19 min read

The Days After Tomorrow

On post-apocalypses, the double meaning of "millennial," and the exquisitely trashy Day After Tomorrow.
The Days After Tomorrow

The worst part about an apocalypse is that the world doesn’t actually end. It would be neater all around if it did—if the asteroid that smacks into the planet punches right out the other side, scattering tectonic plates through space like bits of apple struck by a bullet. If the reaper’s scythe of disease caught every last man, woman and child; if the bombs dropped and scoured the surface bare; if the trumpets sounded and the gates of Heaven opened, the final battle raging across Megido, well, that has a certain neatness to it. The full stop is the point. Nobody left to mourn or remember. As Tom Lehrer remarked in one of his most cheerful and darkest songs, we shall all go together when we go.

But, of course, we know that isn’t true. We are living in a post apocalyptic world—in fact, we are living in the remains of several post-apocalyptic worlds, the shards of previous creations continually rebaked into the matrix beneath our feet. Worlds don’t end as much as fundamentally change, and stuff tends to limp through into the next epoch, influencing what you find there. We all know this, deep down—that the world ends, and life goes on.

Welcome to Heat Death, the newsletter that knows apocalypse is just a state of mind. A winter storm has settled over the city of Austin, simultaneously freezing the roads and the nerves of a twitchy populace. (It turns out that a nearly week-long blackout and the narrowly averted collapse of an entire state power grid really takes the fun out of a snow day.) Asher has been plugging away on his novel and watching birds—those successful relics of the last big apocalypse—flit around his feeder.

Saul, meanwhile, has been watching movies. This week, we’re diving into a bit of nostalgic trash—the Roland Emmerich film The Day After Tomorrow, a piece of cinematic cheese that turns out to have a lot to say about millennial identity, our expectations for apocalypses, and the question of what comes next.  
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A Tiptoe Through Dumb Apocalypses

Saul here. For the last week, as climate-change driven ice storms have fallen from Texas to Maine, I've been obsessively tabbing between different streams of post-apocalyptic media.

Running errands around Austin, or working out at the climbing gym with a double-mask on my face, for example, I've been listening to the Koli series, which follows a well-meaning himbo type on a journey across the landscape of the 2300s, where genetic engineering and climate change have run amok, and surviving "tech" is revered with almost religious awe.

Then, in the evenings with Anush, I've been watching the buzzy HBO drama Station Eleven, a fractured multi-timeline story that largely concerns a band of Shakespearean actors traveling through a Great Lakes region struggling to recover from a brutal flu that killed the vast majority of humanity.

This has been heavy going. These works, however well executed, are earnest and self-consciously weighty. They seek to grapple with what makes us human; and with the question of how society would look after, well, society falls apart. However fantastic, they do not make for particularly comfortable reading. Mostly, they circle around a particular question about our own society, one summed up by a character in the Koli series thusly: “did they know they lived in Eden, or did they dream of some higher heaven still?

Reeling from these sorts of pointed questions, and looking for a palate cleanser, we went looking for a corrective — and landed on the apocalyptic tale that stands like a bookend parentheses before my own life, opening outward to encompass the age we've all lived in since: Roland Emmerich's schlocky, accidentally masterful 2004 climate nightmare Day After Tomorrow. A founding text for what it meant to come of age in the age of climate disruption.

The Day After Tomorrow is a film that feels like it slipped in from a parallel timeline. Its depictions of climate disaster feel as fresh now, and perhaps fresher, than when they aired: just this week, for example, a prominent climate scientist argued that we need terms like “super-extreme weather” to distinguish between normal hurricanes and novel monsters like last fall’s Hurricane Ida, which punched into the continental United States at the Mississippi Delta and exited the Northeast, days later, with enough power to flood New York.

On the other hand, the film is also a holdover from the great age of ‘90s disaster movies, and it gives climate change the same swashbuckling, wisecracking, adventure-story treatment that Emerich’s Independence Day gave alien invasions and Armageddon gave asteroid impacts. (Or The Core gave high stakes geology, or Emmerich’s Godzilla gave kaiju attacks. I could go on.)

