Early in The Player, Robert Altman’s 1992 dark satire of Hollywood, a young studio executive (Tim Robbins) fields pitches from filmmakers. He sums up their descriptions by checking off the genres and emotions in play. They come back with the names of similar, notably successful, movies.
So it’s a kind of psychic, political thriller, comedy with a heart.
With a heart. Yeah. Not unlike Ghosts meets Manchurian Candidate.
In an e-mail exchange, a film editor who insisted on anonymity confirmed the logic underlying this fictional exchange: “I’m not a Studio Suit that has the power to greenlight movies but … there are some givens: If an idea works, [like] showing cold in The Day after Tomorrow (Day After), look for more scripts that show the exact same thing.”
Day After did work — with a worldwide box office of nearly $550 million. And in the last decade, at least eight production teams pitched stories based on that success. Here’s how those films might be described, Player fashion.
2014 — Snowpiercer (worldwide theatrical release) — Former luxury train rolling through an ice-age landscape, angry passengers in coach: It’s Day After meets Murder on the Orient Express. (Yes, there’s a graphic novel behind Joon-ho Bong’s screenplay, but Day After clearly influenced his depiction of the new ice age.)
2013 — 100 Degrees Below Zero (straight to dvd in US) — College-age brother and sister wander through Paris, waiting for their father and new stepmother to rescue them, as ash from an erupting Icelandic volcano plunges the world into an ice age: It’s Day After meets Volcano meets Midnight in Paris.
2010 — Ice 2020 (British TV mini-series) — Construction of an oil drilling platform in the Arctic, without adequate safeguards, destabilizes the North Atlantic Current, plunging the world into an ice age: It’s Day After meets Deepwater Horizon. (Screenwriters also take note of significant events in the real world.)
2010 — Ice Quake (TV movie) — Methane seeps destabilize the geology beneath an Alaska town, flash-freezing machines and people when rifts release the pent-up gas: It’s Day After meets Northern Exposure.
An Ice Age of One’s Own
Success spurs imitators. But eight?
Climate science itself may be a factor in this burst of “Ice-Fi,” for it provides a steady stream of material with which filmmakers can tell slightly different stories. Each of these films experimented with a different explanation for possible changes in Earth’s net average temperature: variations in Earth’s orbit, tilt, or magnetic field (Absolute Zero); density of cloud cover (The Colony); aerosols or particles in the atmosphere, whether natural (100 Degrees Below Zero) or manmade (Snowpiercer); methane released from melting tundra (Ice Quake), and changes in the distribution of heat through the atmosphere and oceans (Day After and Ice 2020). Arctic Blast played on popular misunderstandings of the ozone layer.
Another factor may be geography. Day After focused most of its visual special effects on New York City. Ice 2020, the three-hour UK miniseries, offered an ice-age portrait of London. 100 Degrees Below Zero, an amusingly bad example of the genre, spent its limited special-effects budget on damaging iconic landmarks of Paris. Arctic Blast includes a few visuals of Australia. And The Colony has Canadian roots. In short, filmmakers may be marketing local versions of this particular apocalypse; each country (or major city) can have an ice age of its own.
Ice-Age New York City / Day After
Ice-Age London / Ice 2020
Ice-Age Paris / 100° Below Zero
View from Train Window / Snowpiercer
Which suggests a third factor: An ice-world is beautiful, frightening, and high contrast. It’s much harder to visualize the risks of a gradual 2 to 4 degree rise in temperature than a sudden 40 degree, 50 degree or more drop. “Hollywood plays to easy fears,” the film editor explained in the previously mentioned e-mail, “and people are as afraid of freezing to death as they are of sharks and airplane crashes. . . . Heat causes the antithesis of action, dead calm.”
Climate scientist Stefan Rahmstorf in an e-mail exchange offered a complementary view: “Snow and ice are beautiful and fascinating substances; there is something deeply romantic about being locked in snow and ice (think of the NY public library in The Day After Tomorrow), great stuff for cinema. Making a film about a hot climate is probably harder.”
In other words, one big change, like ice-sheets enveloping the world, is more easily associated with climate than lots of smaller changes, which are more readily seen merely as weather. Thus the shift from temperate to Arctic conditions may be both the most dramatic and most immediately intelligible option available to filmmakers.
