Mapping Contemporary Cinema

The Day After Tomorrow, 2004

Production Companies: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Centropolis Entertainment, Lions Gate Films, Mark Gordon Productions
Distribution: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Executive Producers: Ute Emmerich, Stephanie Germain, Kelly Van Horn
Producers: Roland Emmerich, Mark Gordon
Screenplay: Roland Emmerich, Jeffrey Nachmanoff
Director: Roland Emmerich
Cinematography: Ueli Steiger
Editor: David Brenner
Music: Harold Kloser
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal (Sam Hall), Dennis Quaid (Jack Hall), Emmy Rossum (Laura Chapman), Dash Mihok (Jason Evans), Jay O. Sanders (Frank Harris), Kenneth Welsh (Vice President Becker)
Running Time: 124 mins.
Classification: PG-13 for intense situations of peril
Box office gross: domestic $186.7m / worldwide $544.3m
Tagline: Where will you be? Continue reading


Plot Antarctica, the near future. Climatologist Jack Hall and his associates Frank and Jason narrowly escape death when a huge ice shelf shears away from the continent. Jack warns skeptical politicians, including US Vice President Becker, of a possible calamity within the next century as global warming could disrupt the oceanic currents and bring about a new ice age. As freak weather conditions escalate, Sam, Frank’s son, travels to New York for a scholastic decathlon he has entered because he has a crush on team-mate Laura Chapman. A tidal wave sweeps over Manhattan, and Sam – along with Laura and some friends – is among a group who take refuge in the public library. By phone Jack tells Sam that the city will soon be struck by a freeze which will be impossible to survive outdoors, and promises to come to the rescue. When the water ices over, most of Sam’s group try to walk off the island. They soon perish. Sam and a few others follow Jack’s advice to hole up, burning books to keep warm. Jack convinces the government to institute a programme of mass evacuation South – with America writing off third-world debt in order to buy refugees entry into Mexico – and sets off for arctic Manhattan with his colleagues, using polar equipment. Laura suffers an infected cut and Sam braves wolves escaped from the zoo to get penicillin. The President dies while being evacuated from Washington and Becker, now in Mexico, is sworn in. Frank sacrifices himself so the others can press on. Jack finds the survivors and reports to the new President that many have come through the worst of the crisis. The storms pass, but the ice age is upon the planet (adapted from Newman 46).

Film note Representations of large-scale calamity have long interested filmmakers, but the contemporary disaster film truly established itself in the 1970s when films such as Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974) proved extremely popular (Sanders 11). Scenes of mayhem and destruction appealed less to audiences in the 1980s, but the disaster film returned in the mid-1990s on a scale never seen before. Here, the success of films such as Independence Day (1996), Twister (1996), Dante’s Peak (1997), Volcano (1997), Armageddon (1998), Deep Impact (1998) and Godzilla (1998) can be attributed to their depiction of destruction using cutting-edge computer-generated imagery (CGI), leading Stephen Keane to claim that special effects are “one of the defining characteristics of the 1990s disaster cycle as a whole” (116). The Day After Tomorrow (2004) extends this trend and although reviews were mixed, one aspect that all critics agreed on was the outstanding quality of the film’s special effects with large-scale set pieces constituting something of a “high-water mark, even in these CGI-saturated times” (Robey). While Airport and The Towering Inferno showed passengers on a plane or occupants of a skyscraper in peril, the disasters featured in 1990s films were decidedly more apocalyptic, “their main rationale, it would seem, being to face up to nothing less, and little more, than the end of the world” (Keane 63). The Day After Tomorrow follows this trend, plunging the entire Northern Hemisphere into an Ice Age, resulting in mass destruction and death. The disaster film is, as John Sanders notes, “able to tap into prevailing fears in any particular era”, and the worldwide catastrophe in The Day After Tomorrow is something of a response to the global threat of climate change (18). Another reason for disaster on a grand scale is that the global focus this entails makes the film attractive to a lucrative international audience. This seems to have been a feature of Hollywood throughout the 1990s, with an increase in the amount of high budget films relying on a global market. However, The Day After Tomorrow’s goes beyond this, interlocking its blockbuster aesthetic with pressing socio-political anxieties and issues.

