The Tomorrow War (2021)
The fight for tomorrow begins today.
There is a question that hangs heavy over The Tomorrow War. It’s not “What do these people from the future really want?” although that would have been an interesting avenue of inquiry if the film had taken a different track. It’s not “Where do these ravening aliens come from?” although that question drives the plot, at least for the back third or so. No, it’s “Why is this fucking thing almost two and a half hours long?”
For real, at a tight (well, tighter) 110 minutes or thereabouts, The Tomorrow War would be a serviceable, if somewhat generic military sci-fi actioner that does the job it sets out to do efficiently if without much flair. And there’s an audience that looks at the film in its actual released form and sees that — I’ve seen ‘em on Twitter. From where I’m standing, however, The Tomorrow War is flabby, turgid, and muddled. There are moments that rock and elements that intrigue, but the former lose their impact through repetition (this movie well and truly proves that “more” is not a synonym of “better”) while the latter get lost in a lot of … well, just a lot of stuff.
But first, let’s meet our hero, high school science teacher, and former Green Beret (of course) Dan Forester (Chris Pratt), who’s in a bit of a rut career-wise. Still, at least he has a loving wife, Emmy (an underutilized Betty Gilpin), and cute daughter, Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), although he’s alienated from his father, James (J.K. Simmons), who’s a bit of a Ruby Ridge-ish anti-government survival nut.
Dan’s personal problems take a backseat, though, when a platoon of time-travelers appear during the 2022 World Cup (!) and announce that, 30-ish years in the future, all of humanity is on the brink of extinction due to an invasion by aliens called Whitespikes (if they explained why, I missed it), and they’re here to start recruiting past people to help fight the war in the future. This is, at least as portrayed in the film, accepted more or less at face value (lord knows how), but when the world’s militaries are absolutely decimated, a global draft is instituted to keep throwing people into the meat grinder. Cut to a year later, and while protests against the draft are on the rise, Dan’s number comes up, and he’s off to the war in 2051 (or possibly 2052, as the clock in San Dimas is always ticking, as the film takes a moment to explain).
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But the film takes a long time to get there, and even when we do get to the man vs. alien action, even that goes on forever. I firmly believe that you could lose 30 minutes out of The Tomorrow War and not lose a single scene or possibly even a line of dialogue. It’s just so ponderous and heavy-handed. It’s amazing to me that this is the live-action directorial debut of Chris McKay, who directed The LEGO Batman Movie (2017), whose animated work is so deft and dexterous, but whose voice here is lost in a lot of soap opera-level emoting and uninspired, cacophonous action. The script by Zach Dean (his 24 Hours to Live is a lot of fun) has its issues, but nothing fatal as written, if not necessarily as read. I have to wonder who had final cut on this and what drove their choices because to me, it seems there’s been no restraint at all — everything has gone in, or at least very little has been jettisoned to make a leaner, more propulsive film. I’m at a loss as to exactly how — or why — you can make a military sci-fi alien invasion/time travel movie tedious, but by God, they’ve managed to pull it off.
Spoilers ahead, if I’m going to be able to talk about what works and what doesn’t.
I’ll say this for nothing, though, and perhaps it’s just a personal bugbear, but I am sorely tired of “faceless horde” villains, especially aliens. Ironically, we can probably blame Aliens (1986), which turned Ridley Scott’s singular biomechanical menace into a horde of horrors and has since had so many films follow suit. There’s this, there’s 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow (the other time travel/alien invasion flick), A Quiet Place (2018), even the robots of Oblivion (2013). The Whitespikes are a remarkably generic example of the type, and their physical design is awkward and unimpressive to boot. We need to step up our extra-terrestrial invader game and start coming up with conquerors with some personality, some kind of goal beyond mindless consumption and expansion, some kind of agenda.
Here, the shootable villains essentially provide a background for Dan’s personal journey, which is handled … not at all well. In the future, he learns that at some point in the past, he left his family, an event that is in no way set up by the behaviors we’ve seen him display and the choices we’ve seen him make so far (he also learns he’s dead by 2051; all the draftees are, which is interesting but unexplored — we’ll come back to this). He learns this from his now-grown daughter, who is now a) Colonel Muri Forester, Dan’s commanding officer, and b) played by Yvonne Strahovski.
Strahovski, who has been great for years now (clock Chuck for light fun, The Handmaid’s Tale for the exact opposite of that), brings a lot to the film’s overwrought emotional scenes. Pratt … does not. Pratt’s a great performer in an ensemble (Parks and Recreation, the Marvel flicks, even 2016’s The Magnificent Seven), but we might have to make peace with the idea that he can’t carry a film, especially one that requires something like tangible, recognizable emotional stakes. Those stakes help a lot; compare Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), where he’s able to anchor the ensemble largely due to James Gunn’s excellent understanding of the film’s themes of fatherhood and abandonment, and here, where he is front and center but underserved by the material. It’s simply hard to believe that Dan, a man struggling with his own parental abandonment issues, would cut and run on his own family, and the explanation offered by The Tomorrow War is simply not enough for audience buy-in. We need to see it, and we need to feel it so that we can be fully engaged with Dan’s emotional journey and the ultimate resolution of his story.
And is it me, or is The Tomorrow War low key conservative? Not raging Trumpet nonsense, but more along the lines of John Milius’ libertarian cod-philosophical Iron John stuff, without the fun sturm und drang. It very much venerates the nuclear family unit, and the whole narrative spins around the idea that a man’s first and most important duty is to (and as the head of) his family, and that’s certainly A Take in the much more diverse world of 2021, but what I find really interesting is that the draft, which has a monstrous body count, is largely unquestioned — it’s seen as a necessary system, and while they do show protests, no characters of consequence have much to say against it. Given where we wind up narratively, it is absolutely endorsed by the text of the film. That cool moment when Dan and his fellow recruit/sidekick Charlie (Sam Richardson) figure out that all draftees are chosen in part because, from the point of view of the future, they are going to die before 2051, ostensibly to prevent some kind of time paradox? That could just about be seen as a condemnation of the draft, a kind of “don’t mourn me, I’m already dead” take on the practice. But if it is, it falls well short of the satire of militarism and fascism in, say, Starship Troopers (1997) and like I said, a criticism is undone by the actual narrative path the film follows.
So, is it all about the grim glory of service to the state? Stepping up to the plate when your country calls (for all that this is a global event, it’s an American story, you betcha)? Well, no, because for the final, much-delayed climax, Dan and the gang go off-book to take out the Whitespike menace once and for all, undercutting but not actually challenging all that has gone before. It’s confused, is what it is; it’s a film that doesn’t know what it’s about and takes in great big fistfuls of story and subtext and mashes ‘em together, and while some of it kind of works in discrete scenes and sequences, as a whole piece does not pay off.
The Tomorrow War doesn’t even fail in interesting ways — it’s just tepid, reheated, generic sci-fi action that scatters a handful of interesting ideas and possibilities into a thick soup of well-worn genre tropes, where their flavors are quickly lost. It’s not a terrible film, per se, but it’s an eminently forgettable one and offers minimal returns on your invested time. Find something better.
2 / 5 – Average
Reviewed by Travis Johnson