This year sees the tenth anniversary of the release of The Day After Tomorrow, the environmental disaster movie in which western civilisation is brought to an aprupt and icy end due to calamitous climate change. Granted, it is a significant occasion for neither science nor cinema. Initially, many scientists were quite pompous in their denunciations of the underlying science (basically, there isn’t any). But a decade is a long time in climate studies, so a re-examination of the film’s key themes is a fitting way to see in 2014.
Directed by Roland Emmerich, The Day After Tomorrow imagines what would happen if the thermohaline circulation, a series of climate-regulating global ocean currents, were to stutter to an abrupt halt. After increasingly freak weather events, the Northern Hemisphere is plunged into perpetual winter by a handful of continent-sized snow storms. This meteorological catastrophe forms the backdrop to Denis Quaid’s search for his son, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who ends up trapped in New York City library, burning books to stay alive.
Giant snowstorms encircling the globe? Unlikely to the point of impossibility. The main scientific criticism of the film is that climate change will not strike us down in a matter of months. There is no evidence that our planet will go from temperate moderation to icy barbarism all-but overnight.
Nevertheless, the The Day After Tomorrow touches on an interesting complexity of climate change. For all the talk of global warming, cessation of the thermohaline circulation would reduce the transport of heat from the tropics to the mid-latitudes. Whether or not this would lead to appreciable cooling over Western Europe is still an open question, not least because the circulation is predicted to merely slow down rather than to stop completely. But it is a perhaps counter-intuitive facet of climate change that is often overlooked.
What’s more, crucifying the US while sparing Mexico – Emmerich’s storms are remarkably respectful of political boundaries – allows the film to link environmental catastrophe with social and geopolitical upheaval in a memorable and thought-provoking way. Again, it is highly unrealistic, but no-one can deny that it makes the point.
The film may play fast and loose with science, but it never pretends to be a documentary. As is common in fiction, much is revealed by a stretched truth. At the heart of The Day After Tomorrow is the message that climate change is serious. Watching sea level rise by 3 mm a year may be scientifically accurate, but it neither makes for a particularly exciting film, nor does it convey the dangerous side effects of climate change. Ham-fisted lines such as “that timescale’s not in months: it’s in days!” become understandably necessary when 300 years of change must be crammed into 90 minutes.
The Day After Tomorrow may not stand up to scientific scrutiny, but it is an engaging look at a topic which can otherwise appear distant, dull and recondite. And Jake Gyllenhaal is easier on the eye than a spreadsheet.