Ice Age disaster The disaster films of the 1990s cycle did not avoid depicting natural calamities, for example the tornadoes in Twister or the volcanoes of Dante’s Peak and Volcano. But The Day After Tomorrow’s eco-catastrophe makes it undoubtedly the first film of its kind to cite humanity, namely Western humanity, as the central and sole problem for the cause of apocalyptic events. The film is clear that carbon emissions have led to the melting of polar ice caps, sending the Northern Hemisphere into a sudden Ice Age. This began a trend in disaster films of the 2000s in which humanity is deemed responsible for catastrophe. Al Gore’s political documentary, An Inconvenient Truth followed in 2006 and provided a more fact driven account of global warming, while Wall-E and The Day The Earth Stood Still were released in 2008 and expressed similarly eco-conscious themes. The latter is a remake of the 1951 film of the same name, and while this earlier version identifies nuclear weapons as threatening the survival of the human race, in the latter environmental issues replace this threat.

The Day After Tomorrow was the first major film to address global warming anxiety. Patrick Parenteau claims that there was “tremendous progress through the 60s, 70s and 80s on a host of serious environmental problems” but, subsequent to the election of George W. Bush in 2000, this progress stagnated: ”At a time when global environmental challenges have never been more daunting, the United States government has lost the mantle of leadership it once had on environmental issues” (405). Initially, the Bush administration got ”off to a bad start by reneging on a campaign promise to address CO2 emissions” (Parenteau 365). The administration also repudiated the Kyoto Protocol, which “committed the developed nations to cut their emissions”, and that every major nation had signed, including the United States under Clinton (Lord 4). Despite the protests of the international scientific community, the Bush administration stated that the protocol was fundamentally flawed and insisted that there was still “a considerable uncertainty about the scientific causes of global warming”, believing that environmental friendly policies would be detrimental to the economy (Lord ix).

The film’s depiction of catastrophic consequences due to global warming under an environmentally disinterested government, who ignore protagonist Jack Hall’s warnings, did not go unnoticed as a parallel to the Bush administration. Sidney Perkowitz notes that this “fictional situation is uncomfortably close to present attitudes, where, unlike other governments, the United States has for some time rejected evidence for global warming” (208). Many journalists and commentators have furthermore noted the striking resemblance of the fictional vice president, played by actor Kenneth Welsh, to vice president, Dick Cheney (“When Manhattan Freezes Over” Revkin). The filmic vice president is presented as “ruthless and aggressive”, standing against climatologist Jack Hall’s proposals, whilst the president is “shown to be rather impotent in the face of the catastrophe, relying on others to make decisions” and is killed off in a storm-induced plane crash (Sanders 75). This is certainly a departure from the characterization of a strong, competent president in the Clinton-era 1990s disaster films Independence Day, Armageddon and Deep Impact, and highlights the clear reaction in The Day After Tomorrow to the Bush administration and its perceived mishandling of environmental issues. Read thus, the summer 2004 release of The Day After Tomorrow is highly significant, with the film seemingly geared to persuading voters not to appoint Bush to a second term of office in elections held in November of that year.

This strong ecological message and political impulse divided opinion. Many environmentalists “were split on whether to embrace the movie for raising the climate issue or avoid it because of its distortions”, concerned that the film “so overstates the issue that it might cause people to simply laugh off the real questions” (“When Manhattan Freezes Over” Revkin). Although few climate experts felt that the film’s events, especially their extremely compressed timeframe, was likely, many felt it was a good opportunity to raise awareness. Al Gore announced that he would give speeches coinciding with the film’s release, stating that although fictional, the film publicizes a long ignored but extremely important issue (Bowles). In addition, Andrew Revkin reports that environmental volunteers handed out environmental leaflets at theatres on opening weekend, and furthermore that the prospect that audiences would be “alarmed enough to blame the Bush administration for inattention to climate change” caused the government to demand that NASA ignore questions raised by news media regarding the film and its depiction of climate change (“NASA Curbs Comments”). The impact of The Day After Tomorrow in this area has been studied in a report by Anthony Leiserowitz (2004), using data collected from surveys with those who had and had not seen the film. Leiserowitz categorically states “individuals who saw The Day After Tomorrow were more likely to distrust the Bush administration” (31). As such, it appears that – although exaggerated in the tradition of the disaster movie and in service of special effects – the subject matter of the film resonated with contemporary political concerns, and even influenced viewers views on this important issue.

