'The Day After Tomorrow' gets a failing grade for science — and entertainment

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Roland Emmerich's silly disaster flick "The Day After Tomorrow" may well be remembered for one thing only: introducing the phrase "unleashing the wolves" to the lexicons of movie writers everywhere.

Let me recap for you, as straight-faced as I can: OK, so massive global warming has hit Manhattan with a vengeance, resulting in tidal waves, subsequent ice that reaches the tops of buildings, subarctic temperatures and stray Russian freighters randomly sailing up Fifth Avenue.

But our little band of survivors, holed up in the arctic offices of the New York Public Library, have even more problems to deal with. The requisite Girlfriend character, Laura (wide-eyed Emmy Rossum), is suffering from blood poisoning, contracted while saving an immigrant's purse from a flooded taxi (don't ask), and penicillin is needed. So Sam, the brave boy who loves her (Jake Gyllenhaal) — who appears willing to go to any lengths to get a prom date — quickly whips together a pair of snowshoes out of a stray rattan chair and goes stomping off to that Russian freighter with a few pals, defying the supposedly fatal weather.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer

"The Day After Tomorrow," with Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emmy Rossum, Dash Mihok, Ian Holm, Sela Ward. Directed by Roland Emmerich, from a screenplay by Emmerich and Jeffrey Nachmanoff. 123 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense scenes of peril. Several theaters.

And yes, he finds that penicillin — helpfully labeled "penicillin" in English — and at this point, you can see screenwriters Roland Emmerich and Jeffrey Nachmanoff scratching their heads. "What next?" they must have wondered. "Wasn't that too easy? Shouldn't he be, you know, facing obstacles?" Then one of them must have murmured the words that officially took this movie so far over the top, you can't even see the top any more. "Unleash the wolves."

So yes, a pack of wolves turns up on this Russian freighter — supposedly they've escaped from the Central Park Zoo, due to some global-warming-related oversight by their keepers, and have strolled all the way down Fifth Avenue just to make life a little more difficult for Sam and his pals. While I can think of a number of movies that might benefit from a little wolf-unleashing ("Raising Helen," for example), here it's giggle-worthy overkill.

"The Day After Tomorrow," prior to its release, is getting much buzz from environmentalists and other groups wishing to raise awareness of global warming. Their cause is a worthy one, but let's be careful not to mistake this goofy movie for science. Though it features some amazing special effects — the shot of the Statue of Liberty standing armpit-deep in gray water is startlingly realistic — much of it is off-the-wall silly.

The frost, for example, moves so fast, even young Sam has a hard time outrunning it. And Sam's climatologist father (Dennis Quaid, jaw clenched) walks from Philadelphia to Manhattan in the supposedly subarctic weather, and arrives at the library looking fresh and perky.

Emmerich, whose previous forays into disaster (in every sense of the word) include "Godzilla" and "Independence Day," adds a political subtext to this blockbuster. (The all-too-powerful vice president in this film, who initially denounces global warming as "sensationalist claims," looks uncannily like Dick Cheney.) The preview audience, when it wasn't snickering, applauded lines like "You didn't want to hear about the science, when it could have made a difference," delivered to the film's politicians.

But ultimately, "The Day After Tomorrow" is less about serious issues and more about big-money special effects and shameless sentimentality (there's even a little kid with cancer, in the movie for no reason whatsoever). And in the midst of global disaster, Sam and Laura find time to share a kiss so swoony, and so romantically lit, that you worry that they're about to repopulate the species, right there in the library. Where are those wolves when you need them?

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com