This controversial sci-fi blockbuster about climate change still polarizes scientists today

Did "The Day After Tomorrow" accurately depict our climatic future? Not quite. But some appreciate a deeper message

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 23, 2023 6:01AM (EDT)

Vibrant Red Sunset Over Icebergs in Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, Ice (Getty Images/Dhwee)
Vibrant Red Sunset Over Icebergs in Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, Ice (Getty Images/Dhwee)

At the start of the third act of the 2004 sci-fi disaster flick "The Day After Tomorrow," teenager and academic decathlon participant Laura Chapman shares her deep feelings of despair with her boyfriend Sam Hall.

"Everything I've ever cared about, everything I've worked for... has all been preparation for a future that no longer exists," Laura (Emmy Rossum) tells Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) as she shivers due to a combo of a recent blood infection and an apocalyptic snowstorm. "I know you always thought I took the competition too seriously. You were right. It was all for nothing."

"We passed out fliers at screenings, and brought images of real-world climate disasters to ExxonMobil's annual shareholder meeting."

Despite largely being remembered as a special effects-fueled extravaganza, this quiet dramatic moment may best epitomize the complex legacy of "The Day After Tomorrow," directed and co-written (along with Jeffrey Nachmanoff) by Roland Emmerich of "Independence Day" fame. It was the first Hollywood blockbuster to use its premise to focus on climate change and make bank while doing so.

A semi-adaptation of the 1999 book "The Coming Global Superstorm" by Art Bell and Whitley Strieber on a budget of $125 million (or nearly 200 million in today's dollars), "The Day After Tomorrow" grossed a whopping $552 million (in 2023, that's more than $883 million). It primarily tells the story of Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid), a paleoclimatologist who unsuccessfully tries to warn America's political leaders — most notably Vice President Raymond Becker (Kenneth Welsh), an obvious satire on real-life Vice President Dick Cheney — that climate change is about to rapidly cause a new ice age.

Like many Emmerich blockbusters (such as "Godzilla" and "2012"), "The Day After Tomorrow" includes spectacular scenes of mass destruction, with apocalyptic ice storms smothering landmarks in New York City and ultimately covering the entire northern hemisphere. Yet in addition to being entertaining, "The Day After Tomorrow" also attempted to make an important political point by raising awareness about how greenhouse gas emissions are destroying our planet. As the film reaches its 19-year anniversary this week, it should in theory be celebrated as ahead of its time — particularly in scenes like the one with Rossum, who articulated views later expressed by Greta Thunberg and countless other future climate protesters.

If that's so, then why do so many scientists view the film with contempt? Simply put: It's a movie about listening to science — but it also butchers most of it in the process.

"I don't recall a lot except that the whole science was incredibly wrong," Dr. Kevin E. Trenberth, distinguished scholar at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told Salon by email. His views echoed each scientist who spoke to Salon for this article, criticizing the movie's central premise of a rapid ice age and observing that "one does not get an ice age out of global warming." Although Trenberth acknowledged that science fiction "can be helpful in setting the stage for people, relationships and politics," he scoffed when Salon referred to "The Day After Tomorrow" as a "work of art."

"You are kidding?" he sarcastically replied.

Trenberth has good company among prominent scientists in disliking Emmerich's arguable magnum opus. Dr. Michael E. Mann is a professor of Earth and Environmental Science at the University of Pennsylvania and, like Trenberth, one of the world's most prominent climatologists. Prior to the film's release, a climate advocacy group contacted Mann with an early copy of the script. They wanted to know if the movie should be used to raise awareness. Mann warned them against it.

"In some ways, it trivializes concern about the climate crisis because it presents such a caricature of the science," Mann wrote to Salon. This is not to say that Mann believes the movie to be totally devoid of scientific merit: For example, there is an opening scene about a chunk of ice the size of Rhode Island breaking off, which Jack Hall describes as "sensational."

"In fact that first scene was based on an actual event (the collapse of Larsen B ice shelf) that had already occurred in 2002," Mann wrote to Salon. "There have been some similar-sized ice shelf collapses since. These are of concern because they potentially destabilize the inland ice (which, unlike an ice shelf which is already floating on water, contribute to sea level rise)."

These pluses, though, are outweighed by the minuses, at least in Mann's view. Indeed, for many years he would watch "The Day After Tomorrow" with first-year seminar students to deconstruct exactly what it gets right and what it gets wrong — and they regularly found that "it gets a lot wrong."

