The Hollywood Climate

Can The Day After Tomorrow really raise awareness along with its box office receipts?

| Wed Jun. 2, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

Canada's Lions Gate Films has announced it will distribute Michael Moore's latest documentary, Fahrenheit 911, meaning we can all look forward to a bumper summer crop of indignant conservative punditry. But we needn't wait for Moore's latest to sample a little Hollywood-inspired political hyperbole. Indeed, the nation's number two film of this Memorial Day weekend, The Day After Tomorrow, might be the most politically explosive major studio release in years.

Still, while it's clear that the end of the world is turning out to be great news for the movie industry, what's less certain is what the disaster flick will mean for those really concerned about global warming. Will the 'Hollywoodization' of climate change, so necessary to move along the movie's special-effects heavy plot, promote the nation's consciousness or just its confusion?

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Like many other Beltway environmentalists, Al Gore and John McCain have praised the film. Like many left-leaning groups and green activists, the pair overlook the scientific shortcuts taken in the film because they recognize The Day After Tomorrow as a uniquely powerful weapon in their fight to make the nation pay attention to climate change. MoveOn.org organized volunteers to go to screenings nationwide and pass out fliers decrying President Bush, while Gore has vowed to conduct town-hall meetings to discuss global warming. The Natural Resources Defense Council is even offering a free scoop of Ben & Jerry's ice cream for anyone sending an email on the subject to their congressman.

Of course, the target of all this green fire is obvioius. The Bush Administration signaled its attitude early on by rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, and it hasn't shifted course since. With that in mind, scientists and environmentalists concerned about global warming will undoubtedly be cheered by the film's not-so-subtle jabs at the administration's attitude. In the movie, the Vice President, an unmistakable Dick Cheney clone, is introduced mocking the Kyoto protocol at a U.N. conference. Meanwhile, the President is depicted as a tool of his advisors and aides, even deferring at one point to the antagonistic Vice President on the Kyoto question. Apparently, the parallels were too obvious for some in Washington. According to an April 25 New York Times article, the administration put a gag order on NASA scientists to keep them from being interviewed about the movie. The administration denied the report, but the article rang true to scores of scientists. It probably even rang true to the Pentagon planners who 'fessed up to the severity of the global warming problem last fall.

But will the film ring true? Sure, the movie's plot is based in solid science. But the filmmakers have taken huge liberties in telling their story -- wildly accelerating the pace of a global climate shift and throwing in all manner of disasters. As Anthony Lane writes in The New Yorker, "Some filmmakers, anxious to claim the high ground, will maintain that any treatment, however degraded or superficial, of an acute political or medical matter is better than none." That certainly seems to be the opinion of director Roland Emmerich, who says he hopes his film will at least provoke people to think: "It says to be a little more concerned about what we're doing to our environment, to think about tomorrow."

Still, some scientists worry that the exaggerated science in Emmerich's movie will muddle the message. Richard Harris, a National Public Radio science reporter, comments that the main character in the movie, upon hearing about some of the drastic climate changes, responds "this is unbelievable." Harris, maintains that this response is exactly the one viewers should have while watching the movie: "those words from the beginning of the movie are apt again and again." Harris debunks several of the scientific exaggerations of the movie, including the idea that massive cyclones may hit Canada, Siberia, and Scandanavia. Such weather is a fiction because those regions have no bodies of warm water, a necessity for a real hurricane. The movie also features global temperatures dropping by 10 degrees a second until they reach 130 degrees below zero. The rapidly dropping temperatures are explained as cold air coming from the troposphere. But Harris points out that air in the troposphere doesn't get anywhere near that cold.

As Roy Spencer, a research scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville tells the Salt Lake Tribune, the concern among climate scientists is that the average viewer won't understand the difference between science and Hollywood: "The movie represents something that could conceivably happen, if not in a few days then in 10 or 20 years. The concern is you get a lot of people whipped up by mixing fact and fiction and passing it off as fact."

As Bill McKibben, a Mother Jones contributor wrote in Grist Magazine last month:

There's a chance ... that the film's depiction will set the bar too high. That is, if the reason we're supposed to worry about global warming is that it will first send a tidal wave over the Statue of Liberty and then lock it forever in an ice cube, anything less will seem ... not so bad.

Anthony Lane puts it in even grimmer terms:

The very silliness of "The Day After Tomorrow" means that global warming will become, in the minds of moviegoers, little more than another nonspecific fear about which they must uncomprehendingly fret. They will vaguely understand that the United States failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, but the reasoning behind this failure will be lost in a frosty mist. Indeed, were they to be taken aside as they emerged from the movie and asked the question 'Kyoto: right or wrong?' their answer would probably be 'Whatever produces those cool typhoons.'

...

This is the awful truth: blockbusters are not made to raise awareness. They are made to raise (a) pulses and (b) cash.

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