As such it is frankly, charmingly, nostalgically ridiculous. For one thing: the climate threat is a new ice age, happening about half-past-now. The key plot arc, amid the utter destruction of the Northeastern United States, is whether a divorced climate-scientist dad will rebuild his relationship with his son, and (maybe?) rekindle things with his ex. The proximate threat—beyond the hungry winds and ice— turns out to be, of all things, a pack of escaped wolves. They hunt our teenage protagonists in a kitchen, of course, as befits all social carnivores in movies.

This combination makes for a strange doubled experience; a vertiginous sense of being pitched through time as these two extremes — the eerily present, the gauzy past — fold back on each other.

I came online as an adult in the mid-2000s; my awareness of the reality of climate change and the broader unraveling it was part of were tied up in everything else about late adolescence. Falling in love, shyly and intensely, with women and ideas and new hobbies; developing my first political opinions against the backdrop of Bush’s War on Terror. A couple years after Day After Tomorrow came out, I saw a subsequent, much more dated-feeling climate film — Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth — with a friend from my University of Texas honors program. She later introduced me to my partner Anush, who also bonded with her over that film. These experiences  are flattened together in my memory, inseparable, like a leaf compressed between the ages of the book.

Day After Tomorrow feels particularly open to this sort of nostalgic rereading, though, because it is a movie largely concerned with a group of teens at their age of maximum cuteness and longing. The major subplot was built around the struggle of a group of teenagers — Jake Gyllenhaal, Emmy Rossum, Arjay Smith — trapped in Midtown Manhattan on a class trip, as they struggle to survive/make out as a giant wall of ice engulfs lower and midtown Manhattan.  They are portrayed as about 15 or 16 — elder Millennials, just a bit older than I was when I watched it —  facing down a disaster the adults in the room have utterly failed at heading off.

What are Millennials? On the one hand, nothing much at all. A schlocky advertiser's name for a generation that came of age in the backwash of the internet and amids a weird mix of techno-progressivism and American decline. The name packaged up a diverse generation, painting tens of millions of people with a Brooklyn hipster brush. It gave an identity to the group in order to sell it things, not least the idea that they were different— with different tastes in purchasing — then those who come before or after, in precisely the same way "Gen Z" was rolled out a few years ago for that cadre of kids too young to remember dialup internet, despite the fact that the two groups aren’t that different.

But while the word “Millennial” may have been chosen in lazy reference to the millennium — 2000, when we started hitting puberty and buying things for ourselves — it is an interesting and somewhat chilling choice.  “Millennial” has an older sense, tied to an ancient, apocalyptic Christian idea of the Millennium, as in "millenniarian movement." Which is to say: the apocalypse. The coming of the Kingdom of God in blood and fire.

The marketing label, in other words, has a grim unintended meaning: those who came of age at the end of a world. Which is one reason, I guess, I found it so compelling at 15 to watch Jake Gyllenhaal and Emmy Rossum make eyes at each other as the climate broke down: I was deeply hoping to find someone to do that with me.

Growing up over the last two decades has meant existing in the midst of a tapestry of post-apocalyptic narrative. Part of this is just convenient setting: the “post-apocalyptic” genre that’s been worked out since Mad Max offers a rather precise setting for a certain kind of fantasy — a studded-leather “once upon a time,” one that could just as easily be Conan the Barbarian’s Cimmeria, or the sardonic 1950s satire of Fallout.

These works have offered a stylized (and remarkably consistent) aesthetic and philosophical view of what comes after the end. The now-familiar vision of its mores and fashions — scavenged technology, feuding gangs, that inescapable sense of all-against-all — these serve as shorthand to let you know you’re in for a tale of “grounded” fantasy. In their most artful forms, these fables expand into stories about our relationships with nature, technology and each other, unobstructed by the presence of the state. As such, it offers a similar structure to the cowboy stories set on the frontier story — except the frontier is one of time, not space, and it comes to you.

Thus you have, in a random list of media that followed The Day After Tomorrow:. Mad Max: Fury Road. The Road. Snowpiercer. The Planet of the Apes remakes. All the zombie iterations which end in human defeat: the nihilistic Dawn of the Dead remake, the endless, fascist march of The Walking Dead. (But not, crucially, Shaun of the Dead.) The technicolor children’s show Kipo and the Wonderbeasts. Annihilation, both in film and book. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy.

