The Day After Tomorrow (2004) explained: when hell freezes over

Stylised image of the Statue of Liberty shrouded in icy clouds.

Are disaster films our new religious stories? Unpacking symbols of snow and salvation in eco-thriller The Day After Tomorrow.

When a bit of Antarctica gives way beneath him, palaeoclimatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) sounds the alarm. He says that, while it’s a sign of global warming, the real consequence could be another ice age.

Of course, no one listens – until freak weather causes chaos in Delhi and Tokyo, and pulverises Los Angeles. By the time politicians are ready to act, giant storms engulf the planet, announcing a new ice age within days. What are the odds?

For the northern hemisphere, the big freeze means annihilation. But when son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) is caught up in the catastrophe, Jack journeys into the heart of the storm, hell-bent on reaching him first.

UV, or not UV? That is the question …

The Day After Tomorrow has always been kinda controversial. Or, depending on where you stand, kinda stupid.

Implausible plots may be baked into the disaster genre, but critics argued The Day After Tomorrow reduced climate change to Hollywood fantasy. Writing in 2004, Guardian columnist George Monbiot called it “a great movie and lousy science”. Others denounced its narrative of man-made global warming altogether.

Interestingly, while some gave the film a pass for its special effects, these don’t quite hold up 20 years later. On the other hand, the way we talk about climate change has caught up with the film’s sensationalised urgency.

In 2004, ABC News reported an actual benefit of global warming: more squid (“the good news is they taste great”). These days, the conversation is far more crisis-oriented, and takes a heavy toll on young people.

Perhaps, then, The Day After Tomorrow was simply ahead of its time.

Like The Day The Earth Stood Still, it picks at a very modern existential dread, in which the eco-apocalypse reinvents religious damnation (think Judgement Day, but also narratives of the flood).

Note these films only bring us to the brink of destruction because, as alien Klaatu learns in The Day The Earth Stood Still, “at the precipice, we change”.

The Day After Tomorrow has a similarly explicit message: repent or die. This warning isn’t for the film’s universe – where it’s already too late – but our own.

Hence the story functions as moral fable, in which global warming unfolds over days and hours rather than millennia (i.e., time spans we can truly grasp).

The film may be bombastic, but it never hides its intention – it’s right there in the title. Whether ice or rising oceans or, er, wolves, this story revels in narratives of impending doom. So how does it play out?

The thematic heart of the movie

Exactly halfway into the film, Jack and Laura learn their son is trapped in New York, kickstarting the ‘survival’ strand of the story.

As the Halls discuss their favourite photo of Sam, the conversation turns to Jack’s absence from family life. This being a disaster movie, Jack is your classic ‘bad dad’: unreliable and never around. He’s even late dropping Sam at the airport at the start of the movie.

Now, however, the photo illustrates Jack’s impossible choice. As Laura reminds him, “you were in Alaska, doing research on your doctorate”. But if Jack’s a second-rate family man, that doctorate is now all that stands between us and the end of days.

In fiction, heroes are uniquely primed to be saviours. They have a special ability or understanding (see Arrival). Sometimes they’re even destined for greatness (i.e., Harry Potter, The Matrix).

Jack, like a canary in a coal mine – or a prophet, say – is the only person who can see what’s coming.

Naturally, for there to be a story at all, his expertise has to go unheeded (see also Knowing). But especially interesting is how the film reiterates this clash of knowledge and ignorance. Consider:

  • The survivors are trapped in a library (i.e., seat of learning)
  • Digital natives Sam and Arjay have esoteric knowledge about analogue phones and radios
  • They burn books to stay alive
  • A librarian saves a Gutenberg Bible, symbolic of “the dawn of the age of reason” (with extra pathos now that civilisation faces extinction).

Knowledge, then, is everywhere, but woefully under-used. Of course, this fits with The Day After Tomorrow as allegory for the climate crisis, in which signs are all around – but we just can’t agree on what they mean …

Signs and omens

Jack Hall and Professor Rapson are the experts no one will listen to, but theirs isn’t the only silenced knowledge. Nature itself is the writing on the wall when:

  • The Larsen B ice shelf snaps
  • Birds migrate out of season and animals grow restless
  • Giant hail batters Tokyo
  • It snows in Delhi (practically impossible in reality)
  • Hurricanes form on land.