And there is some precedence for this. In e-mail exchanges, Mike Hulme, author of Why We Disagree About Climate Change (2009) and Can Science Fix Climate Change? (2014), first confirmed the general point made above — “ice . . . offers a more dramatic and material symbol of climate change (cooling) than anything associated with heating” — and then pointed to an historical example. For an article on late 19th century depictions of historic climate change in Northern Europe, geographer Stefan Bronnimann collected drawings and photographs of well-known glaciers, on which artists had painted palm trees to suggest the region’s much warmer pre-historic climate. The paradoxical juxtaposition of Arctic and tropical elements made these images quite popular.
From the Icy Cold of Space
But how did the director of The Day After Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich, who had no model to imitate, come up with his original idea for an abrupt-ice-age version of climate change?
In the publicity materials for Day After, Emmerich, whose first film was about military manipulation of a space lab’s weather experiments, recounted a fateful walk through a bookstore in North Carolina, where he was then filming The Patriot (2000): “I found this book, The Coming of the Global Superstorm, and I read it. . . . and I said. ‘Hmmm, this sounds like a movie.’”
Co-authored by Art Bell and Whitley Strieber, The Coming Global Superstorm (TCGS) is an odd mixture of dramatic meteorological speculation and coy insinuation of extraterrestrial influences. Strange ancient artifacts, the authors suggest, seem at odds with what we know of humanity’s biological and social evolution.
On Unknown Country, Whitley Strieber’s personal website, the paranormal provenance of the meteorological speculations hinted at in TCGS is acknowledged frankly:
The subject of global warming is taken very seriously at Unknown Country. Prior to his encounter with the Master of the Key in 1998, Whitley Strieber was unaware of the concept of climate change, but the insights given to him during that meeting affected him profoundly, and the information he was given became the foundation for his best-selling book, The Coming Global Superstorm. The book later became the inspiration for the movie blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow.
With its particularly strong El Niño, 1998 was the year Earth’s average global temperature spiked, well above the averages for the years immediately before and after. By happenstance, the cover story for the January 1998 issue of The Atlantic, “The Great Climate Flip-Flop” by William H. Calvin, explored the possibility of a global-warming induced breakdown of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning. Calvin, a theoretical neurophysiologist who went on to publish books on human evolution and abrupt climate change (A Brain for All Seasons, 2003) and on ways to mitigate climate change (Global Fever, 2008), is not mentioned in TCGS. But perhaps the Master of the Key saw the article?
Aliens play no role in Day After, not that Emmerich is averse to working with them (see Independence Day, 1996). Several now iconic elements of the film, however, come straight out of Bell and Strieber’s book: the research buoys with the inexplicably dropping temperature readings, the worried exchanges between British and American scientists, the powerful storm that strikes Japan, the superstorms that can sustain themselves over land while pulling super-chilled air down from the troposphere (Bell and Strieber dub them “tornadocanes”), the instantaneously frozen mammoth, and people burning library books to keep warm. But where Bell and Strieber illustrated the ground-level effects of their superstorms by chronicling events in Paris, Emmerich visited his destruction on the Big Apple, the city he had wrecked in an earlier film (Godzilla 1998).
When Day After was released, Roland Emmerich and senior producer Mark Gordon expressed pride in the scientific underpinnings of their film.
Gordon: [W]e really did a lot of research and had lots of consultations for the science.
Emmerich: The only thing we did for dramatic reasons was to make the time period shorter.
Understood in that context, and from the filmmakers’ perspective, these comments make sense, many climate scientists’ real concerns notwithstanding. Compared with their work in Independence Day and Godzilla, Day After is a rigorous piece of science fiction. More often, science is the peg with which filmmakers briefly suspend viewers’ disbelief in the dramatic crisis they have created. In the case of Day After’s eight imitators, climate science was also a way to tell the same story with marketable differences.
One final conclusion might be drawn from Day After’s Ice-Fi legacy: Humans seem peculiarly drawn to this abrupt-ice-age vision of climate change — like moths mistaking a porch-light for the moon. That could be a problem.
The author would like to thank Dan Bloom, creator of the Cliffies, for the tips to Ice Quake and Interstellar.
Download the 5-Part Series: A Review of Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi) Cinema…Past and Present
A Review of Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi) Cinema … Past and Present (Pt. 1)
The Long Melt … The lingering influence of The Day After Tomorrow (Pt. 3)
Interstellar: Looking for the Future in all the Wrong Spaces (Pt. 4)
(What) Do We Learn from Cli-Fi Films? Hollywood Still Stuck in Holocene (Pt. 5)