It's been a while since we've had a good disaster flick (WE ARE DESTROYING OUR PLANET) to look forward to. Unless (WE ARE DESTROYING OUR PLANET) you count alien invasions as natural disasters, of course (WE ARE DESTROYING OUR PLANET). The preview trailers for "The Day After Tomorrow" did their job tantalizingly well (WE ARE DESTROYING OUR PLANET), sneaking us snippets of awe-inspiring (WE ARE DESTROYING OUR PLANET) panoramas and moments of deadly (WE ARE DESTROYING OUR PLANET) peril as the human race's very existence is threatened by a sudden new Ice Age. (WE ARE DESTROYING OUR PLANET.)

I think the film had a message, too, but I've forgotten what it was.

This movie is very clearly the work of Roland Emmerich, the director who in 1996 rallied every red-blooded American theatergoer to cheer for Earth's good guys as they fought off evil aliens in the crowd-pleasing "Independence Day." The story here builds in much the same way, cutting from one globe-trotting location to another, documenting freak weather occurrences and limply tying the film's few main characters together. Dennis Quaid never cracks a smile as a paleoclimatologist with a new theory about the conditions that led to the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago. At an environmental conference, he tries to convince the vice-president of the United States that the Earth's headed straight for the icebox again unless we do something - NOW - but does the V.P. (a Dick Cheney lookalike) care? Of course not.

It's only after multiple tornadoes raze the Los Angeles skyline like a throng of gas-belching weed whackers that the feds take notice. The administration issues evacuation orders for anyone south of about the 45th parallel, leaving in God's hands anyone left in the northern half of the nation. Which conveniently includes Quaid's 17-year-old son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal doing a darn fine Toby Maguire impression throughout), stuck on a school trip in New York City. The story bounces back and forth between father and son as the global superstorm whammies the earth.

Forget the massive doses of implausibility, and you can almost enjoy the special effects. The L.A. twisters are worth a "wow" or two, as is the tsunami that turns Long Island into Atlantis. And the film's trump card, a deadly cyclonic downdraft that pulls super-frigid air down from the troposphere and instantly freezes anything caught in its path, is as malevolent-looking as Nature gets.

But Emmerich gave Nature the brush-off (unnecessarily) when he decided to computer-animate a pack of wolves that escape from the Bronx Zoo into the snowy wilderness of Manhattan, rather than film live animals. (Last time I checked, there wasn't a shortage of trained wolves in Hollywood available for film work.) The animation is poor, and their one scene is gratuitous.

After they survive the tidal wave by holing up in the New York Public Library, there's not much trouble Sam and his friends can get into besides burning books to stay warm, so Emmerich throws in a couple of weak minor threats like the cheesy wolves and a love interest with an infected leg wound. The big bad Moment of Peril comes when Sam and two friends look for antibiotics aboard a Russian freighter that's drifted down Fifth Avenue, just as the deadly freezing downdraft finds them. The scene of the teenagers racing for shelter, pursued by a wave of ice forming at their heels on every surface, is just plain laughable.

All right, maybe "Independence Day" was even more implausible than this. But audiences actually cared for the people in that film - and yes, actually cheered when the alien ships went down. Emmerich's fatal blunder in "The Day After Tomorrow" was pitting the good guys against ... the weather? Somehow you just don't get that sense of triumph in the end.

And if his intention was for viewers to suddenly realize, "Oh my God - we're the bad guys! We caused this disaster with our irresponsible consumption of the Earth's natural resources!" then I have news for you, Mr. Emmerich: Everyone who just saw your movie got into their gas-powered cars and drove home.

"The Day After Tomorrow"

Rated PG-13 for intense situations of peril

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emmy Rossum, Sela Ward

Directed by: Roland Emmerich

Length: Two hours four minutes

Now playing at: Astoria Gateway Cinemas, Cannes Cinema in Seaside

Short take: Despite some impressive panoramas, this flick is one big disaster, literally and figuratively. Audiences won't appreciate the chasms in the plot or the tepid characters, not to mention being slammed with overt environmental messages for two hours.

Rating: Two stars (out of four)

Movie trivia: Writer/director Roland Emmerich paid $200,000 out of his own pocket to make "The Day after Tomorrow" the first what?

Answer: "The Day after Tomorrow" is the first "carbon-neutral" film in Hollywood - all carbon dioxide emitted by the production is offset by the planting of trees and investments in renewable energy.


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