Warning signs range from the improbable to the impossible; they’re literally un-natural – i.e., signs that nature is out of balance.

In Macbeth, killing the king is such an unnatural act that it rebounds across nature (the king’s horses “eat each other”). In The Day After Tomorrow, human behaviour similarly disrupts the natural order. What follows is the consequence of our actions … but also a just punishment.

These repercussions are equally aberrant. For instance, temperatures in the eye of the storm drop so low and so fast that anything caught in the way is flash-frozen.

Omens, if you like, are nature’s foreshadowing, though the film features man-made examples, too. Either way, the signs are typically misread: Terry Rapson’s team ignore buoy readings as faulty because they’re unnatural. In fact, the science is telling them ocean temperatures are plummeting.

Sam’s friends poke fun at his fear of flying but later, turbulence does indeed cause planes to fall out of the sky. Similarly, tankers are built for open water; seeing one trundle past the library is quite the shocker. Again, they’re ‘unnatural’ acts, not because they don’t belong in nature, but because they break out of their assigned roles and expectations.

World leaders ignore the science because it doesn’t fit their budget or politics. But whether they acknowledge them or not, the signs build to a catastrophic crescendo. Once that arrives, so does the ‘disaster movie’ part of the plot.

What makes The Day After Tomorrow a disaster movie?

Obviously disaster movies need a disaster, whether man-made (The Towering Inferno) or natural tragedy (Earthquake).

Luckily, there’s always a hero on the scene. Or should that be he-ro? Almost always male, this is typically a flawed good guy, i.e., an estranged father or ex-husband. In Signs, the protagonist is both grieving dad and priest … whom everyone calls father, in case you missed it the first time.

Either way, there’s liberal religious metaphor. Never mind the apocalypse, heroes must fight for the souls they save, often via leadership challenges. This usually sees survivors splitting up, but only one party making it out alive (see also The Poseidon Adventure, another disaster movie with a father/priest protagonist).

In The Day After Tomorrow, absent father Jack pits his expertise against politicians. His fight to lead people to salvation is yet another contest of knowledge and ignorance.

Later, Sam – Jack’s movie double – pleads for survivors to stay together, only for one group to break away … and perish.

So disaster movies uncover heroes (and punish villains, though that’s for another day). Some heroes take risks to save others; others give up their lives to do so. Sam’s search for medicine and battle with wolves is heroic. Jack’s pal Frank cuts a rope and crashes to his death so his friends don’t die: that’s sacrifice.

Clearly, disaster movies are about survival (of species and individuals). They’re thrilling because life hangs in the balance.

The Day After Tomorrow goes further in its imagery, however. Shots of destroyed landmarks are visual candy but, like the flag that freezes mid-flutter, they mourn a greater loss: civilisation, sure, but specifically the American way of life.

Fathers, sons and echoes across time

Jack’s never around, and Sam resents him for it. Their conflict makes them chalk and cheese, yet underneath, they’re surprisingly similar. In fact, it’s yet another kind of narrative doubling.

When Sam flunks a school test, he couldn’t be more unlike his science genius dad. But wait: Sam’s a genius, too. Sam fails because he does the calculations in his head; essentially, his teacher flunks him for being the smarter guy. This high-school drama mirrors Jack’s problems on the world stage, too.

Incidentally, Sam’s smarty-pants set-up is a particular kind of plot device. Like Kelly being cut from the squad in Jurassic Park 2, it establishes him as someone with insider knowledge or ability – i.e., hero traits.

Anyway, Sam is a mini-me version of Jack. As such, they mirror each other across time and space:

  • Jack walks into the storm to rescue Sam. Sam walks into the storm to save Laura. Both times the rescue team comprises three guys
  • Sam carries his wounded friend … so does Jack. Both outrun the storm, even slamming the door on the ice at the same moment
  • Both face challenges from unbelievers.

If Jack’s a flawed father, he makes up for it in the end. However, Sam’s repetition of noble qualities (heroism, humanity) redeems him, too. After all, Sam’s a chip off the old block.

J.D. – initially Sam’s rival – has an absent father, too. This reinforces the ‘bad dad’ disaster trope, but also mirrors the path to adulthood. In disaster movies, like life, we all have to find our own way in the end.

