When it comes to the new film “The Tomorrow War” you could waste a lot of time pointing out its flaws or picking apart the science. But that would be far more boring than the actual movie itself. Following some fairly mediocre promotion, I didn’t have high hopes for this sci-fi action blockbuster. But to my surprise “The Tomorrow War” is pure popcorn entertainment that delivers. It’s fun, energetic, and a visual feast that left me wishing I could have seen it on the big screen.
Originally slated as Paramount Pictures’ big budget 2020 Christmas Day release, “The Tomorrow War” was delayed due to COVID-19 and then shuffled around on their release schedule before eventually being sold to Amazon Studios. In a way the film highlights both the strengths and frustrations with the potential “streaming future”. By dropping it on Prime streaming, Amazon saved it from oblivion and gave their subscribers quick and easy access to it. At the same time this is a movie clearly made for the big screen and not having that option robbed viewers of that experience.
“The Tomorrow War” is the first live-action feature for director Chris McKay whose previous film credit was helming “The LEGO Batman Movie”. Here he’s working from a screenplay by Zach Dean that borrows from countless other sci-fi movie concepts and puts them all together in a filling, check-your-brain-at-the-door stew. The ever likable Chris Pratt puts on his best regular-guy charm and earnestness to play a cardigan-wearing high school biology teacher named Dan Forester. He has a loving wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin) and a 9-year-old sweetheart of a daughter daughter Muri (Ryan Keira Armstrong). But since leaving the military where he ran combat missions during his two tours in Iraq, the seemingly happy Dan has struggled to find his purpose.
Quite literally everything changes when a misty, crackling portal opens up on the field of a globally televised soccer match. Out of it walks a handful of super-serious soldiers from 28 years in the future who plead with the present day world to help them fight a war that humanity is losing. Their arrival sends the globe scrambling to help stave off human extinction. In the future war humanity is on its heels and has taken catastrophic losses. In an act of desperation, scientists from 2051 develop a shaky time travel tech in hopes of recruiting and bringing back soldiers and researchers from the past to help defeat the alien invaders.
Obviously a lot of questions pop up with the introduction of time travel into the story. Most notably, why not just travel to the time the aliens arrive and meet them head-on? For the most part McKay and Dean answer them all by stressing the technology’s unreliability and limitations. The scientists are able to jump people back-and-forth from these two set points on the timeline but not without some potentially deadly risks. Still have questions? Don’t worry, things happen later in the movie that plug a few more holes. It doesn’t all fit together seamlessly, but easily enough to get by.
Before long a world-wide draft is instituted and civilians including Dan are called to duty. It doesn’t sound bad at first with the news that deployments only last seven days. But the mood changes a bit when they’re informed the survival rate is less than 20%. Dan hits it off with a fellow draftee named Charlie, a chatty scientist full of nervous energy. He’s played by a terrific Sam Richardson who provides some perfectly modulated comic relief. With practically no training the ragtag group of ‘soldiers’ are sent to war-ravaged Miami Beach in 2051. But a fatal malfunction in the time jump forces Dan to lead what’s left of his unit. He’s contacted by a hardened Colonel (Yvonne Strahovski) who begins walking him through their mission. But Dan and his team quickly learn that it won’t be easy, especially after getting their first look at the alien threat.
The creatures are designed by Ken Barthelmey and have small resemblances to the Xenomorphs in “Aliens”, the Arachnids in “Starship Troopers”, and even the alien monsters in “A Quiet Place”. But Barthelmey’s creatures are distinctly his own. They’re labeled White Spikes because of their milky colored exterior and the piercing bone-like spikes they shoot from their flailing tentacles. They’re ferocious, terrifying, and sometimes attack in overwhelming packs (think the zombies in “World War Z”). They bring an palpable level of tension the film really needs.
While the story builds itself around a cool and interesting concept, it’s the sheer action spectacle that stays with you. This movie really is a sight to behold from its pulsating man-versus-alien combat to some truly exhilarating set pieces. I was also caught off guard by its sprawling epic scale. McKay, cinematographer Larry Fong, and the busy digital effects team put together one visually impressive scene after another and you can see the bulk of the film’s hefty budget on the screen.
The story has its moments too in large part thanks to the performances. Pratt is just naturally down-to-earth and amusing which is very much his character here. He also has some good and crafty chemistry with both Armstrong and Strahovski. We even get the always welcomed J.K. Simmons playing Dan’s father, an off-the-radar Vietnam vet with a intense distrust of the federal government. There are some pretty deep daddy issues there that don’t get the full attention they deserve, but Simmons is terrific as always.
Still the storytelling isn’t without flaws. There are some cool revelations in the final act, but the entire setup to it is just too far-fetched even for a movie about humans traveling to the future to fight a war with aliens. And while fun, the movie is unquestionably familiar, especially in its ultimate execution. You can guess how things are going to turn out almost to the detail. But put those knocks aside. I had a blast with “The Tomorrow War” and it was just the kind of movie I needed right now. And in a tender way it has a moving message for us fathers – spend your time on what’s most important. Because your greatest purpose in life may be those sweet little eyes adoringly looking up at their daddy. “The Tomorrow War” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.