Hollywood's Global Warming
and scientists all stirred up.
The studio is delighted.
In The Day After Tomorrow, New York City is first flooded by a giant wave and then freeze-dried by a super blizzard. Sam Hall (Jake Gyllenhaal) escapes the chaos in the New York Public Library (now apparently free of the poltergeists from Ghostbusters and the robots from AI: Artificial Intelligence), where he is joined by, in no particular order, a snotty rich kid, a nerd, a hot chick, a black homeless guy and the homeless guy's dog. Thus proving once again one of the eternal axioms of action movies: total global annihilation makes for strange bedfellows.
Most action-movie axioms don't translate to real life, but this one does. As a movie, The Day After Tomorrow is your classic computer-generated cinematic confection, only the bad guy isn't an alien or a giant lizard, it's global warming. That gives Tomorrow a lot more political heft than your average popcorn movie; and left-leaning political activists, Al Gore and Al Franken among them, are rallying around the film as a consciousness-raising tool. But wait a minute: that puts them in bed with Fox, the studio that produced the movie — Fox, as in right-leaning Fox News, which is owned by Bush-supporting billionaire Rupert Murdoch. All this raises the question, How fine is the line between politics and marketing? And, for that matter, how about the line between really good entertainment and really bad science?
The Day After Tomorrow could just as well have been called The Even More Perfect Storm. The premise is this: Global warming has thrown Earth's delicate climate grotesquely out of whack. Sinuously swaying tornadoes chew through the HOLLYWOOD sign in California. Killer hail bops Japanese commuters on the head. New York City is spectacularly swamped by a tidal wave and then snap-frozen at --150°F by a killer blizzard. (That must mean it's officially O.K. to destroy New York City in movies again.) Somewhere in there Dennis Quaid, as an implausibly hunky paleoclimatologist, has to rescue Gyllenhaal, his academic decathlete son, from certain death. By the time it's all over, Earth's blue-green ball is grizzled with the frost of a new Ice Age.
Science, as we all know, is supposed to be objective, but global warming is one of those scientific issues that have been hopelessly mired in politics for years, and the movie's director, Roland Emmerich, can't resist some playful partisan point scoring. He pairs a weak-willed but telegenic President with a Mephistophelian, scientifically ignorant Veep, played by an obvious Dick Cheney look-alike. After the storm hits, tens of thousands of American refugees flee south — whereupon Mexico promptly closes its borders, leaving the hapless, desperate gringos to wade in droves across the Rio Grande.
But the present Administration, with its much documented reluctance to acknowledge global warming as a legitimate environmental concern, had already given the issue a political charge, and Tomorrow was a hot potato weeks before its release. In April an urgent internal memo from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center was leaked to the New York Times; it stated, "No one from NASA is to do interviews or otherwise comment on anything having to do with" the movie.
(The gag order has since been rescinded.)
At a press conference organized last week by the activist group MoveOn.org, Gore poked holes in the movie's science but urged people to see it anyway. "The Bush Administration is in some ways even more fictional than the movie in trying to convince people that there is no real problem, no degree of certainty from scientists about the issue." MoveOn.org is recruiting volunteers to hand out flyers on global warming outside movie theaters, and it's planning a press event featuring Gore and Franken to coincide with the premiere on May 24. Other organizations, including Environmental Defense, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Energy Future Coalition, are following suit. Is this environmentalism's answer to The Passion of the Christ?
Fox probably wouldn't mind. After all, Gore's political activism is Fox's free advertising. In fact, both sides are doing their best to exploit the movie and each other and at the same time trying to keep as much distance from each other as possible. "We think it's fantastic," says Jim Gianopulos, chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment. "But it's still a movie. [The environmentalists] came to us early on, and we welcomed their interest. But this is a movie, not a political agenda." Nevertheless, Fox screened the movie early for Gore, and Emmerich says he plans to attend the MoveOn.org event. Is the film's political angle raising any hackles within a notoriously conservative corporation? Gianopulos laughs. "That is so ludicrous. We are a movie studio. The only call I'll get is to find out how big the gross is opening weekend."
Tomorrow may be politically useful and financially profitable, but is there good science under all that? The answer is no — and also yes. Global warming in some scenarios could lead to a long-term cooling, but nothing so dramatic as this, and certainly not at Hollywood speed: in the movie a killer frost chases a sprinting Gyllenhaal down a hallway. Change that drastic would take decades, if not centuries. Even Dan Schrag, a Harvard paleoclimatologist who spoke at the MoveOn.org press conference, says the plot is largely bunk: "Climate change, global warming, is not going to lead to an Ice Age. And it's not going to happen in a few days."
And yet. The overwhelming consensus among scientists is that global warming is real and the long-term consequences could be disastrous even by Hollywood standards. Global temperatures are expected to rise as much as 10°F by the year 2100. Rising temperatures could melt the ice caps, which would raise the sea level globally, swamping coastal cities like New York. Droughts would follow in some places, torrential rains in others, devastating agriculture. It doesn't take Dennis Quaid to connect the dots. Climate change isn't science fiction; it's already happening. And when the oceans rise and the rain starts falling, Republicans and Democrats will find themselves equally wet.
With reporting by Desa Philadelphia/Los Angeles