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Frozen duck soup
The Marx Brothers Model & The Hollywood Spectacle – a film review of THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW by Camus
 

There are several positive and entertaining aspects of German born, L.A. based Roland Emmerich's latest potential blockbuster. Despite the fact that the movie does exactly what it says on the tin (here be very expensive digital FX, ooo!), it has:

  1. Refreshing satire – Mexico not letting US citizens across the border without the US consent to absolve the country of its national debt.
  1. Corporate mean-spiritedness – the film literally blows up the town of its own origin. It literally whisks away the pocket that finances it.
  1. Anti-cliché – it presents the hero's rival for the heroine's affections as a decent guy. I mean, despite his considerable 'white wealth' and privilege, he listens to homeless black guys for advice on keeping warm. Priceless. The cynical and disbelieving oaf as Vice-President – after the death of his boss – becomes contrite (can you imagine Cheney EVER saying sorry?) It has an almost solemn respect for ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, which is fine except for two things.

One – remove the quintrillion dollars of digital FX and you are left with 'x' million of what is essentially an ambitious TV movie. A son is stranded in New York during a weather crisis and a father says "I'm coming to get you..." So he drives from Washington DC, crashes and walks from Philadelphia. He manages it. The End. It's that simple. There are ravenous wolves, a feature of the film that made me accept a rather depressing truism. It is now easier and presumably cheaper to digitally animate animals that are freely available to be trained and photographed on set. As I watched the wolves, I thought, this should have been a real animal. It rendered the jeopardy a little sterile. A CG wolf is a CG wolf, c'est la guerre.

So what about the lion's share of the reason for walking through the cinema's doors? The giant wave engulfing New York, the hurricanes ripping through L.A., the creeping freeze in the eye of the tornados. OK. That's when I flashed on Groucho's moustache, Chico's flights of surrealism and Harpo's (uh) harp playing. I had an epiphany and in a Roland Emmerich movie, that's really saying something.

It was simply this.

If you have something you know that people want to see but you are nervous about how to present this something then what do you do?

In the 30s, Groucho and his brothers kept Vaudeville audiences entertained throughout and beyond the depression. In order to deliver them to a wider audience it was decided that movies would embrace and showcase the Marx Bros. One problem. Movies were narrative driven. Stage surrealism would not do. But wasn't that stage surrealism what people wanted to see? So the 'formula' was discovered (or breach birthed whichever way you look at it). Concoct an excruciatingly bad sub-plot featuring B-characters (who can or cannot sing, whatever) and interweave the madness of the siblings with the banal plot and audiences will come running.

Extraordinarily it worked, in as much as the brothers became universally famous but which Marx brother fan reading this can remember one aspect of plot from their movies (with the exception of Duck Soup which was pure Marx Brothers with no romantic sub-plot in sight). There seemed to be an executive need to not trust an audience with 100% Groucho and co. So we had (including on a few occasions, the unfunny Zeppo) very banal leading men serenading their equally very banal women while the brothers provided entertainment that still stands as extraordinarily funny comedy.

So where does Roland and his giant waves come in? Get this.

The TV movie embellished with extraordinary digital effects is the Marx Bros romantic sub-plot – the ostensible reason we think we still care. It looks like a movie, has a hero like a movie and it talks like a movie. So it's a movie. Uh, not quite.

Bring on the waves, the tornados, the ice cracking, the submersion of New York – we are talking Groucho's finest. "I could look at you until the cows come home. On the other hand I could look at the cows until you came home..." The Day After Tomorrow had no such classic lines but it fit the same formula. Take what you believe people want to see – digital FX shots that made the jaw drop with their photo realism – and marry it with a banal human story and voila, a Hollywood blockbuster.

Except that:

We-have-seen-it-all-before. We-really-have.

Whether Roland Emmerich was aware of it or not, Twister was a movie with digital tornados, The Perfect Storm and Deep Impact were movies and they had big digital waves. Hell, even Armageddon had a scene of "Jesus, look what's raining down on us!" The gamut of what Emmerich had to offer had already been showcased. What had he brought to the table that was different? Book burning? Ooo, political. Wolves? CG'ed out of believability. A father's relief finding his son sleeping by a nice cosy fire? Gosh, how radical is that?

The Day After Tomorrow may well be this century's first 'Mark Brothers'' model Summer blockbuster but at least it has the balls to say what it is and live up to those claims. You want depth, then watch Jane Campion movies. You want depth of tidal wave, then Roland will suit you just nicely.

The Day After Tomorrow

USA 20045
124 mins
director
Roland Emmerich
producers
Roland Emmerich
Mark Gordon
screenplay
Roland Emmerich
Jeffrey Nachmanoff
story by
Roland Emmerich
cinematography
Ueli Steiger
editor
David Brenner
music
Harald Kloser
starring
Dennis Quaid
Jake Gyllenhaal
Emmy Rossum
Dash Mihok
Ian Holm
review posted
30 May 2005

See all of Camus's reviews