies and they ask themselves, 'What would I do if that were me up there on the screen?'" That is, what if the movie-goer were suddenly transported up there on to the screen -- in real reel life, as it were. Would he or she be as plucky and gallant as the protagonist?

Moreover, the audience gets this thrill without taking any risks. As George Washington once observed, there's nothing more exhilarating than being shot at without getting hit. So ticket-buyers can watch it all unfold, secure in the knowledge that they won't get so much as a scratch.

Finally, disaster movies offer the chance to start over -- to begin the world over again, as Ronald Reagan liked to say. In the 1972 movie "The Poseidon Adventure," starring a capsized passenger ship, the film's ballad -- it was a big pop hit, even winning the Oscar for best song that year -- was called, "The Morning After." Sample lyric: "There's got to be a morning after/We're moving closer to the shore/I know we'll be there by tomorrow/And we'll escape the darkness/We won't be searching anymore."

And so even after lots of people are killed, disaster-moviegoers come out oddly happy. And why not? According to the filmic formula, the hero will be tested -- and found to be, in fact, heroic. Most likely, other key characters will have discovered truths about themselves, and strengths within themselves, that will serve them well in the future. In "Day," for example, the hero, Dennis Quaid, leading "paleoclimatologist" -- you believe that Quaid is credible playing a great brain, don't you? -- is not content to have predicted the end of the world as we know it. Nope, after the world ends, he must trek north from Washington to New York City, through the snowy wastelands of New Jersey, to rescue and re-connect with his teenager, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, huddled in the New York City public library on Fifth Avenue. So yes, North America is mostly frozen, and hundreds of millions of people have died, but "Day" has a happy ending, because father and son are bonded once again.

But of course, "Day" is more than just a disaster movie; according to some, the flick is A Warning, A Parable For Our Time, depicting the perils of global warming (although it's global freezing that happens). At the beginning of the movie, scientist Quaid predicts a new Ice Age, although he stipulates that the Big Chill will come "in 100 years, maybe 1000." But he's a little off: earth falls victim to radical freezing -- temperatures plummet to minus 150 degrees Fahrenheit -- in just a few days.

The absurdity of that scenario has not stopped the likes of Al Gore and from extolling the film. Evidently, the chance to bash the Bush administration on Kyoto has gotten the best of these activists; the liberal activist group touts "Day" as "The movie the White House doesn't want you to see." Bashing is fun, but if it's going to be effective, it must be true -- or at least defensible. Yet in this instance, Gore & Co. have abandoned their critical faculties. A jokey saying in journalism fits here: "This is too good to check." In other words, let's just run with it.

So the former vice president, a Harvard man, author of Earth in the Balance, has now descended into the dubious realm of junk science. That's OK for pop-sensationalists and the occasional TV special -- even a big-budget film, maybe -- but not so good for a man who might still harbor ambitions for high elective or appointive office.

Which brings us to another question: why do so many people like junk science -- what's up with that? Some folks crave junk science for the same reason they crave junk food: it tastes good. Curious about how the world works? But don't want to do any homework or apply any real thought? Fine. Just pop some Bermuda Triangles into your brain, plus maybe some Pyramid Powers, some Chariots of the Gods, some telepathic Uri Geller-spoon-bends, and you're sated, at least for today. Unlike real science, which requires effort -- and yet also rewards those who make the effort with a glimpse of Truth -- junk science offers unconditional love, the mental equivalent of comfort food, all instantaneously gratifying in a sugary way. To be sure, junk-science consumers are bloated with misinformation the next day, but as with those who make a habit of noshing on Krispy Kremes, those who indulge never seem to connect cause and effect.

In all likelihood, most of those who are buying tickets, and getting propagandized, won't really think much about what they've seen. That is, even after seeing Sela Ward wearing her little peace-sign earrings -- take that, George W. Bush! -- after hearing the Dick Cheney-like Vice President admit, at the end of the movie, "We operated under the belief that we could continue consuming our planet's natural resources. We were wrong. I was wrong," most Americans will walk out into the theater parking lot, hop in their SUV, and drive home to their house in the sprawly suburbs. Such ordinary folks might entertain themselves with junked-up thoughts about global warming for a time, but hey, they haven't seen "Troy" yet, and "The Stepford Wives" opens soon.

So what impact will "Day" have? Here's my guess: the big losers will be the pro-Kyoto Treaty Greens. A case can be made that something is happening to the climate, and that something should be done about it. But that case -- which argues that the climate has warmed by a few degrees -- is undercut by the movie's argument that slow global warming will lead to sudden global freezing. Indeed, if the situation is as dire as the movie posits, why bother doing anything to help the environment, since it's too late? Who cares about recycling or tree-planting if glaciers are about to overrun Manhattan?

Some Kyotons, such as Gore, have attached their already attenuated credibility to this movie; now their cred will snap as the scientific backlash against the film sets in. Other enviros, wiser and savvier, have kept their distance, and wisely so. But even they could fall victim to the overhype; the Green group as a whole could be accused of crying wolf even if some have kept silent.

Roland Emmerich, the director of "Day," likes to portrays himself as an environmentalist. No doubt that claim will help him make friends in Hollywood. But by dressing up the hoary disaster genre in the dopey cloak of junk science, by highlighting the most ludicrous enviro-scenario imaginable, Emmerich has revealed himself to be nothing more than a junk-monger. There's nothing clean or pure about that. He might be rolling in green as a result of this trashy movie, but he is no friend to the Greens.


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