Disaster capitalism In addition to representations of ineffectual government, The Day After Tomorrow also features scenes undermining the efficacy of corporate lifestyles and contemporary capitalism. Businessmen are shown to perish in the film both in New York – in which arrogant businessmen attempt to pay off a bus driver to get to safety – and in Tokyo, where a suited man attempts to protect himself from huge hailstones with his briefcase to no avail. A homeless man taking refuge in the New York public library however is shown to be more resourceful, deploying techniques he has learnt from his desperate situation, such as using paper as insulation in order to survive the cold. This predates similar treatment of bankers and capitalist professionals in films made subsequent to the financial crises of several years later, in which affluence is often identified as morally problematic. The Day After Tomorrow, borrowing from the 1970s disaster film convention of punishing the guilty through acts of God, implies it takes a dim view of these corporate victims. Furthermore, the film turns global politics on its head, as Americans illegally flee into Mexico and the third world ultimately saves Western civilization from the frozen onslaught in return for debt cancellation. Such situations are perhaps a reaction to a government that seems to place capital accumulation above social, humanitarian and international environmental issues.

It is important however to remember that the film’s main goal, like all Hollywood blockbusters, was financial. Director Roland Emmerich and producer Gordon Smith have repeatedly “pointed out that their primary goal was to create a ‘popcorn movie’ that would draw a mass audience” and that raising public consciousness about global warming was a secondary goal (Leiserowitz 26). The exaggerations of climate change can be viewed, then, as first and foremost a desire to fit the disaster movie formula, known to draw in large box office sales (Heumann and Murray 5). Monetary motivations become more transparent when considering that the film’s $125 million budget came from Twentieth Century Fox, a division of News Corporation, a “conservative media empire” (“When Manhattan Freezes Over” Revkin). Although contradictory, considering the liberal message of the film and the conservative, capitalist aims of the company, “the movie’s potential to make lots of money has trumped any major concerns News Corporation executives may have about its politics” (“When Manhattan Freezes Over” Revkin). In the global marketplace for big-budget action movies, the environmental message benefits the film’s financial gain internationally, potentially drawing greater audiences through its engagement with current events. As Revkin notes, the film was released at a time when global anger at the Bush environmental policy “has rarely been as intense”, and “has been prepared with dubbing or subtitles in 70 languages” in order to capitalize on these feelings (“When Manhattan Freezes Over”).

Enduring disaster Throughout the 1990s disaster cycle, New York had been the “apocalyptic city par excellence” (Shone). It seems this interest lies “in the fact that the diverse, active city contains recognizable symbols of US strength and power – including Wall Street, the Empire State Building and, until 2001, the Twin Towers” (Damico 180). The 9/11 attacks seemed “to replicate the filmic destruction of New York” and many people had compared watching them fall to scenes from disaster movies (Damico 180). Film critic David Thomson agrees, stating that the “ghastly imagery of September 11 was stuff we had already made for ourselves as entertainment first” (qtd in Dixon 9-10). Filmmaker Robert Altman even blamed Hollywood, stating that “the movies set the pattern, and these people have copied the movies. Nobody would have thought to commit an atrocity like that unless they’d seen it in a movie” (qtd in Aslan xi). These sentiments presented problems for filmmakers who had previously been able to wreak havoc on New York without being troubled by calls of tastelessness.