As a reservoir of content, this was a small corner of genre publishing — as a vibe, though, it was everywhere. Even when averted, the apocalypse was a ubiquitous, looming threat. The idea of a Chosen One waging a War to Save Everything was everywhere in mainstream speculative fiction, spilling out into even ostensibly “realistic” shows like 24, a show constantly haunted by the specter of the attack that would unleash unstoppable disorder within the innocent, faltering U.S. of A. The danger of breakdown is the moral pulse behind every act of torture Jack Bauer metes out on a terrorist. It’s worth it, you see. Existence—or at least an imaginable existence—was on the line.

These excessive high stakes and  apocalyptic thinking weren’t precisely new. James Bond, for example, has been saving the world from some supervillain or other since the 1960s. The nuclear post-apocalypse is almost as old as the nuclear age itself: Neville Shute’s On the Beach, in which Australians wait to die from the clouds of radiation from an American-Soviet war, came out in 1957. The threat of sudden, violent annihilation and collapse hung over our parents’ and grandparents’ era in way it does not ours, and the popular culture reflected that — as late as the made-for-TV tragedy of The Day After (1983), a “realistic” portrayal of nuclear war which chronicles the end of the world from a small community in Kansas.

That fear and danger were real. Our grandma never forgot watching the news announcer’s hands shaking during the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis — and as we now know, one Soviet nuclear submarine during that crisis came within a single vote of firing its nuclear missiles. (PBS calls Vasili Arkhipov, the dissenting commander, “The Man Who Saved the World.”)

But all that was largely gone by the time people my age were out of diapers. Instead, we came up in a strange new world, one that seemed to bloom in the shadow of another: the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the corresponding collapse in America’s notion of itself and its place in human affairs. With no external enemy to fight, perhaps, American society turned inward; it’s a common trope in the online Left today that “the Soviet Union kept us honest,” and that with the death of that millenarian vision, something of our own died as well.

Whether that’s literally true or not, it captures a poetic truth of the trajectory of Millenial life. As we grew up, aging into adolescence in the anxious idyll of the 1990s, things were undergoing a slow but fundamental change, collapsing like ice sheets — interminably, invisibly, and then all at once.

The state accelerated its a long period of retreat from the ideas of social democracy and government regulation. National politics became a centrifuge of ever-more-vicious, made-for-TV partisan warfare. Pillars of the 20th Century middle class were squeezed out in a new era of deregulated corporate consolidation — the independent hog, chicken, or dairy farm; the small retailer, grocer, mill, or meatpacker; the family medical practice; the community bank; the small commercial loan.  

Andin the culture industries and academia? The same processes of consolidation and austerity as everyplace else. The end, across huge swaths of American life, of independent music venues and bookstores and record shops and radio stations; the rolling together of all forms of entertainment, from print to 4D to theme parks, under a few enormous corporations.

In the midst of that slower collapse came a dramatic one: the attacks on September 11, 2001 — the tragedy which looked so uncannily like what Hollywood had been serving us throughout the 1990s. In an arresting montage in his documentary HyperNormalisation, filmmaker Adam Curtis precedes footage of the 9/11 attacks with all the ways Hollywood’s aliens/tidal waves/asteroids/kaiju had trashed the city in the growing megaplexes across the country in the previous decade.

It was presented as apocalypse, as in the lifting of the veils. And as with all apocalypses, there were those who greeted the revelation with a sort of fierce, strange joy. The nation’s opinion pages filled with heartfelt paeans by Boomer and Gen Xers who felt like life meant something now, damn it, that there was purpose, history, where there had previously been an eternal and stultifying now.

And so came war fever and the destruction of Iraq, justified by that yet another apocalyptic threat. “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” was a common Bush-administration talking point leading up to the 2003 invasion. Primed by more than a decade of blockbusters, people could easily visualize precisely the outcome the administration claimed to be trying to avoid.

