'Day After Tomorrow': Drowning in rhetoric

Movie's science is flawed, but climate is ripe for debate on global warming

For the Record

May 30, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

The Day After Tomorrow is a chowder-headed polemic based on the worst kind of science and a danger to thinking people everywhere.

Or ... The Day After Tomorrow is a wake-up call, a warning of impending catastrophe that anyone who cares about this planet ignores at his or her own peril.

Like few movies before it, The Day After Tomorrow, disaster-maven Roland Emmerich's tale of a modern-day Ice Age resulting from unchecked global warming, has been transformed into a political football. On the right are conservatives who have long downplayed the danger or even dismissed the existence of a worldwide warming trend attributable to the burning of fossil fuels. The movie, they insist, is bad science used as an excuse for bad public policy, an attempt to spur the passage of legislation to mandate that the United States cut back on its use of fossil fuels. Such legislation, conservatives warn, would lead only to economic deprivation, and would not noticeably improve the environment.

"The movie disturbs me because it does not tell the truth," Patrick J. Michaels, a senior fellow at Washington's Cato Institute, said at a news conference Monday called for the sole purpose of denouncing the film. The Day After Tomorrow, he insisted, is simply "playing into a political process," and is little more than left-wing propaganda disguised as mass-market entertainment. Global warming, he and other speakers said, should not be a major concern of anyone.

Nonsense, liberals argue. No less a lightning rod than former Vice President Al Gore has embraced the film's message, that global warming is a reality that must be dealt with now if there is even to be a tomorrow. Yes, believers in the dangers of global warming admit, the movie's science is flawed; even under a worst-case scenario, climate changes could not happen as rapidly as they do in the film. But that, they insist, doesn't decrease the necessity of taking action. The world is getting hotter, they say, and the result is not going to be pretty.

"What is happening now is completely without precedent," Gore said Monday after attending a screening of the film in New York. "Glaciers don't care about politics. They really don't. They are extremely objective. They just melt or freeze based on the world's temperature."

A message or a movie?

Neither side, it seems, has considered a third option. Perhaps The Day After Tomorrow is just a movie, a big-budget disaster flick no more likely to spur the passage of global warming legislation than The Poseidon Adventure led to more stringent safety measures on ocean liners or Independence Day (also directed by Emmerich) prompted earthlings to be even more suspicious of outer-space aliens.

"The capacity of popular culture to turn people around or influence them into direct action is very limited," says Larry Mintz, professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Does popular culture reflect or influence? More often than not, it seems to reflect public opinion."

True, we are living at a time when Michael Moore's documentaries Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9 / 11 are winning Oscars and Cannes Film Festival Palmes d'Or, while Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me is causing Americans to question their fast-food eating habits. Still, those films are documentaries that make at least some pretense of speaking the truth.

Not so The Day After Tomorrow, a work of fiction based on the same kind of shoddy science that Hollywood has been exploiting since the days of Frankenstein. Decrying Hollywood for playing fast and loose with scientific fact is like condemning the ocean for being wet; it's the nature of both beasts.

Even Emmerich, who would love it if the film spurs interest in curbing emissions that contribute to global warming, admits he took liberties.

"I always knew I had to make it as exciting and spectacular as I can," he says. "We sped up the climate change dramatically, so it made a movie."

Taking sides

Yet, people on either side of the global warming debate are taking this movie oh-so-seriously. MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group that has long championed the threat of global warming, weeks ago tagged The Day After Tomorrow as "The Movie the White House Doesn't Want You to See," and has been urging its members to hand out leaflets at theaters showing it this weekend.

And from their Washington headquarters Monday, representatives of the Cato Institute said they feared the movie could directly affect legislation. Noting that the Climate Stewardship Act introduced last year by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) was only defeated 55-43, speakers said they were concerned the movie could swing enough votes to turn around that result.

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