August 3, 2023

THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW and the Necessity of Sh**ty People

Starring Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhall, Sela Ward, Emmy Rossum, Ian Holm, Jay O. Sanders, Glenn Plummer, Perry King. Directed by Roland Emmerich. (123 min)
Essay by D.M. ANDERSONđź’€

We all know shitty people. Probably too many shitty people. But here’s hoping that you know very few of them personally, as they generally make life a lot harder than it needs to be. 

Still, shitty people provide a necessary function, and like it or not, we need ‘em. 

Case in point…I've been a middle school teacher for 25 years. In that time, I’ve dealt with a variety of shitty people…kids, parents and the occasional colleague. So I usually use my summers to decompress and bask in the euphoria of doing almost nothing…a self-imposed exile from most of the shitty world.

This year, I decided to change things up a bit and get a summer job. And why not? Most of my mornings this summer have been spent on the sofa listening to Mike Greenberg’s ESPN man-crush on Aaron Rodgers anyway…surely that time could be better spent sticking a few extra bucks in my pocket, if for no other reason than snagging tickets to see Tool this fall without refinancing the house. 

A lot of teachers get summer jobs, usually education-related, like doing a few weeks of summer school. Since shitting glass was preferable to setting-foot in a classroom during my down time, I found myself as a part-time assistant groundskeeper at Multnomah Falls, a state park about 20 miles from my house and one of Oregon’s more popular tourist attractions. My primary job was to walk around and pick up trash. With absolutely no brainwork or planning required on my part, it was perfect…walking the grounds, practically invisible to the surrounding tourists and lost in my own thoughts. And you sure as hell can't beat the view...

Where I spent my summer.
However, it wasn’t long before I realized my new job involved dealing with shitty people, too. This was the first time I really noticed just how much crap people toss on the ground to make it someone else’s problem…especially in parking lots. Cans, bottles, wrappers, Starbucks cups, soiled diapers, used feminine hygiene products, napkins, cigarette butts - even a busted drone the other day - are just a few of the things I collect in abundance on a daily basis. Fortunately, I’m provided a “grabber arm” so I don’t have to use my own hands or even bend over (a definite plus at my age). 

I came close to getting upset by all this, until I realized that people's indifference to the environment is the reason I get to finally see my favorite band live. Shitty people are why the job even exists. In fact, the overall lack of intellectual engagement required from a groundskeeper afforded me a lot of time pondering the particulars of the job and those who make it possible. Weeks of picking up tampons and emptying trash cans had me designating shitty people into distinct categories.

First are “actively shitty” people, those who know damn well that throwing a rolled up soiled diaper in a nearby bush is wrong but simply don’t care. Actively shitty people are the ones who “temporarily” park in spaces clearly reserved for tour buses, incorrectly assuming that turning on their hazard lights makes it okay. Actively shitty people are also those who regularly toss coins off the observation bridge into the water below, ignoring the sign that explains why that's bad for wildlife and the environment. Some people, of course, enjoy being actively shitty, like the douchebag who said with a laugh, “Here, this will keep you employed,” before tossing his cigarette butt to the ground in front of me. I guess he’s not wrong.

Cigarette butts...keeping folks employed since 1931.
Then there are “passively shitty” people, those who generally aren’t aware they are being shitty. The single most telling example related to my job would be the sheer number of recyclable water bottles overstuffing every trashcan each day. Sure, visitors at-least made the effort to throw them away, but not only are there actual recycle bins all over the park, cans and bottles are worth 10 cents apiece in Oregon. If someone were inclined to collect and redeem them for just one week, they could probably buy Microsoft (or at least their own Tool tickets). 

Days of examining active vs. passive shittiness had me realizing how many industries, institutions, products and jobs that exist because of shitty people…locks, safes, virus protection software, uninsured motorist insurance, car alarms, stun guns, pepper spray, plagiarism checkers, mall security, lawyers, home defense, bouncers, animal shelters, law enforcement, timeclocks, passwords, armored cars, traffic signs, insurance investigators, bounty hunters, the penal system, the military, nuclear weapons, murder mysteries, reality TV, and every play ever written by Shakespeare…I could go on, but you get the idea.

While we’re on the subject, just where the hell would movies be without shitty people? I don’t mean studio bigwigs or prima donna actors & directors, since historically, we already know a lot of ‘em are shitty. I’m talking about the movies themselves. Imagine Star Wars without Darth Vader, A Christmas Story without Scut Farkus or The Night of the Hunter without Reverend Harry Powell. Considering his best films are chock full of shitty people, how could we expect Martin Scorsese to stay gainfully employed?