"The animation of the 'ocean conveyor' that Dennis Quaid shows to the rapt audience at the international climate conference is actually going in the wrong direction," Mann pointed out. "A collapse of the conveyor wouldn't cause another ice age, it would just slow the warming in some regions surrounding the North Atlantic. And it would play out over decades not days. You don't drill an ice core on the ice shelf as he and his crew were doing in the opening scenes, but inland where you get a much longer record back in time. And an ice core record is just a series of measurements. There's no physics in it. So you couldn't use it to build a 'forecasting model' as he does in the film."

Mann's students also criticized Emmerich's decision to cast Gyllenhaal as a nerd: "But the thing my students were most skeptical about in the film was Jake Gyllenhaal participating in an academic decathlon. They just couldn't suspend disbelief on that one!"

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"The thing my students were most skeptical about in the film was Jake Gyllenhaal participating in an academic decathlon. They just couldn't suspend disbelief on that one!"

Despite this harsh view from some scientists, there are others who applaud the movie's existence. One of them is Emory University Physics Professor Sidney Perkowitz, who was so critical of the 2003 sci-fi flick "The Core" that his words helped catalyze the creation of the Science & Entertainment Exchange. As its name indicates, the mission of the Science & Entertainment Exchange is to promote positive impressions of science for the general public. While Perkowitz derided "The Core" for taking excessive liberties with scientific accuracy, he did not have the same perspective about "The Day After Tomorrow."

"Despite scientific flaws, [The Day After Tomorrow] carried a message to millions that was important then and is more important now," Perkowitz wrote to Salon. He quoted his 2007 book "Hollywood Science," where he covers the movie in depth. In particular he noted that it had actually changed people's minds about the reality of global warming, prompting Perkowitz to give the movie a Special Award. After acknowledging criticisms of the plot and dialogue as trite, Perkowitz wrote that "the film has redeeming features. Though presented in clichéd style, the story illustrates scientific commitment through the conflict between Jack Hall's work and his relations with his wife and son."

Perkowitz also enjoyed the special effects, visual and audio alike, and observed "Jack's speeches to the UN delegates and to the President include true scientific nuggets about global warming. In this way, 'The Day After Tomorrow' draws attention to a real and current problem, with greater odds of doing serious harm than any asteroid strike or alien invasion."

As proof of this beneficial impact, Perkowitz points in his book to a survey by environmental science and policy expert Anthony Leiserowitz taken among 529 US adults before and after they saw the movie. It was viewed by roughly 21 million American adults in theaters upon being released, and millions more through DVD sales and streaming.

"[Leiserowitz] asked about concerns over global warming and the possibility of changing one's own behavior as a result, and about political preferences," Perkowitz explained. "For those who had seen the film, he concluded that it had a 'significant impact' on climate change risk perceptions, conceptual models, behavioral intentions, policy priorities… The film led moviegoers to have higher levels of concern and worry about global warming [and] encouraged watchers to engage in personal, political, and social action to address climate change and to elevate global warming as a national priority… The movie even appears to have influenced voter preferences."

This is not to say that "The Day After Tomorrow" changed the public conversation on a massive scale. At the end of the day a movie is, after all, just a movie — meaning it has limited reach.

"The film caused no change in overall public attitudes toward global warming because its audience, though huge, is only a fraction of the US adult population," Perkowitz observed. "Even enormously successful movies aren't seen by a majority of Americans and so can't immediately swing popular opinion."

Yet this does not mean that "The Day After Tomorrow" only had a negligible impact. "According to Leiserowitz's analysis, media coverage of the film and its science was ten times greater than was accorded the report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific report that solidified worries about global warming in 2001," Perkowitz writes in his book.

"Despite scientific flaws, [The Day After Tomorrow] carried a message to millions that was important then and is more important now."

"The Day After Tomorrow" also tackled partisan politics with a boldness not normally seen in mainstream Hollywood fare. Emmerich's movie has an undeniable "liberal tilt," as Perkowitz put it, such as clearly basing its fictional vice president on Cheney and having Americans illegally cross the Mexican border to escape the apocalyptic storms. Additionally, the movie raises provocative questions about how our species will preserve its culture if we are unable to prevent the climate change crisis from reaching a tipping point — a question that humanity has yet to convincingly answer. The impetus for these conversations in the film is that a group of survivors need to burn books to stay warm (a plight that on one occasion leads to the movie's most memorable laugh-out-loud line).