Mirroring also sets-up some neat foreshadowing when Jack’s gang almost fall into a ravine in the film’s opening and, later, into a shopping mall.

The weird science of disaster movies

As shark-infested movie Deep Blue Sea shows, weird science has long been a disaster genre staple (yet with none of The Day After Tomorrow’s controversy). Incidentally, that film’s flawed hero is a hard-drinking cook called Preacher. Naturally.

Anyhoo, it also contains this bonkers incredible line:

“You should see ice. It moves like it has a mind. Like it knows it killed the world once and got a taste for murder.”

The Day After Tomorrow is an adaptation of a 1999 non-fiction book, The Coming Global Superstorm. But roots in reality or not, the film chimes harder with Deep Blue Sea’s speculative sci-fi – not to mention its fascination with murderous ice.

Our film may have an urgent message about real environmental damage, but its ice is also a vehicle for disaster tropes and fast-paced, super-sized storytelling.

An overnight ice age may be preposterous, but it’s also an effective way of fitting the cause and consequences of global warming to a 2-hour runtime:

  • Global warming melts the polar ice caps, flushing the oceans with freshwater
  • As ocean salinity drops, it disrupts currents that normally disperse the sun’s warmth across the northern hemisphere
  • As a result, the climate cools rapidly and becomes increasingly unstable
  • Super storms (and rising waters) submerge coastal cities. Storm rotation draws icy air down from the atmosphere so quickly that it flash-freezes everything it touches.

In disaster movies, catastrophe often has human engineers. In The Day After Tomorrow, greed, ignorance and inaction contribute to global warming, which unleashes massive karmic revenge.

Or in other words, humans violate the laws of nature – and nature bites back. The story even reinforces this with its survival side plot: if the ice doesn’t get you, the wolves will. Why is that?

Hell on Earth, or path to redemption?

“Did you ever see the air so clear?”

We’re used to thinking of hell – if at all – as a place of fire, brimstone and endless death. Given how often disaster movies invoke its imagery, it’s tempting to view them as another kind of judgment narrative.

In fact, in an increasingly secular world, maybe this is a function of the genre: to tantalise and terrify us with the visions of hell.

The Day After Tomorrow has nothing of the inferno about it, and yet, as a disaster movie, it works in similar ways. Its frozen world is still a window onto judgement, death, sin, sacrifice, salvation and rebirth.

This story has no gods dictating fate, and yet humans are still dwarfed by invisible forces immeasurably larger than we are. We can’t stop the storms or outrun the ice. In fact, time and again we’re shown to be powerless against nature.

Note, too, rather than god watching from heaven, there are only astronauts … and all they can do is enjoy the show.

In the end, large swathes of the planet are destroyed – and it’s both retribution and reset. For a species that can’t easily change of its own volition, we instead imagine grand narratives in which the decision is taken out of our hands.

After the storm, the clouds lift – and, yes, we can see clearly now the rain gone. The film’s final montage suggests we’re left with a renewed sense of our responsibilities to nature – and the short-sightedness of parochial immigration policies.

If we can survive annihilation, the story goes, we’ll finally mend our ways and truly start to live. Then again, perhaps this too is one more fantastical fiction.

The Day After Tomorrow (2004), directed by Roland Emmerich

What to read or watch next
  • 2012 (disaster movies > annihilation, Emmerich)
  • The Coming Global Superstorm (1999 non-fiction book the film was based on)
  • An Inconvenient Truth (similarly urgent climate message released in 2006)
  • Knowing (apocalypse, dads – and a ‘mirrored’ version of The Day After Tomorrow)
  • Armageddon, Greenland (disaster movies > annihilation, flawed dads)
  • Children of Men (dystopian disaster movie > annihilation, flawed dads, religion)
  • The Poseidon Adventure (disaster movie with a priest in the original, and a dad in the remake)
  • Twister, Deep Blue Sea (disaster movies > nature fights back)
  • Sunshine, Snowpiercer (tales of the coming ice age)
  • Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skill (symbols of knowledge)
  • Signs, The Omen (signs, omens and predictions)

Picture credit: Nathan Anderson, Atahan Güç (composite)