There are two types of people in this world: Those who will see a film like The Tomorrow War (now out on Amazon Prime Video) and run for the hills, screaming, “Dear God! The stupid! It burns!” Then there are those who will see a film like The Tomorrow War, in all its idiotic glory, and give little yelps of joy. I sometimes fancy myself more the first type of person, but who am I kidding? I took one look at The Tomorrow War’s dopey premise and knew I was all in. The tree of cinema must be refreshed from time to time with the popcorn-scented manna of movie stars traveling through time to fight aliens.
Is Chris Pratt a movie star, though? He’s certainly done well with both his Marvel and Jurassic World outings, whatever we may think of the films themselves. But there has been a disconnect: Even as he’s fashioned himself over the years into a wisecracking, low-rent Harrison Ford type, as an actor Pratt tends to give off a more earnest and relatable dim-bulb vibe. He’s not a sly, above-it-all jokester. There’s a certain struggling-with-basic-concepts quality to the way he furrows that brow, an I’m-not-sure-what-to-do-with-myself physicality to his movements. These aren’t bad things; quite the contrary, I think they’re secretly at the heart of his Everyman appeal. And they work to his advantage in The Tomorrow War, even though he’s technically playing someone who is supposed to be extremely smart, possibly even brilliant. The film opens on his bewildered face, mid-fall, as he plummets into a pool in a nondescript, war-torn futuristic landscape. And he basically keeps that befuddled expression throughout the picture, which nicely reflects our feelings about what we’re seeing, too.
Pratt’s character, Dan Forester, is an Iraq War vet and high-school science teacher struggling (and failing) to find a better job for himself in the film’s present of 2022. He has big dreams, but no way to achieve them, and the only person to believe in him wholeheartedly is his 9-year-old daughter, Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). That opening flash-forward is a hint of what’s in store for Dan, however. Twenty-eight years into the future, the world has been overrun by a terrifying race of creatures known as the White Spikes. Humanity is on its last legs, and in a final gasp of desperation, the people of 2050 have reached out to the past — to the year 2022, specifically — to recruit more humans to travel into the future and help fight the alien invaders. (If you already have questions, you might want to steer clear of this picture.)
Within a year, the world’s armies have been depleted and a global draft has been instituted. Those chosen are sent into the future for seven-day periods; the survivors are then sent back, most of them with horrifying stories about what they saw and experienced. Dan’s wife, played by Betty Gilpin, is a therapist whom we see working with the traumatized survivors of the Tomorrow War. When Dan is called up, she urges him to avoid the draft — she knows what horrors await him on the other side of the century.
The imminent death of humanity three decades into the future has sapped the spirt of the present: Riots break out, protests flare up over the fact that we are fighting and dying in a war that hasn’t even started yet. All the kids in Dan’s class appear to have given up on life itself. That the screens in his classroom are flashing factoids about climate change — about loss of habitat and the melting of the glaciers — are not coincidental. The Tomorrow War may be dumb in lots of ways, but it’s savvy in how it connects its sci-fi despair over a dying, somewhat distant future to our real-life despair over what our next several decades might look like. (This idea becomes even more pointed in the film’s final act, but let’s not spoil that.)
The anticipation of what 2050 will look like is built up nicely, and once Dan gets there, The Tomorrow War becomes a gonzo, breakneck, CGI slaughterfest, as he and his untrained, unprepared crew are tossed into the midst of a battle that’s basically already been lost. The White Spikes are genuinely terrifying beasts — ghostly, tentacular, giant insectoids with beak-like mouths filled with fangs, who swarm like supersonic zombie flies. (These things would give Cthulhu nightmares.) Watching them lay waste to assorted soldiers and vehicles in the background of nearly every shot does a number on us; we half expect them to be outside our own windows, chowing down on the neighbors.
The film unfolds as a series of rapid-fire video-game-like scenarios: You have to find this group of people, then retrieve this object, then get this other object out of this place before it’s too late, then blow away this many monsters in this amount of time, etc., all without getting eaten yourself. Ordinarily, that would be cause for concern — tedium and repetition are corrosive to action movies, as Army of the Dead reminded us a couple of months ago — but the film adds variation, urgency, and humor. Director Chris McKay was previously part of the teams that gave us The LEGO Movie and its subsequent iterations, so he knows to keep things light and fast. It helps too that a decent number of supporting parts are played by comic actors like Sam Richardson, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and Mike Mitchell, which also reminds us not to take any of this too seriously. (And let’s not forget that Pratt himself had his breakthrough role on Parks and Recreation; his sensibility is inherently comedic, even when he’s doing serious parts.)
I’m not sure if this next bit is a spoiler; it occurs before the halfway point of the film, but proceed at your own peril. At the head of what remains of humanity’s forces in the future is Colonel Forester (Yvonne Strahovski), who we soon learn is, in fact, Dan’s daughter Muri, all grown up and kicking ass. She has organized this project to reach into the past, and she has sought the youthful spirit of her dad out after all these years, to help her with humanity’s last stand against the White Spikes before all hope is lost forever.
It’s a silly twist, but it works, not only because the movie has already tenderized us with all that running and exploding and dying, but also because Strahovski and Pratt have interesting chemistry: She seems to know too much, and he seems not to know anything at all. So, it’s Edge of Tomorrow meets Interstellar meets Aliens meets Tenet meets Independence Day, with their brains removed. But it’s still tremendous fun, because this thing moves. Let’s face it: If it slowed down, the audience might start asking too many questions. The Tomorrow War is just as stupid as it needs to be.
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