"Besides the book-burning discussion, [The Day After Tomorrow] even shows symbolically that all our stored knowledge, at least for Western civilization, is threatened when the tsunami due to climate change reaches NY's 42nd Street Library," Perkowitz observed to Salon. "But in the real world, most people and institutions haven't yet emotionally accepted that climate change is a real global threat. With a few exceptions, we haven't even begun preparing to help millions of people survive, let alone try to save the culture that defines civilization."

Although there have been efforts to preserve business and banking records, as well as the basis of the world's food supply (such as at Norway's Svalbard Global Seed Vault), "I expect that if serious action to survive the effects of climate change ever comes, it will be by the skin of our teeth at the last possible minute, with saving print and digital books, art treasures and so on at the bottom of the list."

One group that hopes things don't get that bad is Greenpeace, an international nonprofit 501(c)(3) that focuses on environmental issues. After it was released in 2004, Greenpeace tried to use "The Day After Tomorrow" as a call to action.

"We passed out fliers at screenings, and brought images of real-world climate disasters to ExxonMobil's annual shareholder meeting," John Hocevar, a marine biologist and director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign, wrote to Salon. He feels that the movie "got the big story right. If we don't stop extracting and burning oil, coal and gas, we are in serious trouble in ways that may be difficult to predict precisely but will nonetheless cost trillions of dollars and many, many lives."

While he concedes that the movie "didn't try too hard to get the specifics right," he added that "it's hard to get too upset about that because everyone knows that whether it is a disaster movie or real life, no one listens to the scientists until it is too late. Hopefully this is the time we decide to break that pattern."

"The film led moviegoers to have higher levels of concern and worry about global warming [and] encouraged watchers to engage in personal, political, and social action to address climate change and to elevate global warming as a national priority."

Victoria Scrimer, Ph.D., a lecturer in theater and performance studies at the University of Maryland who used to work for Greenpeace, has written an essay with her thoughts on "The Day After Tomorrow." Scrimer argues that people need compelling stories to understand their reality, and that "The Day After Tomorrow" is significant for that reason.

"A lot of environmental disaster is what we might call boring (it takes place over a long period of time, with several different, sometimes unidentified causes, largely unspectacular until it's too late, etc.), and some research suggests humans are ill equipped to perceive and respond to long term phenomenon like climate change," Scrimer explained. "For instance, a 1994 study of risk perception suggests that we fail to recognize climate change risk because it does not fit into a conventional dramatic framework. The study suggests that 'climatic change' belongs to a class of 'hidden hazards' or problems which could pass 'unnoticed or unattended to' until their effects reach such a scale that can no longer be ignored."

This doesn't mean that Scrimer believes "The Day After Tomorrow" is a great movie. "I think it's valuable for how it highlights some problems with how we as a species prioritize information and concern and see movies like 'The Day After Tomorrow' as one way to do that." That is why "despite the inaccuracy of the film's anthropocentric, hyper-rapid depiction of climate disaster which troubled some scientists, many others were happy to grant poetic license to filmmakers for the sake of pushing climate change into the media spotlight. And it is true that this film did help bring awareness to the issue."

Perkowitz, for his part, also said that "The Day After Tomorrow" is "not a great film." Yet while "greatness" from a quality standpoint is purely subjective, there is an objective definition of "greatness" that applies to "The Day After Tomorrow." It is most apparent during the Rossum-Gyllenhaal dialogue, when Laura Chapman talks about preparing for a future that no longer exists, as well as during scenes when library patrons argue over whether to preserve The Gutenberg Bible and the works of philosopher Frederich Nietzsche for future generations. 

If nothing else, "The Day After Tomorrow" is a historically significant film. While earlier movies like "Waterworld" and "Soylent Green" also depicted cataclysmic climate change, the topic in those films was more set dressing than anything central to the plot — and "Waterworld" famously flopped at the box office. By contrast, "The Day After Tomorrow" was the first Hollywood blockbuster to focus primarily on climate change and succeed, and was clearly distinctive enough that nearly 20 years after its release people still remember it and harbor strong opinions. Good, bad or indifferent, "The Day After Tomorrow" deserves to be seen — and, if humanity fails to thwart climate change, preserved like that Gutenberg Bible, as a relic from the earliest days when artists and scientists alike tried to pull humanity from the edge of the climate change cliff.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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