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A look back at The Day After Tomorrow

Updated: Apr 19, 2022

By Alberto Sclaverano

Big budget films about climate change are not very frequent. The recent movie Don’t Look Up comes immediately to mind. We have been all fascinated by the misadventures of Leonardo di Caprio’s character, a scientist that discovers the absurdity of political power and the big tech elite. The movie invites us to try to “look up” and awakes us from the sleep that the business community prefers we stay in. Climate change is like an imminent catastrophe, a giant asteroid going straight to earth that rich people prefer to ignore, while they are thinking about their possible economic gains. There is another, less recent, disaster film. Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004), showed an apocalyptic new glaciation destroying the Northern hemisphere. When it opened in May 2004, it was probably the first blockbuster that dealt with climate change and put it front and centre. While the climate debate was important at least since the 80s and the first United Nations Climate Change conference had happened in 1995 in Berlin, commercial movies were not particularly interested in this theme. During the 1990s some Hollywood movies mentioned it, but it was only a plot device, like in the post-apocalyptic adventure film Waterworld (1995), in which the ice melting has submerged the continents, or in the sci-fi horror movie Split Second (1992), in which future London has been flooded due to climate change.

So, for a long time, the climate crisis was only occasionally featured in blockbuster movies. Even today we don’t often see it. Don’t Look Up for example deals with the climate crisis through an allegory (the comet who menaces earth) and with a satirical approach. It can be interesting to go back to The Day After Tomorrow, a curious anomaly inside the early 2000s Hollywood, and even today.

During those years the climate debate became more mainstream, especially after the discussions around the Kyoto Protocol. The movie tells how the sudden interruption of the Gulf Stream, which originated from the melting of the Arctic Sea ice, leads to several catastrophic events around the world and starts a new Ice Age in the Northern hemisphere. While it’s true that climate change is weakening the Gulf Stream through the melting of the polar ice caps, its complete interruption is not something that will happen suddenly or in a short time.

This is an exaggeration, just like the comet which approaches earth in Don’t Look Up. But this time there is no allegory. It is the decision of ignoring climate change that causes the apocalypse. The movie has some power in showing how the disinterest by the political authorities around the world on the issue of climate change can create disasters in the future. The main character, Jack Hall (played by Dennis Quaid), is a scientist that understands what is going to happen and tries to inform the politicians at a world climate conference organised in New Delhi by the United Nation. Exactly like Dr. Mindy and Dr. Dibiasky, the characters played in Don’t Look Up by Leonardo Di Caprio and Jennifer Lawrence. Almost no one takes Jack seriously, and the Vice President of the United States Raymond Becker (played by Kenneth Welsh), mocks him and finds his proposals dangerous for the economic development of America. The movie reflects the early 2000s US political climate when the new Republican administration of George W. Bush came to power and immediately refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. The character of Raymond Becker is a parody of Vice President Dick Cheney, the most powerful man in that administration. And if we think about recent developments, we all remember how Donald Trump repudiated the Paris Agreement. He invited us to “don’t look up”, like Cheney and Bush before him. Like fictional President Janie Orlean played by Meryl Streep in Don’t Look Up. But we are running out of time, and if we continue to refuse to act against the climate crisis it will be soon late, and disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow will suddenly become more realistic.


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