Saturday, January 11, 2014

Heating Up

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2004)

After dealing in two out of the last three weeks with the horrors of the fast food industry and with the war in Iraq, I guess the subject of global warming will conclude what I might term my “happiness trilogy” of columns. The film, of course, is Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, the current blockbuster in which the world’s excesses finally catch up with it, sweeping aside downtown Los Angeles in a flurry (or whatever the collective noun may be) of tornados and all of Manhattan via a mammoth tidal wave, followed by a deadly ice storm. Apparently the rest of the world suffers as well (I think Canada must be completed wiped out), but except for some scattered scenes of helicopter crashes in Scotland and giant hailstones in Tokyo, we don’t really see much of that.

My jaunty tone should give you a sense of some of the film’s limitations, although these were amply foreseeable in a film from the director of Independence Day and Godzilla. The film’s centrepiece is a long trek by scientist Dennis Quaid from Washington to Manhattan, during the height of the catastrophe, to rescue his son (Jake Gyllenhaal) who’s holed up in New York Public Library. This plotline has received as much critical derision as anything I can recall in recent movies, and it hardly seems necessary to add to that here. So let’s take the problems as stipulated, and move on to other observations.

Aesthetic Event

It’s a handsomely realized movie, reminding me of the derided individuals who spoke of 9/11 as an aesthetic event. It makes a visual ballet out of vast, effortless urban destruction. At times, especially when the ice storm sweeps across the city, causing a massive instantaneous temperature drop to everything it touches, the weather is made seemingly tangible; as if conscious and knowing. At other times, the film translates the devastation into gorgeous abstraction, through a succession of weather charts, satellite images, computer simulations and other colourful devices. Of course, the use of computer-generated images, unless flawlessly executed, tends to evoke artificiality as well. The Day After Tomorrow starts with an unbroken traveling shot across the Antarctic landscape – initially dazzling, until it becomes too dazzling and you realize the artificiality. But it’s not much of a gap between registering flaws and registering that you can’t see any flaws.

In this regard, of course, the film grievously undermines whatever serious intent it might have. The scientific consensus on the movie seems to be that the theories it relies on are broadly valid, but lose plausibility when cranked up to such speed and scale. This reflects the conventionally perverse moral compass of the blockbuster – the death of a single foregrounded character is a tragedy, but that of the unpictured millons in the background is merely flavouring. I suppose that’s appropriate to the extent that in a disaster on the scale shown, we’d all have to jettison our ideas of grieving and quickly learn a new kind of pragmatism.  In this sense, if you’re straining, the movie’s cold bloodedness sort of works.

Ideological Choice

The concentration on the soap opera travails of a few individuals, also standard operating procedure, can be read as an ideological choice as well, parallel for instance to the Bush administration’s use of unrepresentative “middle class families” and other misleading poster children to sell an agenda with very different undertones. Talking of Bush, before the film opened, several commentators speculated – before they’d seen it, but based on advance reports of its content – that it might exercise some pro-Kerry campaign sway. The UK Guardian put it this way: "Here's the pitch: a dullish candidate, outflanked by his opponent's serious money, attacked for his liberal leanings, is swept to an unlikely victory thanks to a blockbuster movie that focuses on the effects of big business and the agro-industrial complex. Audiences throw their popcorn aside, pick up their ballot papers and realise that they too can make a difference."

Well, the movie doesn’t say too much about the effects of big business and the agro-industrial complex, although there are a couple of lines from the Cheney-like Vice President to the effect that short-term economic calculations must carry more weight than long term ecological ones. But if you go with the premise that the film could ever have exerted a positive influence, it’s in its ending that the potential is most flagrantly squandered.

As quickly as it began, the bad weather is over, and the surviving characters, shrugging off their travails with that new kind of pragmatism I mentioned, head off into a new future – a little wiser (even the Cheney character acknowledges past mistakes) but fundamentally unchanged. Ultimately, the film might seem ready to package the whole thing as a beneficial purging of excess population – a sharp but mercifully short healing shock. In reality, any ultimate reckoning will surely be much more agonizing and protracted.

The Ecology of Commerce

Given the lousy reviews, I might not have bothered seeing the film at all if I hadn’t been reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce. First published in 1993, the book is a devastating analysis of how unchecked capitalism, amounting to a reckless fire sale of the earth’s resources, is killing off our future. It’s utterly convincing and thus utterly moving and depressing. Grimmest of all is the thought that in the eleven years since the book was published, every single indicator and trend he describes has likely gotten worse.

Hawken describes a case of an island in the Bering Sea where 29 reindeer were imported in 1944. Specialists had calculated that the island could support between 1,600 and 2,300 animals. With no controls or predators, the population hit 6,000 by 1963, and then fell back drastically as the lack of carrying capacity kicked in. Within three years only 42 reindeer remained – well below the original estimate. “The difference between ruminants and ourselves,” writes Hawken, “is that the resources used by the reindeer were grasses, trees and shrubs and that they eventually return, whereas many of the resources we are exploiting will not.”

The book returns to this theme again and again, foreseeing an inevitable gap between needs and availability as our reckless consumption of resources, even in the face of enormous increases in demand, continues. Although Hawken tries to invest his book with optimism, and to emphasize humanity’s adaptability and creativity, I doubt that many readers will close the book without feeling substantially morbid. If Hawken is only half right, and if preventative action remains beyond us (seemingly a likelihood), we should only pray to avoid having to live through the protracted downward spiral he seems to predict. Against this backdrop, for the characters that make it to the end of the movie, The Day After Tomorrow is actually an upbeat escape drama. But if you look at it a certain way, it’s when it’s at its most unrealistic that the film most effectively prompts some counter-thinking.

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