Dreams of whiteness

“The Day After Tomorrow” plays well in New York, despite dubious politics.

Niels Strandskov

A Attending a screening of Roland Emmerich’s climate-change epic, “The Day After Tomorrow,” here is somewhat anticlimactic. In the weeks prior to the film’s opening, the New York Times ran a number of fidgety, tut-tutting articles about the propriety of destroying New York onscreen again, so soon after the World Trade Center attack. Of course, the filmmakers have been careful not to show any buildings falling over. Even in Los Angeles, which the film punishes with several gigantic tornadoes, most of the skyscrapers get chewed up without actually falling over. Still, perhaps there may be some New Yorkers who could still be jolted out of their jaded attitudes by a NYC disaster sequence. If there are, they weren’t at this screening.

In fact, the audience seemed remarkably nonplused by the sequences towards the middle of the film where a giant tsunami inundates the city before a super storm freezes New York in a blanket of ice and snow. The biggest round of applause was reserved for the sequence, revealed in the film’s trailer, where panicked U.S. residents illegally swarm south over the Rio Grande to seek shelter in Mexico. Whether this represented Pan-Latin solidarity, Schadenfreude or a sense that turnabout is fair play, is impossible to determine. The response did, however, highlight some of the internal contradictions in “The Day After Tomorrow.”

The film personalizes the story of massive, hyper-fast global climate change by following the family and friends of Jack Hall, Dennis Quaid, a paranoid paleoclimatologist who works for the government. As the weather gets worse, Hall and his family get separated by greater distances and more terrible obstacles. His wife, played by Sela Ward, is snowed in at her hospital caring for a cancer-stricken child. His son, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is a high school student visiting New York for a high-stakes quiz bowl tournament, who gets stuck with his friends in the main library building.

Since he is the hero in a science-fiction film, Hall rants and raves about climate change until it actually happens. Then, apparently forgetting that he is a scientist and not Indiana Jones, he sets out with his trusty colleagues to drive, ski and snowshoe from Washington, D.C. to New York to rescue his son.

Aside from a few oblique references to Europe and Asia, “The Day After Tomorrow” is essentially an American story. Not unlike al-Qaeda, Emmerich seems to believe the worst thing that can possibly happen is that the major cities of the U.S. suffer a crippling blow. There is almost no discussion of the widespread chaos and destruction that would engulf the entire planet in the wake of the events described in the film. Moreover, this is in many ways a white tragedy. Characters of color are kept to a minimum and mostly serve as water carriers in the plot. The great tension of the film lies in the uncertainty about whether the white, nuclear family will be reunited and reproduced at its conclusion. Never mind that the U.S. has essentially had to overrun Mexico, or that gargantuan tragedies are taking place in Europe, Africa and Asia – the important thing is whether Gyllenhaal’s character will get the girl and whether he will reconcile with his absent father.

This privileging of whiteness (the film’s final shot is a picture of the Earth with Europe and most of North America covered in snow) should come as little surprise to viewers familiar with Emmerich’s previous work, such as “Independence Day,” “The Patriot” and “Stargate.” Once again the director has used a veneer of multiculturalism to camouflage his retrograde appeals to a Norman Rockwell-style picture of what is right and normal. It is hoped that, like the New York audience, other people who see this film will be able to resist the implicit message of white solidarity and heteronormativity and glean from this film some entertainment in an anti-racist vein.