The Tomorrow War is the latest sci-fi action film in which the time-travel math doesn’t quite add up (which didn’t keep me from enjoying the film, I’m just saying). Chris Pratt plays Dan Forester, an ex-military guy in 2022 who is desperate to have his life amount to something his young daughter can be proud of, even if that means being catapulted 30 years into the future to fight off an alien invasion that has depleted the earth’s population to such a degree that it probably isn’t sustainable for human life even if they do defeat the invaders. But why get lost in the details?
In 2022, Dan is a simple man—a husband to Emmy (Betty Gilpin), father to Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), and a high school science teacher whose daughter is also deeply interested in science, giving her a reason to be closer to her dad. During a holiday party at their home, Dan receives crushingly disappointing news about a research grant he’d applied for, leaving him feeling like he’ll never leave his mark on science or history. Mere seconds later, a soccer match on TV is interrupted when a group of humans appears on the field in a burst of light and smoke to announce to the world that they are from 2051 and earthlings are about to be wiped off the planet, becoming food for an alien species known as White Spikes (because they shoot what appear to be stone spikes out of their tentacles). These future soldiers have the ability to transport a seemingly endless number of people to the future to help them fight and so, they ask the planet (in 2022) for help.
Over the course of the next year, there’s a level of planetary cooperation that is almost impossible to fathom (I had a hard time believing that Americans would cooperate to the degree they seem to in the film). But eventually a worldwide draft begins, and groups of people are sent to the future for one-week tours of duty, with only about 30 percent returning alive (if not always in one piece or psychologically stable). Eventually, Dan is conscripted, is fitted with a tracking device that will make it possible for him to return if he’s still alive after a week, and is thrown in with a group of fellow recruits for basic training. There, they learn about just how deadly their enemy truly is (I love the touch where the soldiers from the future don’t have images of the aliens to show those in the present because they don’t want to freak people out any more than they already are).
Among those Dan becomes close to are Charlie (Sam Richardson, Werewolves Within), who seems to specialize in talking too much when he’s nervous and hiding instead of fighting; and Dorian (Edwin Hodge), who is about to embark on his third voluntary tour of duty. The time travel part of the mission is a bit of junk-science masterpiece, resulting in Dan’s group being dropped in from hundreds of feet above Miami, with only those lucky enough to land in a pool surviving (normally, those arriving to 2051 drop from a height of 5 or 10 feet). Pratt is called upon to wear many hats in The Tomorrow War: concerned, loving dad; affectionate husband; frustrated scientist; military leader; and your general, aw-shucks everyman, not all of which he’s entirely capable of handling convincingly. Obviously, with works like the Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World franchises under his belt, we know he can handle the charming leader stuff well enough, but some of the more emotionally driven material seems a little beyond him. Although I wouldn’t say he embarrasses himself making the effort, the film does suffer slightly because of it.
But when it comes to kicking alien ass, Pratt and company don’t do too badly. The look and particularly the sound of the White Spikes is a tad familiar to, I don’t know, 90 percent of all alien-related works of late (most of which seem to borrow heavily from Starship Troopers and/or the Alien movies in the way the creatures swarm in massive numbers but still seem to be defensible by the humans, which makes so little sense). Pratt is guided through his initial mission to rescue some research scientists from a building by a voice in his ear known initially as Romeo Command (Yvonne Strahovski), whom we later discover is actually Muri Forester, all grown up to become both a skilled scientist and natural leader, intent on not getting too close to her father for reasons we discover later.
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say that Dan’s return to the present day occurs at a heavy price, including emotional trauma on his part, being convinced he did not save Earth and with still about a third of the movie left. But he comes to realize that it’s entirely possible that the aliens, who apparently just appeared on Earth with no warning, might have been on the planet much longer than anyone realized, and he pulls together a team of familiar faces to secretly investigate a remote location in ice-covered Russia where the aliens may have been buried under thousands of years of snow and ice. To keep alive the emotional component to The Tomorrow War, Dan must reunite with his estranged father (J.K. Simmons, featuring a prominent beard that earns him the nickname “conspiracy Santa”), who has both a healthy disregard for the government and a helicopter. Together they set out to make sure the un-winnable war with the aliens never even starts.
Directed by Chris McKay (The LEGO Batman Movie and a major creative force on the Robot Chicken series), his helming this film may seem like an odd choice, but the truth is, his skill at building worlds and shooting action is impressive, especially when he also has to navigate and decipher a perhaps overly complicated screenplay by Zach Dean. With a dash of Independence Day scope and The Thing intimacy, the movie might almost have worked better in two parts instead of as this overlong, 140-minute epic. The film is another example of a recent work that I desperately would have loved to see in a theater where the sound design and massive, burning cityscapes and other environs would have sounded and looked so impressive. Still, I think The Tomorrow War hits most of its action and science fiction beats at the right frequency to recommend an evening watching it with the sound turned way up.
The film is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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