Jake Gyllenhaal in The Day After Tomorrow
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Credit: 20th Century Fox

The too-late government response to climate disaster in 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow

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Apr 28, 2020, 2:49 PM EDT (Updated)

"Mr. Vice President, if we don't act now it's going to be too late." It's a line that could be attributed to pretty much every recent disaster movie. In this case, Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) utters these words to Dick Cheney surrogate Vice President Becker (Kenneth Welsh) in Roland Emmerich’s 2004 depiction of extreme world-altering climate change, The Day After Tomorrow. Taking out famous global landmarks is an Emmerich signature, be it the White House via alien invasion or the Christ the Redeemer statue’s decimation after the geological structure shifts across the world in 2012 (released in 2009).

Similarities exist within these movies, so much so that watching them can feel like checking boxes. A list including but not limited to: an expert who is ignored until options are incredibly limited, global powers coming together in a show of solidarity for all mankind, and a death toll that is hard to comprehend (but with very little on-screen evidence of the body count beyond destroyed buildings). Arrogance is an enemy of efficiency in these scenarios as certain people (OK, male characters) believe they can hold off a devastating event. Hubris is just as detrimental in the long term as the catastrophic event at the heart of the action.

Credit: Fox Studios

The modern disaster movie was born in the 1970s when public opinion about institutions was at a low point. Vietnam and Watergate laid bare the follies of those in power, and movies reflected a distrust in those who have been tasked to protect their citizens. The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, and Earthquake all depict a situation pointing to the resourcefulness of individuals while exposing the flaws of those in charge. Powerlessness is a thread running throughout these films whether the disaster at the heart of the story is man-made or natural in origin. Contingency plans are vital and, without them, the loss of life is far greater than it should have been if experts had been listened to. Sadly this is something we are discovering in response to the current global pandemic.

In the case of The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, early warning signs are either not treated seriously or far surpass the timeline model. In both cases, the expert predictions are inaccurate in terms of when the "big event" is going to occur; however, the economy is more of a preoccupation to some of the men in suits. The stock market will be the least of anyone’s concerns when half the planet is covered in ice or has sunk into the ocean.

Credit: 20th Century Fox 

The scientists who hold the vital information thankfully have little regard for convention. In The Day After Tomorrow, NOAA paleoclimatologist Jack Hall is scolded by his boss for his indelicate questioning of the vice president. "I know you have an innate talent for rubbing people the wrong way, Jack, but why for the love of God would you aggravate the vice president?" He fears for their budget when he should be scared about what is about to come. Of course, Jack is the voice of reason in a sea of bureaucrats, and his unwillingness to play the Washington, D.C., political game is a badge of honor.

Jack is a man of contradictions; he is the expert and the everyman, the dad who will do anything to make sure his son survives even if he was barely there throughout his childhood. Gruff and to the point, he is the mouthpiece ensuring more people do not die because of this unprecedented storm. Information comes from across the globe — rather than being painted as the lone voice of reason, he is aided by other climate specialists. For them, their reward isn't survival but the knowledge they have done their bit to stop the global extinction of the human race. In a way, the disaster movie is a lot like a slasher horror, as there are set archetypes and rules for who will and won't make it to the end alive.

The government is akin to the bumbling cops who cannot catch the killer; the expert at the heart of the story is the Final Girl — though this figure is uniformly male — and those who have sex don't typically live to tell the tale. As multiple tornadoes rip through downtown Los Angeles, the guy who was hooking up instead of monitoring the weather is punished for this indiscretion via an off-screen death. Other disaster archetypes include the ex-wife who still loves her flawed husband, the resentful kids who learn their dad isn't the loser they suspected he was, and the cynical government stooge who experiences humility by the end of the movie. The president typically dies in Washington, D.C., the last symbol of old government rules. In this new world, power is diversified rather than one country taking charge.

Credit: Columbia Pictures 

2012 splits the scientist and dad characters into two — which might explain why this movie's runtime is almost an hour longer than The Day After Tomorrow — with Chiwetel Ejiofor as expert Dr. Adrian Hemsley and John Cusack playing the maverick who helps save the day (and his family). Hemsley is a geologist and the chief science advisor to President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover). Whereas The Day After Tomorrow's commander in chief is a nod to George W. Bush's ineffectiveness (depicting a VP who is pulling the strings), Wilson is keen to listen and has oodles of empathy — he is Barack Obama-light but older. Some plans are in place, but because the model suggested they had a lot more time, the outcome for most regular people involves death by geological destruction.

This doesn't apply to the heroes of the story, of course, including sci-fi author Jackson Curtis (Cusack), who escapes death via good fortune (and because he is the lead). He needs to make up for the years in which he was absent (much like Jack in The Day After Tomorrow), and he does so in style, driving up to his ex-wife's house just as California is about to slide into the sea.

Moments before this quake hits, an actor who is definitely portraying Arnold Schwarzenegger (simply credited as "Governor") talks on the TV urging Californians not to panic. This questionable double is essentially there to set up Jackson Curtis as the voice of reason. (As we know from the way the former governor has been using his authority to remind people to stay at home, this depiction now reads as rather inaccurate.) "The governor just said we're fine," Jackson's ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet) exclaims. However, Jackson knows best, of course: "The guy's an actor! He's reading a script! When they tell you not to panic that's when you run!" These lines are spoken just as L.A. is getting eaten up by this extreme act of nature, reminding audiences to place your trust not in government but in those other people have labeled "crazy."

The gap between ruling to the best of an administration's abilities and causing mass panic is narrow. But refusing to adequately listen to those who have trained their whole lives to monitor such world-altering events costs the global population dearly. Sure, most of the characters we follow make it to the life-saving vessels, but the lack of preparedness has a devastating impact. Again, it is hard to ignore the parallels to 2020. And as with the 1970s disaster movies, there is a certain level of skepticism and disdain directed at those in power.

In the decade following the release of the outlandish 2012, climate change concern continues to grow as many countries across the globe address this issue. There are some notable holdouts, and while these Roland Emmerich movies seem fantastical in the level of devastation, there is something to be said about paying attention to experts because there is a reason they have been given that title. Sadly, not everyone will have a Jake Gyllenhaal or Chiwetel Ejiofor on hand to save the day.

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