An American paleoclimatologist named Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid), together with Frank Harris (Jay O. Sanders) and Jason Evans (Dash Mihok) are drilling for ice-core samples on the Larsen iceshelf, when the shelf suddenly splits. At a UN conference in New Delhi, Jack shows that climate change could cause an ice-age, but the American vice-president Raymond Becker (Kenneth Walsh) is dismissive. Professor Terry Rapson (Ian Holm), oceanographer at the Hedland Centre in Scotland, agrees with Jack. Buoys in the Atlantic Ocean detect a drop in ocean temperature. Rapson and Jack, and NASA meteorologist Janet Tokada (Tamlyn Tomita) build a model, but Becker refuses to see it.
A massive storm system appears over the northern hemisphere, splitting into three gigantic superstorms over Canada, Scotland, and Siberia. They pull down frozen air from the upper troposphere, flash-freezing everything below. A new ice-age is coming. It is 150 degrees below freezing. Tokyo is devastated by a giant hailstorm, helicopters evacuating the Royal Family from Balmoral crash, and Los Angeles is struck by tornados. Imagine that: tornadoes where none have been before. President Blake (Perry King) grounds all air-traffic, too late for some planes.
In New York City, Jack’s son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), along with his friends Brian Parks (Ajay Smith) and Laura Chapman (Emmy Rossum), are attending an academic decathlon, when they meet rich kid J.D. (Austin Nichols). New York is caught in a storm that floods the streets, and a tsunami inundates the city. They take shelter in the New York Public Library. Laura cuts her leg. Cellphones are down. On a payphone (What’s that?), Sam contacts his father Jack and his mother Lucy (Sela Ward). Jack says he’s coming for him. In Scotland, Rapson and his team perish. Lucy stays in the hospital, carrying for children until they are rescued.
The Southern States are evacuated to Mexico after the Mexican government is bribed to open the border. The northern half of the country is told to shelter in place and keep warm. Thanks! All the Canadians die. Sorry! Blake dies in his motorcade and Becker becomes President. Jack, Jason, and Frank struggle to get to New York. In Pennsylvania, Frank sacrifices himself for the others. Some in the library head south and freeze solid on the way. A few remain in the library, keeping warm by burning books, starting with law-books.
Laura develops blood poisoning. Sam, Brian, and J.D. break into a Russian cargo vessel stuck in the frozen streets to look for penicillin and barely escape a pack of wolves.
Manhattan freezes solid, but the team make it inside just in time. Eventually, the superstorms dissipate, and Jack and Jason find Sam’s group still alive. President Becker apologizes for his ignorance on the Weather Channel, toasty warm in Mexico, as astronauts on the Space Station look down on a frozen Earth and marvel at how clean the sky looks.
The film was directed, co-produced, and co-written by Roland Emmerich, who took the crown of disaster movies from Irwin Allen, based on the 1999 book The Coming Global Superstorm by Art Bell and Whitley Strieber. It was filmed in Toronto and Montreal and was the highest grossing Hollywood film made in Canada, which has still not frozen to death. It received mixed reviews. As usual in these cases, the special effects were praised, and the scientific inaccuracies laughed at. There were 416 special effects shots, notably by ILM and Digital Domain. Roger Ebert called it profoundly silly but gave it three out of four stars anyway.
Scientists were grateful that climate change was finally being addressed but derided the actual science in the movie. For the record, tsunamis of that size do not exist, and they would not flood the streets, but knock down the buildings. And people would not be frozen solid that quickly by super-cooled air. Basically, the movie takes climate crises that would take decades or centuries to develop and have them take minutes or hours. Though it seems that even the scientists didn’t know just how quickly the climate was going to hell. Frankly, it’s kind of depressing to see an end-of-the-world flick and realize that the first half-hour has already happened.
The dying scientists in Scotland toasted the end of the world with my favorite Scotch—Balvenie Doublewood 12-year-old single malt. When Emmy Rossum met Jake Gyllenhaal, she gave him a big French kiss. He did not denounce her on the Internet. The studio had doubts about releasing a movie about a major disaster hitting New York so soon after 9-11, but audiences whooped with delight when the city was hit by a tidal wave. I love New York. The production, incidentally, was carbon neutral. Emmerich admitted that the President looked like Dick Cheney on purpose, because he and Bush were in opposition to the Kyoto Protocol. When the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters were filmed for the rescue at the end, Montrealers were assured that the U.S. was not invading Canada.