In hindsight, the overlap between life and art feels even stranger. Looking back, the whole Second Iraq War feels now like a second-rate Tom Clancy plot. There’s the gnomic conspiracy by a regional tyrant out to lay hands on a weapon of mass destruction. The action movie urgency to get a team to stop him. Everywhere you turned, the overriding feeling that Something Must Be Done. And just as if an asteroid was hurtling towards us or the Earth’s core was shutting down or a spaceship the size of New York was eating cities — that something was getting some cowboys together to go blow shit up. Don’t worry too much about how they do it. They’re loose cannons, but they get the job done.

It seems silly in hindsight. But the strange thing is,  this outlook — that Hard Choices Must Be Taken By Hard Men — was consistently and unthinkingly portrayed as the sober, sensible and serious choice. The best example of that widespread approach, of course, was FOX’s 24 — where the ticking time bomb always justified torture, which was always portrayed as effective. Though 24 started before 9/11, it quickly became the mythic foundation for a whole worldview, in which good-but-flawed men had to go walk in darkness to protect the soft viewers watching them.

Jack Bauer was among the first in a new wave of grimdark anti-heroes who pay, Christlike, for the violence they mete out to protect society from crumbling. That society was, implicitly, one in which “order” had to be imposed, or else evildoers would break society apart, releasing the animal spirits that civilization otherwise tames — a dismal view that Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy made explicit, and that spilled out of genre media into the equally fanciful American Sniper, with its vision of society divided into sheep, sheepdogs and wolves.

The irony is that an all-against-all collapse did happen in the 2000s — just not in America. The apocalypse took place in Iraq before spreading to Syria and Libya, and it was American soldiers who brought it — and who brought to newscaster’s cameras flavors of feuding gangs and barbarity that we would start seeing in serieses like The Walking Dead.

Meanwhile, back home — amid the detritus of Katrina, the 2008 financial and foreclosure crisis, the ruins of Occupy — the post apocalyptic stories began to shift, leaving behind the all-in feel-good shoot ‘em ups of the 1990s, to be replaced by fantasies of revolt, like Hunger Games, or ruminations on collapse, like the past two decades of zombie movies.

Unlike in the apocalypses of the early Atomic Age, in these films the world we love doesn’t end because some greater force — including even, as in On The Beach, ourselves — reaches out and slaps us down. It ends, instead, because the nature of society is centrifugal — left ot its own devices, it flies apart. And in story after story, society collapses because, literally or figuratively, the government just fails to keep the damn lights on. Some threat like a zombie virus goes from epidemic to pandemic to cataclysmic and the whole structure comes toppling down — and in its collapse, civilization becomes easier prey for forces that, in better health, it might have withstood.

None of that was really clear in 2004, when I first saw The Day After Tomorrow. That's one reason, I think, why it feels both so eerily prescient and so utterly dated — why it's the dumbest apocalypse I just can't quit.

The second half of this essay is available to subscribers only! We'll rejoin you after the jump. Meanwhile, have some CGI wolves.

Start with the premise — Dennis Quaid plays an (inevitably) divorced paleoclimatologist, who is down in Antarctica, looking at ancient ice cores, when he stumbles on the climate equivalent of an asteroid heading for earth: a sudden collapse of the ocean circulatory systems that move heat around the planet. The result: an ice age. When? Oh, within about an hour of screen time.

Soon giant tornadoes have flattened Los Angeles and a storm the size of a continent is driving a wall of ice toward New York. As weather disasters swat aside bodies and machines like flies, Quaid and his ex-wife are plunged into a parent's worst nightmare: their son Jake Gyllenhaal is 300 miles north on a school trip to New York, where he's hiding with his classmates from the killing cold and, of course, wolves.

Naturally Quaid sets out on foot to save Jake; naturally he only get there after Jake has gotten to make out with Emmy Rossum; naturally it all works out fine for more or less everyone, except the wolves.

Reader: this is weird!  And it is weird for different reasons that I would have thought in 2004 when I saw this movie at some Cinemark Tinseltown in Plano Texas.

First, let’s talk about what’s not weird, watching it now: the weather. The Day After Tomorrow came out the year before Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, and as I suggested above, its images of wanton urban destruction under the force of terrible storms feel pretty much like the last year. They are exaggerated, obviously — but they do not feel, at this point, like “disaster movie” level exaggerations.

