Today, Murdoch-owned 20th Century Fox opened The Day After Tomorrow in theaters across the nation. Calling it "The Movie The White House Doesn't Want You to See," MoveOn.org wants its members to meet up at multiplexes and "give out flyers that explain, in everyday language, what causes global warming, how Bush's environmental policies could lead us into a real-life climate crisis, and what we can do together to meet these challenges." (One has to really savor that "in everyday language": Don't none of y'all bring any of dat fancy-shmancy sy-en-tiffick jargon 'round dem uncomprehending masses!) Moveon claims that, besides an "unprecedented opportunity" to inform the (presumably blissfully ignorant) public on the dangers of global warming, TDAT is "also a fun movie to see with friends over the holiday weekend."
MoveOn is not alone in classifying this Hollywood portrayal of civilization's destruction as "a fun movie." Even the Guardian's normally unhoodwinkable George Monbiot was beguiled by its pleasures. While taking serious issue with its science and admitting the story was "slushy and corny and predictable," Monbiot still found the movie "curiously subversive" and hailed it for bringing the issue of global warming into the national consciousness.
While certainly well meaning, in their rush to celebrate something (anything!) in our woeful entertainment landscape, these commentaries and initiatives are far too quick to ignore a number of painful contradictions. The most obvious, of course, is that by organizing around (and providing free publicity for) a 20th Century Fox production, MoveOn is essentially making Rupert Murdoch richer. In terms of proposing real alternatives to the corporate wasteland that currently passes for American public life, this is the imaginative equivalent of Rodney King holding a bake sale to buy the LAPD platinum-spiked nightsticks. (Perhaps the profits of the film will allow Murdie to give raises to the Fox babblers who habitually slander organizations that criticize Bush…you know, groups like MoveOn.)
But if the reality of who will profit from the film should make us a touch reticent about rallying around The Day After Tomorrow, so should the previous efforts of the film's makers. The producer-director team of Dean Devlin and Roman Emmerich has brought us such previous screen gems as Independence Day and The Patriot. The former film, you might recall, did a pretty fair job of forecasting Bush's foreign policy, with its fictional president donning a flight suit in the rousing finale to insure that the world's "independence day" falls on the same date as America's. The latter gave us Mel Gibson, circa 1776, as a gentle plantation owner (loved even by his slaves) whose transformation into a deranged, bloodthirsty madman is justified in the film's logic by his victimization at the hands of a British general who coldly slaughters Gibson's family. (I can't completely recall, but I'm pretty sure Gibson ultimately kills the general by thrusting an American flag through his guts.) Again, if we're looking to films that represent how America (dangerously) regards itself after September 11, we could do little better than The Patriot.
Some might argue that these films are in fact ironic comments on how Americans view themselves, the stupidity and viciousness of their plots quiet condemnations of such ridiculous self-regard. But such criticism is neutralized by the overt aesthetic of these films. As novelist Curtis White has pointed out, "just about every American movie expresses the conviction that there's something beautiful about death, especially violent death. It's in depicting death that our cinema can be said to have a style. Violent death is our primary super-aesthetic." Such is the style of Independence Day, The Patriot, and judging by its trailers, The Day After Tomorrow. The films' iconic images of violence-the blowing up of the White House, the slow-motion savagery of American Revolution bayonets and cannonballs, the tidal wave encompassing the Statue of Liberty-do not so much repulse us, as daze and titillate. It's what makes them "fun movies."
It is crucial for so-called "progressives" to understand that this "fun," and more importantly, the murky depths of the human psyche from which it comes, is far from harmless. Most recently, it accounts for the smiles and thumbs-up signs we've seen looming over Iraqi corpses at Abu Ghraib. When translated politically into the fringes of the Christian right, it accounts for the sale of more than 50 million "Left Behind" books, which applaud and welcome an all-cleansing Apocalypse. The plot of The Day After Tomorrow appears to follow roughly the same lines, only inverted, with the roles of good guys switched from righteous believers in God to righteous believers in science. In both narratives, the wicked skeptics and doubters are either converted or punished by a death that is always justified by their disbelief.
Rather than an "unprecedented opportunity" to inform the public about global warming, what The Day After Tomorrow really gives us is, in the words of British novelist J.G. Ballard, "a thinly-veiled glimpse of the self-destructive urges lurking alongside the hamburger and comic-book culture we all admire. As the nation infantilizes itself, the point is finally reached where the abandoned infant has nothing to do except break up its cot."
That last point illustrates why any attempts to use this "fun" movie as a springboard for a national conversation about global warming are doomed to failure. I hate to be a disgruntled goat, but can either Monbiot or MoveOn point to the last time there was a serious national conversation in the United States? Taking place, as they apparently must, on a jerry-rigged television stage under blinding lights, the debates almost inexorably devolve into a nonsensical shouting match. Even worse, take into account the radical changes needed in this country to honestly curb the effects of global warming; for starters, Americans would have to 1) willfully give up their addiction to gas-guzzling vehicles 2) completely alter the planning and auto-friendly design of its urban and suburban centers, as well as reinvent its transportation systems 3) invest heavily in alternative sources of energy while at the same time disable the centuries-old lobbying influence of Big Oil and King Coal and 4) cut our military budget between 50 to 80 percent in order to enact these changes. How do we think these proposals might fly with the O'Reillys at Fox News? Even more to the point, how do we think they might go over with the average viewer of The Day After Tomorrow? Will a pamphlet from MoveOn persuade Americans to buckle down and suck it up for the serious work that lies ahead?
Whatever the public stance of the White House might be, they should be grateful Hollywood continues to degrade our imaginations of a possible and sustainable future by churning out crap like The Day After Tomorrow. That way, when the avoidable disaster inevitably arrives, those lucky (or unlucky) few to survive will be able to murmur the same cliched words we continuously heard from the survivors of September 11: "Whoa! That was just like a movie!"