What’s new, folks? When summer saunters in, so does its posse of big and loud blockbusters—one of which this year is The Tomorrow War, the action sci-fi flick that Amazon Prime began streaming on July 2. Skydance Media and Paramount Studios originally had it set for a theatrical release, but the pandemic eventually forced them to sell it off for $200 million to Amazon—a Big Tech company that hasn’t been timid about acquiring massive properties for its streaming service, such as Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Coming 2 America, and Without Remorse. Directed by Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie) and written by Zach Dean (Deadfall), The Tomorrow War centers around the eponymous warfare that humanity is waging against an alien invasion in the year 2051. Our future society has decided to up their game by resorting to time travel and conscripting soldiers and citizens from thirty years in the past, one of them being ex-military high school biology teacher Dan Forester (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World).
Imagine taking an action movie, a comedy, a creature horror piece, a family drama, and a time travel movie, then stitching them all together into a tonally wishy-washy potpourri. That’s The Tomorrow War in a nutshell. Now, I do enjoy most of the genres with which it plays. When it’s action, it keeps me rapt. When it’s comedy, it accomplishes this largely through Sam Richardson (Werewolves Within), who delivers hilarious quips as fellow draftee Charlie. It’s unfortunate that the movie underutilizes him. It also doesn’t give J.K. Simmons (Counterpart) a ton to do as Forester’s estranged veteran father James, but he gets to flex his comedic (as well as physical—holy crap, he’s shredded in this) muscles a bit. When it’s horror, it succeeds at ramping up the fear as the soldiers strive to evade and outsmart the Whitespikes: what they’ve come to call the white four-legged beasts that make clicking noises and use a pair of tentacles to fire their titular spikes. When it’s family drama, that’s where the movie struggles, especially as it begs you to sob like Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar—a film that, in my personal opinion, handled its own family drama much more convincingly. When it’s time travel, it’s fine, but it doesn’t subvert any tropes. Everything is pretty formulaic here, and the time travel itself comes off like a leftover in the overwrought third act. Honestly, if this part had been trimmed off and the movie were half an hour shorter, my windup score would have increased by ten or twenty points.
Any time travel story will inevitably cross into far-fetched territory at one point or another, but there were some logical lapses in the script that bugged the hell out of me. Why is Present-Day Humanity so quick to believe Future Humanity’s alien invasion claims? I guarantee you that wouldn’t have happened in real life. The world governments would have engaged in some lengthy and bureaucratic debates to verify the authenticity of this story. Even then, they might have gone, “You know what, I think we’ll just stay here in the present and ward off these so-called aliens with nuclear arms.” Why does Future Humanity refuse to educate their draftees about the aliens, going so far as to never show them any pictures? The movie tells us they’re so frightening that the draftees would back out of the war, but come on, they need proper instruction if they’re going to learn how to fight the enemy. If I were going into this fight, I’d rather overcome my terror during training rather than confront it in the heat of spike-ridden battle. Other plot holes and idiotic character choices burden the script, too.
This is the first time in three years that Pratt has secured star billing in a live-action movie—the last one being Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018), after which he took up a supporting part in The Kid, a 2019 Western flick directed by Vincent D’Onofrio and starring Ethan Hawke and Dane DeHaan, and lent his voice to the animated movies The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (2019) and Onward (2020). In The Tomorrow War, he carries an Everyman charisma that makes him watchable as both an action star and a family man in the role of Forester. When he’s attempting to be a scientist, though, I find it difficult to believe him. It’s not as jarring as Mark Wahlberg trying to convince audiences that he really is a scientist in The Happening, but it’s noticeable enough. I don’t know if I’d necessarily want to replace Pratt, but it does leave me wondering what an actor with a greater magnetic presence could have brought. Michael B. Jordan, Ana de Armas, and Chris Pine are my top picks, but the movie could have also bumped up Yvonne Strahovski (The Handmaid’s Tale), who plays a scientist from the future, to the lead role.
The supporting cast gives generally solid performances, making the most out of the meager material and/or screentime they’re given. Aside from Strahovski and Richardson, there’s also Betty Gilpin (Netflix’s GLOW) as Forester’s wife Emmy, Edwin Hodge (The Purge) as hardened draftee Dorian, Seychelle Gabriel (The Legend of Korra) as Sgt. Diaz, Mary Lynn Rajskub (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) as draftee Norah, and Mike Mitchell (Netflix’s Love) as draftee Cowan.
I like the creature design for the Whitespikes, though I wish it could have been a little more creative. The CGI is also decent for the majority of the movie, but then it suffers a steep quality drop in the third act during a climactic Whitespike brawl. You’d hope the movie could have prevented shots of the scene from looking like they came out of a video game, but nope. As for Lorne Balfe’s score (Penguins Of Madagascar, The Lego Batman Movie, Mission Impossible: Fallout, BBC’s His Dark Materials, and, most recently, MCU’s Black Widow), it is a middling piece of work that makes me wish Ludwig Göransson or Hans Zimmer could have touched up the flick with their own compositional magic.
As a science devotee myself, I would have been okay with the heavy-handed delivery of the pro-science message if it had navigated substantial material. The movie, for a moment, even seems to hint at commentary on climate change in the third, but then it basically goes, “Climate change? Eh, who gives a moldy turnip?” On top of that, the science theme clashes with the narrative’s disturbingly pro-military slant. It’s like The Tomorrow War looked over at Starship Troopersfor inspiration and forgot to imitate the satire. It’s a missed opportunity, considering McKay’s satirical experience from working on Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken as well as The Lego Batman Movie. On a side note, McKay is attached to an upcoming Nightwing movie and a live-action adaptation of Jonny Quest. He was also going to direct a sequel to The Lego Batman Movie, but Warner Bros. didn’t want to share its Lego film IP with Universal Studios after the latter acquired the rights to the franchise, resulting in the sequel’s cancellation.
A sequel to The Tomorrow War is already in development, with McKay returning as director and Dean as screenwriter. Pratt, Strahovski, Richardson, Hodge, Simmons, and Gilpin will reprise their roles. Believe it or not, I’m up for it. Sure, The Tomorrow War is a dumb, messy, and paint-by-numbers Hollywood contraption that brazenly steals from Edge of Tomorrow, the Alien series, Starship Troopers, and A Quiet Place. It certainly won’t ever gain the beloved reputation of any of its sources of inspiration. It could have, though, if it were built upon a much smarter script. I bet it will be the same situation for the sequel, what with Dean returning to write it. That being said, parts of The Tomorrow War were fun enough for me as long as I ensure that my brain has been clicked off. This would have been nice to see in theaters. Hell, I might rewatch it in the future. I just wish it could have strived for much higher levels of quality and imagination.
Stay healthy and stay strong.
Windup score: 48/100