More than the specific events, I recognized to the feeling of confused, half-resigned whiplash that characters had towards each latest assault. Like ‘Wait, we're doing tornadoes in L.A. now? Oh, okay. Cool.’ The shock in their eyes is the grim sense of not just being behind the 8 ball, but of watching it bounce away from you downhill.

That uncanny feeling of nonlinear collapse is also why the premise of an ice age arriving next Tuesday doesn't feel quite as ridiculous as it maybe should. It underscores an understanding that is finally becoming somewhat mainstream: we don't really know what we're playing with. We don't really understand the climate system that we're pumping fossil fuel emissions into, and while our greatest minds are pretty sure the limits we've set are enough to head off disaster... they don't, precise, know.

Here’s what we can say: that complex systems sometimes catch themselves before they fall apart, and sometimes they fall and keep falling as one domino trips another, and we don't really know which we're in until we blunder outside the tolerances of our current system, and thus force it wholesale into a different state. In the movie, that means that global warming melts so much water off the Antarctica and Greenland glacier that it destabilizes the oscillating currents that convey heat around the planet — such that the Northern hemisphere suddenly, urgently freezes.

That’s outlandish, of course. But the latest round of Northeastern snow storms seems to be a perverse result of fossil fuel — driven global warming, which has weakened the polar weather systems that — in colder times — kept the killing Arctic cold trapped in a rapidly spinning vortex. Heat slows the vortex down, and as it does, that cold comes prowling down out of the frozen north, lashing all the way down into the subtropics of the continent. It’s not a glacier crunching through the city, no. But the distinction’s a bit academic when the power’s out, the roads are frozen, and the chill seeps in, in, in… .

The tidal wave that crushes New York now feels like a metaphor as well—for how similar processes can happen in civilized societies. Thirty years of siege and war took Baghdad through a state change. The city went from a relatively orderly, peaceful, and prosperous community of intercultural and cross-confessional friendships, relationships, neighborhoods — to a place where neighbors could turn on each other for being the wrong sort of Muslim.

In Yerevan, I met an ethnic Armenian from Damascus, Syria, who spoke longingly of life in that city before the Syrian Civil War, which he recalled as a heartbreakingly cosmopolitan world of parties and cafes and ideas— all gone now, and never to be rebuilt. Because the people who made that world are scattered to whatever nations  would take them, and he is locked in the sad provincial backwater of Armenia.

A country which — to bring full circle as we've written here—is about 30 years out of its own apocalypse: the great rending that tore apart the Soviet Union and, across the Caucasus, fueled a spate of ethnic cleansing and the obliteration  of multi-ethnic neighborhoods and towns on a truly Mongol scale.

This gets me to the thing I find so hopelessly endearing about the Day After Tomorrow — and the part now, that feels the most escapist: society does not fracture.

What does that mean? That ordinary people acquit themselves admirably. The kids stuck in the frozen New York Public Library keep themselves and others alive. Dennis Quaid builds a predictive model on the fly, uses it to get his son lifesaving information, and then hikes up the frozen I-95 to save him. The government largely works: it gives Dad the resources he needs and generally follows his advice. Ice sheets cross the Mason-Dixon line, but the state doesn't collapse; no looting is shown. If anyone is taking advantage of rank disorder, they’re doing so off-camera.

This is a remarkable thing to see now, as it was unremarkable then — no weirder, or less weird, than the lack of riots or alien collaborators in Emmerich’s Independence Day. (A film whose crowning soliloquy gets quoted, by the way, during a sly, referential speech in Station Eleven.)

In keeping with the film grammar of the 1990s and  early 2000s, there is a near-total absence of internal political conflict — and also, you might say, of politics itself. There is no time given for debate in the movie over whether the crisis is happening, or what the best policy is to follow. The movie takes for granted that everyone in power will, eventually, do the right thing.

One of the most poignant moments in this movie comes from this phase, before the CGI whizbang. Ian Holm, a British climatologist in Northern Scotland, feels the teeth of polar storm that will soon kill him and his colleagues. There is no escape. He calls Quaid in D.C. to deliver him the crucial findings that will allow the creation of that life-saving predictive computational model — God, that movie was ahead of its time — and delivers the news that life in the Northern hemisphere is coming to a rough and frigid end.

