During the week that The Day After Tomorrow opened in our cinemas, anyone watching television could have been forgiven for thinking that the end of the world was permanently nigh. In a plethora of documentaries, old movies, graphic recreations, and breathless scientific speculation, we were confronted with global warming, earthquakes, typhoons, comets, asteroids, and assorted other threats to humanity. It was just like watching one long disaster movie.

To connoisseurs of celluloid cataclysm, that was not entirely unwelcome. It is now some 30 years since the last big cycle of disaster movies, and while the likes of Armageddon and Deep Impact (both 1998) failed to match Krakatoa, East of Java (1969), Earthquake (1974) or The Towering Inferno (1974) for the sheer verve with which destruction is wrought and lives lost, The Day After Tomorrow certainly does its best. Aided by some magnificent effects work, it wipes out much of the population of the northern hemisphere. It also tries (and fails) to resurrect the classic disaster movie format.

Typically, these movies worked by introducing us to a wide range of character types, played, where budget and career desperation permitted, by an equally diverse array of current and former stars. The Towering Inferno is a fine example, giving us Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, and, rescuing the tabby cat, no less, OJ Simpson. Once we are familiar with these characters, with their foibles and ill–concealed secrets, the special effects can be unleashed on them and their virtues and failings allowed to emerge in the face of catastrophe. At its best — and The Towering Inferno is about as good as it gets — this can be hugely enjoyable. There is something peculiarly gratifying, almost Homeric, about seeing simple character types play out their pre–destined roles, traits of heroism or villainy brought to the fore by uncontrollable events.

Necessarily, then, these stories have to take place in a manichean universe, the constant battle between good and evil framing the characters' attempts to deal with their various plights. Heroes may exhibit human failings, just as long as they come through in the end. Paul Newman's architect and William Holden's industrialist in The Towering Inferno, responsible in varying degrees for the disaster, are redeemed by selflessness in the course of their battle for survival. Even the morally compromised may elicit sympathy, but only if appropriate retribution is then visited upon them — the adulterous pair who burn to death in the office in which they had arranged their assignation. And the downright bad — Richard Chamberlain cast splendidly against type — must be destroyed at full melodramatic pitch. He tumbles from a laden chairlift having ruthlessly jumped the queue for this doomed ride to safety.

All this was great fun at the time, though somewhat compromised by the fact that, in the end, most of the 1970s disaster movies were predicated on the need for strong leadership. There is a level at which these films are patriarchal wish–fulfilment fantasies, in which our troubles are resolved by a trustworthy father–figure. Perhaps that wasn't surprising in a USA marked by a recent history of political assassinations, dishonest presidents, and an unpopular and costly war. Who would not be tempted in such circumstances to hand over responsibility to a comforting father? Ronald Reagan may not have played in any of the period's disaster movies, but in 1980 he certainly inherited their political legacy.

The Day After Tomorrow, interestingly, is still peddling much the same doctrine. Its principal storyline requires the neglectful patriarch to redeem himself: a scientist, Jack Hall, who has sacrificed his family to his work, struggles across a devastated USA to rescue his son who is holed up with a group of survivors in frozen New York.

Unfortunately, Roland Emmerich's capacity to portray personal relationships does not match his skill with tidal waves and instant ice–ages. When father and son are finally reunited, and the camera cuts from one winsomely smiling face to another, the scene is so crassly sentimental as to make OJ and the cat seem like social realism. It is reminiscent of nothing so much as the marvellous parody of just such sentimentality in Airplane! (1980) when the entire assembly of passengers don fixed smiles like so many plastic face–masks.

Nor is Hall the only patriarch redeemed in this dumb movie. Worse still is the US vice–president, who ignores warnings of global cataclysm only finally to see the light. Even allowing that he is not the most subtle of film–makers, it seems extraordinary that Emmerich should consider himself to be mounting a critique of the American government's environmental policies, yet allow redemption to this mediocre and politically compromised figure. But then again, in a world order dominated by George W Bush, perhaps it is still just like the 1970s: we suffer the movie apocalypses that our politicians deserve.

Andrew Tudor lectures at York University