Back in 2017, fresh off the continued success of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise and gearing up for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Chris Pratt gave a cover-story interview to Men’s Fitness magazine, and bemoaned the state of cinema about white men. “I don’t see personal stories that necessarily resonate with me, because they’re not my stories […] The voice of the average, blue-collar American isn’t necessarily represented in Hollywood,” Pratt said. That was a willfully ignorant statement back then, and it still is now.
But maybe it helps explain what drew Pratt to The Tomorrow War, in which he plays an ex-military high-school teacher who keeps getting passed up for private-sector jobs, but who finds glory and fulfillment by returning to combat. Narratively padded and visually overstuffed with CGI, The Tomorrow War plays out like Starship Troopers drained of Paul Verhoeven’s subversive satire, Edge of Tomorrow devoid of Doug Liman’s wry flair for killing off Tom Cruise, Battle: Los Angeles without Aaron Eckhart’s believable grit, or Independence Day without Will Smith’s agreeable campiness.
Half an aggressively sincere exploration of a father’s relationship with his daughter, and half an alien-invasion movie in which the creatures rarely inspire fear because of their goofy design (they’re sort of dog-gargoyle-scorpion-octopus things), The Tomorrow War is only consistent in the way its narrative arc bends toward Pratt’s character as the most heroic, the most principled, and the most handsome. (There is literally a line of dialogue directly stating the last point.) The film ties the working-class representation Pratt demanded in that interview with idolatry for a certain kind of action hero, and it makes for a repetitive film.
The Tomorrow War only jolts out of its predictable mode when director Chris McKay dares to get gross. Pus-like green goop spurts in all directions when the aliens are shot, stabbed, impaled, hacked apart, or sliced! The aliens gnaw off their own injured limbs to defy Earth-defending humans! Helpless people fall out of a mid-air time-travel portal, smashing into buildings, splattering onto the ground, and enduring horrifically meaningless deaths! When The Tomorrow War acknowledges how relentlessly brutal this kind of warfare is, and leans into that with scenes that emphasize the aliens’ voraciousness and society’s powerlessness, it provides a good counterbalance to the film’s narcissism around its own protagonist. But those elements are few and far between, and the 140-minute run time that doles them out is a trial.
The Tomorrow War splits its narrative between 2022 and 2051. In the latter year, a breed of aliens who humans call “white spikes” have overrun the planet, causing the sole remaining 500,000 humans to work together to invent time travel. Through a link with the past, they travel back to 2022, where they inform humankind that their help is required to save the future. This announcement takes place during a Christmas-time World Cup match, which suburban dad Dan Forester (Pratt) is watching with his wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin, embarrassingly underused) and daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). A veteran who ran combat missions over two tours in Iraq and now teaches biology, Dan is a beloved family man who’s estranged from his Vietnam War veteran and criminal father James (J.K. Simmons, very bearded and very muscular). Dan is struggling to feel purpose in his life again, and the announcement of the “tomorrow war” is a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, the world mobilizes to protect the future via a draft system with a mysterious set of rules, and hundreds of thousands of people go into the future each week, with a fraction of them returning. Those who do come back are traumatized, often with grievous injuries and horrible memories that they talk through during group-therapy sessions with Emmy. On the other hand, this seems like the opportunity Dan has been waiting for to prove himself.
When he’s called to serve, his self-assuredness, calm demeanor, and willingness to lend a hand help him stand out from the other draftees. Chatty, anxious geologist Charlie (Sam Richardson, again delightful), doesn’t even know how to hold his gun. Hardened warrior Dorian (Edwin Hodge), who is willingly jumping into the future a third time, wears one of the white spikes’ bone projectiles as a trophy around his neck. Green but zealous Norah (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and Cowan (Mike Mitchell) round out the team. And when they travel into the future through a blue and purple vortex of whooshing wind and flashing lights, Dan easily moves into a leadership role, guiding the group forward.
The mission given to them by Romeo Command (Yvonne Strahovski) seems impossible. Their battles take place in a destroyed Miami. (The collapsing buildings there hit differently after this week’s fatal Miami condo disaster.) The city has been overrun by white spikes, and Dan and his group need to travel to a research laboratory and retrieve biological matter that the 2051 humans are using to create a toxin to kill the aliens. (A certain recent HBO show had a similar final reveal, too.)
This sequence, during which the 2022 humans finally see the white spikes for the first time, is the film’s strongest. With sickening precision, McKay follows humans dropping out of the sky in the flawed time jump, lingers on the white spikes’ titular spears embedded in building walls, and creeps down a staircase before revealing that the alien threat is watching the humans from above, not waiting below. The white spikes’ first attack in the cramped quarters captured by cinematographer Larry Fong (The Predator, Kong: Skull Island) is legitimately frightening, and the jagged editing from Roger Barton (Godzilla: King of the Monsters) and Garret Elkins is exhilarating and disorienting. This scene’s surefire pacing and kill-your-darlings approach to eliminating supporting characters brings to mind the opening of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, and suggests thrills to come.
Alas! The Tomorrow War then eases up, taking its sweet time diving into Dan’s feelings of inadequacy (which the film vehemently rejects for him) and the unexpected connection he has with a particular character. Kudos to the intent of that approach, which is to deepen Dan’s characterization. But the character is so blandly a wife-guy and the father of a daughter that The Tomorrow War didn’t need to devote so much effort to telling us what we could already intuit from the film’s happy-family opening.
And the result is a bogged-down middle section spent mostly in a laboratory, where the film practically yells “We’re doing science now!” by cutting to computer-generated images of DNA, and requiring Pratt to evoke infamous Bond character Dr. Christmas Jones with his stilted line deliveries. The film’s next climactic action scene is a CGI free-for-all undercut by how the aliens fail to wield any tangible physical weight, and the final third act is such a mash-up of The Thing and the Alien franchise that it lacks any unique identity of its own.
Instead, the guiding objective of The Tomorrow War, a movie in which every female, Black, or POC character plays second fiddle to Dan’s strong white guy, is to persuade us that this suburban veteran is absolutely right when he believes he’s worthy of more than a stable job and a loving family. “I want to be the best, like you are,” Dan’s daughter tells him. “Thank you for your service, again,” a fellow soldier says. “You’re the mission now,” the character who is presented as humanity’s last hope tells Dan when she makes him humanity’s last hope.
We get it! This average, blue-collar American is worthy of all our admiration! That approach is so clobbering and clunky that The Tomorrow War is constantly tripping over itself while delivering it. At least Richardson is having fun with lines like “I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this” when they drop into 2051’s devastated Miami, and Simmons chews the hell out of “I wish Stevie Nicks would show up in her birthday suit with a jar of pickles and a bottle of baby oil.” They’re welcome interruptions in the otherwise dreadfully self-serious The Tomorrow War.
The Tomorrow War is streaming on Prime Video starting July 2, 2021.