Day After Tomorrow

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Hollywood cinema and climate change: The Day After Tomorrow.

Ingram, David. In Words on Water: Literary and Cultural Representations, Devine, Maureen and Christa Grewe-Volpp (eds.) (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2008).

Climate change, like many other environmental problems, is slow to develop, not amenable to simple or fast solutions, and caused by factors that are both invisible and complex (Adam 17). Making a narrative film about climate change therefore does not fit easily into the commercial formulae of mainstream Hollywood, which favour human-interest stories in which individual protagonists undergo a moral transformation before they resolve their problems through heroic action in the final act. Can such classical narratives mediate an issue as complex as climate change without being not only inadequate, but even dangerous, lulling their audience into a false sense of security about our ability to deal with such problems? Ecocritic Richard Kerridge observes that a British journalist responded to the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986 by framing it within the familiar narrative of the Second World War, with its emphasis on 'a successful outcome and a narrative closure'. For Kerridge, such narrative strategies may be an overly reassuring way of representing environmental threats, and reveal therefore that the 'real, material ecological crisis' is 'also a cultural crisis, a crisis of representation' (Kerridge 4). Yet, as Jim Collins argues, 'mass-mediated cultures', including those of popular Hollywood cinema, are characterised by 'semiotic complexities of meaning production', which leave even popular, generic texts open to multiple interpretations (Collins 17). Film theorist Stephen Prince describes a Hollywood movie as a 'polysemous, multivalent set of images, characters, and narrative situations', which therefore constitute what he calls an 'ideological agglomeration', rather than a single, coherent ideological position (Prince 40). This polysemy may arise from the Hollywood industry's commercial intention to maximize profits by appealing to as wide and diverse an audience as possible by making movies which, ideologically speaking, seek to have it all ways at once. One consequence is that, when we theorize about the effects popular movies may or may not have on public awareness of environmental issues, those effects are more complex, and less deterministic, than is often assumed is some academic film theories. This essay will explore the range of meanings generated by The Day After Tomorrow (2004), which frames the issue of anthropogenic climate change within the familiar genres of the disaster and science fiction movie. Ideological analysis of the film, combined with a study of its audience reception, suggests that even a classical Hollywood narrative can generate a degree of ideological ambiguity which makes it open to various interpretations, both liberal and conservative. The ideological ambiguity of The Day After Tomorrow derives in part from the way its narrative mixes the modes of realism, fantasy and melodrama. A realist film will attempt to correspond to what we understand as reality, mainly through the optical realism of its mise-en-scene and the sense of psychological plausibility produced by both its script and the performance of its actors. Melodrama, on the other hand, will simplify character and heighten action and emotion beyond the everyday. Hollywood movies tend to work by moving between these two modes of representation. Some genres, such as science fiction and horror, also move between realism and fantasy, a mode which exceeds realist plausibility by creating a totally fictive and impossible diegetic world. As a science fiction movie, then, The Day After Tomorrow deliberately blurs the distinction between realism and fantasy. The narrative begins from a scientifically plausible premise: the melting of the Artic ice-cap, caused by anthropogenic...
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