What, Quaid asked, can we do?

I have heard Holm’s answer in my head ever since: a kindly round faced British man, courtly, stiff upper lip. “Save as many as you can.”

I don't remember if we knew it then, but that world of calm and confidence was already dying. Day After Tomorrow ends with America dissolved and Americans throwing themselves on the mercy of South Americans — who, kindly, take us in happily, in exchange for the forgiveness of their debt balance.

How dumb and hopeful is that? Imagine, for a second, how this final conceit would get played now. It would be gritty military sci-fi, a parable of colonialism, Man in the High Castle from the Mexican point of view. "Ten years after the border war, the American settlers and the Mexicans they took over are warily watching each other." Or a role reversal fable, with poor Americanos moving with the seasons across the steaming flanks of post climate-change Mexico.

There's a shimmering prism between that dumbass, hopeful ending and the dystopias and post-apocalypses of the 2010s — a place we can't get back to, really, because that world is gone.

What died since then, I think, in the hearts of broad swaths of the American population, was the belief that everything was going to turn out all right. It died in the wreckage of the towers, at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo; amid the NASA wiretapping,  Katrina and the 2008 crash; against all the failed climate conferences and the dim, lingering hope of the Paris Climate Accords; in all the manifold systems buckling under covid. It died in a thousand daily blows, heard and forgotten, with records passed and grim markers met and exceeded — longest drought in, hottest day in, first tornado seen in, worst wildfire season in, in, in — that batter out a grim and constant tattoo if I clock them, and a bitter, anxious bile on my tongue when I don't.

An unease that I've felt a lot this winter in Austin, as we've walked around in shirt sleeves in the swampy 80-something heat, trying to pretend this was normal.

And yet I take comfort in this: something else is dying too. One of the reasons I suspect that HBO’s Station Eleven was so popular — and that it felt so fresh — is that it resolutely avoided the post-apocalyptic nihilism of the past two decades. Like the teens in Day After Tomorrow, its characters' most important struggle after The Fall, trumping even survival, is how to be good people, and live decent lives, and to touch something greater than themselves; also like those long-ago Emmerich teens, they largely succeed. Two decades after the death of the state, there is banditry and conflict, but the world is presented as largely at peace, and the fading summer of the newly bucolic Great Lakes — with its Shakespeare and folk music — has a wild, quiet beauty fresher than anything else I’ve seen on screen.

This is its own sort of ridiculous, perhaps. “So you're telling me everyone in the [Professional Managerial Class] is loving @Station11hbo and it shows that Theater Kids are the only people who survive COVID. Are you all nuts?” asks UC Irvine professor and lefty sourpuss Catherine Liu.

And yet there is something that nonetheless feels true about this vision, which isn’t nearly as soft or fluffy as the “theater kids” line suggests. In Station Eleven, art, creativity and their ability to inspire community and connection with the sublime are survival skills as surely as the ability to gather food. They are the spiritual meat and drink, the sense of focus and direction that keep society from falling into the real apocalypse of, say, The Walking Dead.

They are also, perhaps, a sign that something is changing — that as actual breakdown looms, paradoxically, society could soften; that we will leave the brittle, impotent militancy that attended the buildup of this crisis — the 24s, etc — at the door to the bottleneck we are entering; a useless artifact of a self-absorbed age.

Perhaps the post-apocalypse has such resonance in America because it tracks a particular teenage American fantasy of what it is to come into adulthood: the purely negative freedom of no responsibilities to anyone, after the oppressive state — parents, the actual government — is gone. What, it implicitly asks, will you — do humans in general — do with all that freedom?

American freedom has often been described as “negative freedom” — freedom from — and the post apocalypses of the War on Terror years embraced this vision. But Station Eleven, like The Day After Tomorrow, suggests a freedom both rosier and in its way more difficult: the freedom that comes with growing into the responsibilities of adulthood; with taking your part in the obligations to a community. The freedom that comes with responsibility to others, that keeps us all from floating away.

The freedom of knowing that the world isn't going to end.

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