Destined for the unemployment line.
Even my beloved Jaws, the greatest film of all time, wouldn’t exist. It features superlative examples of passive and active shittiness. Mayor Vaughn is a poster boy for passive shittiness, since he thinks denying the shark problem is in the town’s best interest, while active shittiness is personified by Brody, Hooper and Quint when they venture out to kill the shark, even though all everyone had to do was stay the hell out of the water. Instead, they invade the shark’s territory because it’s ruining Amity’s summer.

Digging deeper, I have a fluctuating list of my personal top 100 movies, and just for fun, picked out the titles that do not rely on shitty people - active, passive, individually or collectively - to advance the narrative. I ended up with these: The Thing, The Exorcist, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar, This is Spinal Tap, Airplane!, Deep Impact, The Andromeda Strain, The Right Stuff and Field of Dreams. That’s 10 films out of 100, and even then, one could argue the world-ending crisis in Interstellar is the result of collective global shittiness. 

And guess what…we are all globally shitty, with every toilet we flush, every engine we start in the morning and every disposable diaper we slap on our kids. Disposable diapers take 500 years to fully decompose, meaning every diaper ever soiled is still somewhere on Earth today…fully intact.  

But while Interstellar still offers a glimmer of hope that humankind can pull their collective heads from their asses to overcome global shittiness, the 2004 apocalyptic disaster epic, The Day After Tomorrow provides no such comfort. In this film, climate change is real, it’s our collective fault and it’s too late to do anything about it.

Dennis Quaid plays Adrian Hall, a professor who warns dignitaries at a summit meeting that Earth will face a cataclysmic weather shift if action isn't taken right away. He's ignored, of course, and subjected to ridicule by the Vice President (whose obligatory function in the movie is to poo poo any scientific evidence our hero has to offer). Sure enough, dramatic and catastrophic events begin occurring all over the planet, only much faster than Hall predicted. Softball-sized hail rains on Hong Kong, twisters destroy most of L.A., ocean temperatures plummet and New York is devastated by a tidal wave. 

Looks like the Jets won't be making the playoffs this year, either.
Because of the massive sudden drop in temperature, the entire Northern Hemisphere gets buried under snow and deadly storms. For some added personal drama, Hall's son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhall), happens to be in New York at the time and gets trapped in the library with a bunch of his high school friends. While the rest of the country begins migrating south to escape the new ice age, Hall, determined to save his Sam, ventures north with a few loyal colleagues in a valiant (though far-fetched) rescue effort.

The Day After Tomorrow is directed by Roland Emmerich, who assumed Irwin Allen’s throne as cinema’s new “Master of Disaster” with films such as Independence Day, 2012 and Moonfall, which demonstrate an uncanny knack for destroying national landmarks in glorious fashion. They’re generally pretty silly, but damn, they’re fun. However, The Day After Tomorrow is cut from a slightly different cloth, opting for a more somber approach similar to that of 1998’s Deep Impact. The story is compelling, aided by top-notch special effects (the tornadoes in L.A. and the tidal wave which submerges New York are ominous and pretty convincing). The one exception is the obvious use of computer-generated wolves which attack the kids in New York. I can't imagine it was cheaper to use CGI instead of actual wolves for the sequence, unless the producers didn't think real wolves looked vicious enough. 

Unlike Roland’s other bubble-headed exercises in global destruction, The Day After Tomorrow is actually inspired by a non-fiction book, The Coming Global Superstorm, which speculates the devastating effect climate change would have on our planet. So while it’s still a sci-fi disaster film, at least the science as-presented doesn’t sound like it was concocted by a middle schooler. Still, some real-life experts with no sense of fun took its accuracy to task…as if that really mattered. I don’t know if the film’s explanation for the devastating weather changes is scientifically sound or not...and I don’t fucking care because I’m not a paleoclimatologist. 

Besides, those experts are missing the entire point of the movie. Whether or not another Ice Age would actually happen as depicted isn’t important. What does matter is that it’s the result of global shittiness. Despite concluding on a heart-warming note and the once-indifferent Vice President humbly admitting he was wrong (now there’s some science-fiction for you), The Day After Tomorrow might be the most pessimistic disaster movie ever made. Still, it's a fun film, maybe even a great film and perhaps increasingly relevant as time goes on.

So here’s to all the shitty people in the world. We may all end up destroying it someday, but we've inspired some great movies along the way.

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