2021 | PG-13 | starring Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, J.K. Simmons, Sam Richardson, Betty Gilpin | directed by Chris McKay | 2 hr 18 mins |
In 2020 with theaters shut down, Netflix’s raucous, high-concept action flick The Old Guard stepped up to be our summer movie escapism. In 2021, Amazon is attempting the same with The Tomorrow War, a big, special effects-laden end-of-the-world monster movie designed for a crowd chomping popcorn on a Saturday night in a theater ready to turn off their brain and get out of the heat. It’s a high-concept Skydance production without the human influence director J.J. Abrams would lend to movies like the first Star Trek or producer Abrams to 10 Cloverfield Lane. It’s full of world ending stakes, big monsters, a brawny wise-cracking action hero and comic relief characters. I like the concept a lot, but very little of it comes together in the way of execution.
The first act of The Tomorrow War is pretty effective. Ex-military family man Dan Forester (Chris Pratt) gathers with the neighbors, his wife (Betty Gilpin) and young daughter (Ryan Armstrong) to watch (basically) the World Cup (as to not get sued by the NFL?). During the game a wormhole opens up on the field and an army of soldiers emerge to tell the world that in just 30 years mankind will be on the brink of extinction, on the losing end of a war with a race of alien monsters. Quickly, global governments band together to install a worldwide draft, training average citizens to jump forward in time to fight in the future war.
Let’s unpack what works here first, because this movie has a lot of untapped potential before it goes off the rails. Some of the time travel details are clever. It’s noted that everyone who comes back in time to do the training are all young, because to prevent a time paradox they recruited travelers who weren’t born yet. The opposite applies to those being sent forward in time – they, um, can’t be around in 2051. Director Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie) does a solid job of setting up how the world reacts to this news and establishing the unknown horror of what’s going on in the future. If soldiers come back at all they are traumatized by what they’ve seen. Like the 2020 Gerard Butler comet movie Greenland (which even fewer people will see than this) the most compelling thing here is how people react and how society starts to change with the news that we only have a few more years on this planet. That, too me, is the real horror. The the lingering dread of nothing you can do about and the panic that ensues.
The premise of Tomorrow War sounds like something that would be dreamed up in the 70s to satirize the Vietnam War and the draft era. If you’re wondering why they don’t use the time travel technology to go back in time and prevent the war from starting in the first place and not just recruit cannon fodder – we’ve seen that movie before. However, this could also have been an opportunity to satirize the global government’s pension for war instead of trying to prevent the problem itself while it had the time. The plan seems to be a disaster as if designed that way by commentary, but McKay has no time for politics. We need to get accountants and housewives combat ready! They’re our only hope! It’s like when you see a fat guy stuffed in an X-wing in Star Wars and wonder how desperate the resistance is. It’s here where we meet our wacky crew of characters including motor-mouth Charlie (Sam Richardson, enjoying a much deserved post-Veep victory lap of roles), Norah (Mary Lynn Rajskub, criminally under used) and hardened future war veteran Dorian (Edwin Hodge) who can’t stay out of the fight. When they land in the future world, the delipidated city of Miami, the veil of mystery gets torn off and the movie shifts to action territory.
When we finally see the aliens, we see a lot of them. They’re white, with Joker jaws and fling spikes from their tentacles – so they’re called Whitespikes by the soldiers of the future. After the big Miami set piece we get another, even better set piece where the crew, lead by Forester’s new commander Muri (Yvonne Strahovski) attempts to capture the queen Whitespike in her mound. As the movie gets bigger and bigger, it rings more and more like an empty cartoon. It’s entertaining eye candy, but not for a moment is it imaginative, exciting, thrilling, suspenseful or funny. At no point does it offer a new take on all the stories it’s ripping from. The pace lurches and jutters around, appearing to climax and end and restart again over and over. The film shifts again in it’s third act for it’s most tired Michael Bay-esque direction yet: a hybrid of nerdy kids, fatherly bonding and the dues ex machina of our time, climate change.
What is both entertaining in a B-movie way (I easily made it to the end of it’s ridiculous over-2-hour length) and also the film’s biggest problem is that it is a cocktail of different ideas, and genres, shoehorned into one bloated story where they don’t work together, just in episodic fits. It’s full of one-liners because that’s what these movies do. It’s got a research montage because that’s what these movies do. It has a estranged father-son story, because that’s what these movies do. It all feels mechanical, put together on an assembly line by robot arms without an authentic moment in it. Even Chris Pratt, who normally excels at lending warmth and charm to these type of big special effects movies, can’t connect with the audience. As an example of how assembled in the dark the movie feels, it wants to turn Pratt into an unlikable character. It is very important to the story that, as Pratt’s character learns that in the future, he has left his wife and the family in tatters even though the movie doesn’t give us the tiniest set-up for this wildly out-of-character twist.
The Tomorrow War is a very watchable 2 hours, but man does it have a lot of problems, never congealing into something smooth or satisfying.