Chris McKay takes a break from playing with Lego to direct The Tomorrow War, a fully live-action movie recycling ideas from plenty of better sci-fi classics, but which overcomes lapses of logic to provide an entertaining diversion. Written by Zach Dean (Deadfall) and executive produced by the likes of David Goyer (The Dark Knight), with cinematographer Larry Fong (The Predator) behind the camera, The Tomorrow War ranks as one of the better movies Amazon Prime bought the distribution rights to, even if it’s been cruelly denied a chance at big-screen success.
Dan Forester (Chris Pratt) is a biology teacher and Iraq War veteran now raising his seven-year-old daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) with his wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin). He’s also estranged from his anti-government extremist father James (J.K Simmons), and wishing his life will someday have greater meaning and purpose. His chance comes when a platoon of soldiers materialise in the middle of a World Cup football match, announcing they come from a future where mankind’s losing a war with aliens known as ‘Whitespikes’. And due to their diminishing numbers, they’ve been sent back to conscript people from the past, who can be sent to 2051 for a seven-day tour of duty. Dan is soon amongst a batch of recruits sent into a war-torn future Miami, where his training as a soldier comes in handy once he meets his new mission controller ‘Romeo’ (Yvonne Strahovski).
The Tomorrow War starts shakily with an in media res opening and a laughable sequence where the world watches troops arrive through a portal and immediately tell an insane story while somehow mic’d for the stadium and TV cameras. The story also glosses over the plausibility of every country in the world coming together to help, as it doesn’t seem like human nature to do something like that without an imminent threat. Hey, maybe Kyle Reece should’ve just beamed into a Super Bowl game during half-time in The Terminator (1984), to give a good speech!? And do these time-travellers offer proof of what they say, beyond an admittedly difficult to explain entrance?
Once the premise has been swallowed despite the misgivings, things soon become more interesting. The first act is awkwardly handled in some ways, but that does create a rich atmosphere of confusion and fear of the unknown; primarily because specifics about what happens when you’re drafted and what these aliens even look like, are kept secret from everyone in the past. It’s actually rather frightening when Dan’s put through basic training (which turns out to be a nonsense), so the feeling that hundreds of ordinary folk are just being flung into the future as cannon fodder creates a genuine sense of unease. And then, in 2051, the real fun begins with a smattering of excellent action sequences and, of course, the obligatory time-travel shenanigans baked into a few relationships.
The downside of The Tomorrow War is that it wears its obvious influences on its sleeve. The creature design is fantastic (a giant albino flea-dragons with tentacles?), but they evoke a quadraped Alien (1979)—not helped by the existence of a larger, nastier ‘Queen’. The film also brought to mind movies like Edge of Tomorrow (2014) for its kinetic action style, Starship Troopers (1997) for its handling of mass CGI ‘bug attacks’, and everything in-between. I even got a whiff of Army of the Dead (2021) during the Miami bombing raid sequence, rather strangely, perhaps because Larry Fong has shot most of Zack Snyder’s films. Just seeing city-wide mayhem with greater depth of field felt like a treat after that disappointing zombie movie.
Chris Pratt’s been trying to make a go of being a legitimate movie star outside of Marvel and the Jurassic World (2015) trilogy for years now, and this is his best effort yet. It’s not hugely demanding of him as an actor, but he gets to reign in the snark and deliver more of a traditional ’90s action-hero performance. And it’s mixed in with moments of emotion and familial drama that worked for me. It certainly helps that Yvonne Strahovski, who plays opposite him for the longest time, makes for a strong co-star (who herself deserves a breakout film role after impressing on TV for years with Chuck and The Handmaid’s Tale). This probably won’t be her ticket to the big-time, certainly now The Tomorrow War’s been tarred with the ‘Amazon Original’ brush, but here’s hoping she gets a role that levels her up soon.
For those well-versed in time-travel theory, a lot of The Tomorrow War will cause a headache if you try to rationalise its spotty logic. Why is a future army drafting people who would otherwise die within a decade, with no thought to the impacts they’d ave in many other ways if plucked out of the timeline and potentially die in the future? Wouldn’t it make more sense to draft people as and when they’re unwittingly living their last day on Earth? That’s an easy script fix. And it’s maddeningly whenever Dan says things that make it clear he thinks changing the past wouldn’t instantly alter the future, as he intends to go back to the future having saved the world in the past. One could say it’s refreshing to have a character who doesn’t understand temporal mechanics, but I’m going to assume the screenwriter is to blame and nobody else understood the illogic of Dan’s plan.
There are other such things to pick out and chew on, if one so chooses, but luckily The Tomorrow War makes it clear we’re mostly here to see people machine gun aliens and fly helicopters to Waterworld (1995)-style ocean atolls. What also gives the film added quality is that it doesn’t forget about the characters, by making us care for them amidst the carnage and VFX. And that’s not always a given in today’s blockbusters, where premise and visuals often trumps everything. Dan’s likeable squad of conscripts are loosely sketched but effectively portrayed, from naive Charlie (Sam Richardson) to military veteran Dorian (Edwin Hodge), and there’s some Interstellar (2014)-style heartrending drama along the way too.
While this doesn’t offer anything particularly new, The Tomorrow War is the sort of silly blockbuster we used to get in the ’90s. It’s fun to watch, looks great on screen, and is full of good actors helping to make you forget how stupid everything is just beneath the surface. But then again, sometimes you need an unpretentious sci-fi movie that just wants to get Chris Pratt into a fist-fight with a giant bug.
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USA | 2021 | 140 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Chris McKay.
writer: Zach Dean.
starring: Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, J.K Simmons, Sam Richardson, Edwin Hodge, Jasmine Mathews, Ryan Kiera Armstrong & Keith Powers.