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Stormy Weather 

“The Day After Tomorrow” puts America in the deep freeze.

The film opens with a foreboding barrage of meteorological mischief. Ice shelves crack. Tokyo is hit by hailstones as big as chuck roasts. And in a spectacular set piece, Los Angeles is razed by a dozen monster tornadoes.

Back in D.C., paleometeorologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) announces what many in the audience will already have surmised: “I think we’ve hit a critical desalinization point.” This powerful argument, however, can’t prod an indifferent vice president (Kenneth Welsh) into action, or stop Jack’s teenage son (Jake Gyllenhaal) from taking a field trip to New York. Hall’s ex-wife (Sela Ward) is none too impressed, either. But when a tidal wave swallows Manhattan and a deep freeze descends on the planet, Jack is the go-to guy. Although he at last has the ear of the mighty, he dons arctic gear and heads north to be with his boy, who is holed up in the New York Public Library. What good Hall thinks he can do there is a mystery as deep as next week’s weather forecast.

In disaster movies, it’s de rigueur to spice the featured calamity with a little social satire. Here, very briefly, the script shines. Like “The Poseidon Adventure,” “The Day After Tomorrow” portrays a world turned upside down, and its wittiest moments come when the geopolitical tables get turned and the torrid zones can exact a measure of revenge for centuries of oppression. As gringos in the thousands attempt to sneak into Mexico, the president publicly coos about the nobility of our neighbors to the south, who for once hold all the cards.

Elsewhere, wicker chair backs are fashioned into snowshoes, books become fuel for fire, and human drama serves as flimsy connective tissue between engrossing episodes of computer-generated devastation. The imminent dissolution of civilization can’t keep Jack’s son from mooning over the queen of the College Bowl set (Emmy Rossum), or his parents from rehashing the run-up to their possibly premature divorce. Will their love rekindle in those sultry Mexican refugee camps? These and like questions are jumbled together with all the skill of a toddler wielding a sheet of stickers.

Creepily in the background, but entirely unmentioned, are the events of September 2001. As floods of paper waft down from demolished skyscrapers and air traffic is shut down across the nation, the characters seem to suffer from collective amnesia — none of this reminds them of anything. As if carrying out the whims of our enemies, the weather reserves the full force of its fury for seats of media, finance and government. Here is one product of American culture that could make the caves of Afghanistan ring with approval.

At the advance screening I attended, a raucous emcee tried to warm up the crowd by asking rhetorically, “Who doesn’t want to see New York wiped off the face of the earth?” Two years ago that question would have been greeted by stunned silence or even hisses, but it sent those around me into spasms of glee. New York, it would appear, has spent down the vast reserves of good will lavished upon it in the wake of 9-11. Although “The Day After Tomorrow” prophesies that chaos lies just around the corner, its real message may be that things have gotten back to normal. **1/2 S

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