After the attacks, filmmakers abandoned destroying New York for some years. Veteran disaster director Emmerich had destroyed the city in two previous films (Independence Day and Godzilla) and was appropriately the first to return post-9./11 with The Day After Tomorrow. Accordingly, Revkin notes that within the production there was “some nervousness about creating the first big-budget movie to devastate New York since the attacks” (“When Manhattan Freezes Over”). Keane describes critical reaction to this decision as mixed, some reviewers feeling that not enough time had passed since 9/11, others disagreeing, suggesting that, ”handled in the right way, disaster need not necessarily mean an end to disaster movies” (96). Jeffrey Nachmanoff, one of the producers, stated that the film depicts New Yorkers as “enduring and indomitable” and it seemed important after 9/11 for Americans to be depicted showing unity in the face of crisis (qtd in “When Manhattan Freezes Over” Revkin). This is evident throughout The Day After Tomorrow as the protagonists unite in order to survive. Sam attempts to go in search of medicine for Emmy’s infected leg alone but is joined by friends who are concerned about his safety. Similarly, Jack prepares to rescue his son on his own but his colleagues insist on joining him, one of them sacrificing himself in the process. Finally, a child cancer patient, thought to be abandoned by all but one of the protagonists, is rescued by an ambulance towards the end of the film.

This heroism takes on renewed meaning in post-9/11 cinema, mirroring the efforts of the many who sacrificed their lives to save others. The arrival of the ambulance crew in particular reflects increased respect for the rescue services following the attacks. Heroism seemed to be a popular trend in Hollywood after 9/11 with an increase in the popularity of superhero and action-hero films (Damino 181). Therefore, it is no surprise that The Day After Tomorrow depicts acts of heroism on multiple levels in order to appeal to a post-9/11 audience. Robin Murray and Joseph Heumann note that the Hall family each display acts of similar heroism, and while Jack may be “a true eco-hero, attempting to save the world from environmental disaster, […] his most heroic act is localized and less than self-sacrificial” (Heumann and Murray 10). The film’s message that the everyday man can act heroically in crisis to protect their close family is important in post-9/11 cinema, emphasizing that Americans can act courageously in the face of adversity and that the family unit can survive disaster.

Despite the parallels with the devastation visited on New York in 2001, Keane claims that The Day After Tomorrow worked in “simultaneously reflecting and distancing itself from the events and psychological after-effects of 9/11” (95). The film suggests 9/11 imagery during the tidal wave sequence, the wave evoking the accelerating cloud of smoke that moved through New York after the Twin Towers collapsed. In The Day After Tomorrow, pedestrians frantically run for safety into buildings including the public library to escape the approaching wave. Ultimately however, The Day After Tomorrow makes efforts to distance itself from 9/11. Spectacular explosions, usually of American landmarks, were a common feature in disaster films before 9/11, but are here absent. Emmerich believed that after 9/11, a movie such as his last, Independence Day, with its multiple gratuitous explosions, was impossible: “blowing up buildings is an image you don’t want to see anymore” (qtd in Seiler). Keane notes that the scenes of destruction in New York were approached “with an appropriate degree of seriousness and sensitivity”, a seriousness notable by its absence in pre-9/11 disaster movies (96). Armageddon, for instance, shows the Twin Towers “shot to pieces” in a scene cut from the DVDs after 2001 (Keane 92).

In The Day After Tomorrow, whilst New York remains generally intact, it is Los Angeles that is subject to large-scale destruction, the Hollywood sign and Capital Records headquarters are torn apart by tornadoes, for example. By opting to demolish Los Angeles’ famous landmarks instead of New York’s, the film still follows the disaster movie’s genre conventions and satisfies the appetite for fictional destruction but does so without using a New York setting. Keane notes that the contrast in the treatment of the two cities is “a particular indication of post-9/11 sensitivities” and states that the most noticeable aspect of the film is that “New York ultimately survives”: the city’s famous landmarks remain standing and most notably, the Statue of Liberty, so often destroyed in disaster movies, “stands as a beacon of hope” (Keane 96). This sense of hope is particularly palpable in the final New York scenes, with many survivors grouping together on building tops signaling for rescue. This optimism is surprising given the colossal scale of the irreversible catastrophe depicted by The Day After Tomorrow, but can be seen as symptomatic of a post-9/11 climate of resilience.

The Day After Tomorrow was the seventh highest grossing domestic film of 2004 in a list dominated by family-oriented animation and “escapist cinema as characterized by comic book movies and fantasy film series” (Keane 95). The popularity of these genres after 9/11 seems obvious given the need for lighthearted escapism distant from the tragedy of 9/11. The Day After Tomorrow was the first film to evoke 9/11 and Keane believes that the film’s earnings can be “partly ascribed to the post-9/11 imagination of disaster” (95). The Day After Tomorrow tested the waters and later into the decade, the disaster movie genre flourished, with I Am Legend (2007) and Cloverfield (2008) drawing even closer parallels with 9/11. Moreover, The Day After Tomorrow is indicative of the complex and often contradictory mechanisms of Hollywood cinema in its path towards a high profit. The film enters controversial political territory associated with left-liberals and Green activists, criticizing the actions of Bush administration and calling for action on climate change. Simultaneously, however, it presents a united America, able to overcome even the greatest of catastrophes, an aspect of national identity necessary in a disaster film hoping to gross highly in the uncertain but highly charged post-9/11 climate.


Aslan, Reza. “Foreword.” Reframing 9/11: Film, Popular Culture and the “War on Terror” ed. Jeff Birkenstein, Anna Froula and Karen Randell. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010. xi – xiii. Print.

Bowles, Scott. “The Day After Tomorrow Heats Up a Political Debate.” USA Today. 26 May 2004. Web. 11 Mar 2013.

Damico, Amy, “Chapter 5: Film.” September 11 in Popular Culture: A Guide ed. Amy Damico and Sara Quay. California: ABC-CLIO, 2010. 173 – 187. Print.

Dixon, Wheeler. Film and Television After 9/11. Illinois: SIU Press, 2004. Print.

Heumann, Joseph and Robin Murray. Ecology and Popular Film: Cinema on the Edge. New York: State University of New York Press, 2009. Print.

Keane, Stephen. Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe. London: Wallflower, 2001 (1st edition); 2006 (2nd edition). Print.

Leiserowitz, Anthony. “Before and After The Day After Tomorrow: A US Study of Climate Change Risk Perception.” Environment 46.9 (Nov 2004). Web. 11 Mar 2013.

Lord, Donald. Dubya: The Toxic Texan: George W. Bush and Environmental Degradation. Indiana: iUniverse, 2005. Print.

Patrick Parenteau. “Anything Industry Wants: Environmental Policy Under Bush II.” Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum 14 (Spring 2004). Web. 11 Mar 2013.

Perkowitz, Sidney. Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and The End of The World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. Print.

Redmond, Sean. Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader. London: Wallflower, 2004. Print.

Revkin, Andrew. “NASA Curbs Comments on Ice Age Disaster Movie.” The New York Times. 25 April 2004. Web. 11 Mar 2013.

Revkin, Andrew. “When Manhattan Freezes Over.” The New York Times. 23 May 2004. Web. 11 Mar 2013.

Robey, Tim. “It’s a New Ice Age – Cool.” The Daily Telegraph. 28 May 2004. Web. 11 Mar 2013.

Sanders, John. Studying Disaster Movies. Leighton Buzzard: Auteur, 2009. Print.

Seiler, Andy. “’Day After’ Promises New Kind of Fireworks.” USA Today. 15 Jan 2004. Web. 11 Mar 2013.

Shone, Tom. “New York as Disaster Film: The Real Thing is So Much Worse Than The Movies.” The Guardian. 31 Oct 2012. Web. 11 Mar 2013.

Written by Sophie Livesey (2012); edited by Nick Jones (2013), Queen Mary, University of London

This article may be used free of charge. Please obtain permission before redistributing. Selling without prior written consent is prohibited. In all cases this notice must remain intact.

Copyright © 2013 Sophie Livesey/Mapping Contemporary Cinema

Print This Post Print This Post