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A sci-fi war movie involving time travel and copious daddy issues, Chris McKay’s The Tomorrow War has so much going on that even its protagonists get rushed: Ordinary civilians who’ve been drafted to go fight alien monsters in the future, they only get a few days’ military training before facing the (very scary) enemy. Fortunately, their leader comes pretrained: As a biology teacher who also led troops in Iraq, Chris Pratt’s Dan Forester is the right man for the moment, even if the moment won’t come for another 30 years.
Action-packed and family-centric in a solidly commercial way, the pic may be missing that certain something that would have made it huge in theaters (its planned theatrical debut was scrapped by the pandemic), but it will be plenty entertaining as an addition to Amazon’s streaming menu.
The Tomorrow War
Forester is a family man who has felt unfulfilled since his tour of duty ended. Teaching science may be noble, but what he really wants is a research job. His sweet daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) believes in him, though, and emulates his desire to be the best at something. The secret, Dan tells her, is to insist to yourself, “I will do what nobody else is willing to do.”
Then a soccer game they’re watching is interrupted by a sci-fi crackle in the air above midfield. A few serious-looking young people materialize from nowhere and announce, “We are you — 30 years in the future.” We learn that the future Earth is infested by countless quick-reproducing beasts dubbed White Spikes (after the bony projectiles they shoot from their tentacles), who seemingly want nothing more than to eat every human on the planet. Only half a million of us remain, fighting a war that now looks doomed.
Needing a new stream of cannon fodder, generals have turned to an experimental time-travel device, reaching three decades back to ask their parents to come join the fight. Over the year that follows, more and more present-day Earthlings — first soldiers, then ordinary people — are sent to the future and their very likely death. A strong anti-war movement develops: Why should we sacrifice for a crisis that isn’t even happening yet? (Screenwriter Zach Dean certainly knows he has a beautiful metaphor for the climate change debate here. Happily, he lets us connect those dots for ourselves.)
Viewers will have their own ideas and questions about how a time machine might be used in an apocalypse such as this. Dean answers just enough of them — in no-nonsense “this is how it is” fashion — that we can enjoy the version of wormhole warfare he’s chosen to deliver.
When Dan is drafted, his wife (Betty Gilpin) insists that he not go. His flirtation with draft-dodging seems inconsistent with the man Dan appears to be, but the script requires the cheat in order to introduce a character who has haunted Dan: James (J.K. Simmons), the father who abandoned him, who is now an anti-government hermit putting his engineering skills to shady use. Don’t believe it when Dan angrily announces that James won’t get a second chance at being part of his family.
Dan reports for duty, of course, and gets about two minutes to bond with fellow draftee Charlie, also a scientist, who’s terrified of their mission (as usual, Sam Richardson supplies enjoyable low-key comic relief). The two men look warily at Dorian (Edwin Hodge), a scary-serious dude who turns out to have volunteered for this, having lived through two previous tours fighting the Spikes.
Their deployment into the future does not go as planned, and Dan winds up thrust into leadership of a search-and-rescue op in a city about to be carpet-bombed. Many of the intriguing developments from here on out shouldn’t be spoiled. What can be said is that creature designer Ken Barthelmey earned his pay, making beasts worth running from; and that McKay, in between directing The Lego Batman Movie and its upcoming sequel, fares pretty well working flesh-and-blood actors into the action. Though the movie is rife with too-convenient coincidences and relies on another iffy plot point or two to make its emotional arc work, the monster-killin’ functions well enough that few will complain.
The thrill ride reaches what seems a natural end point; three or four lines of dialogue are all it would take to provide emotional and logical closure. But Dean keeps things going, adding a long and daring mission that, unless you’re enjoying yourself enough to suspend disbelief entirely, is only the tiniest bit plausible. Then again, you’re watching a movie in which a couple of scientists might wipe out an unstoppable monster horde while hopping to and fro in time. Leave your nitpicking at the door.
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Production companies: Skydance Media, Lit Entertainment Group, New Republic Pictures, Phantom Four Films
Cast: Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, J.K. Simmons, Betty Gilpin, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Sam Richardson, Edwin Hodge, Jasmine Matthews
Director: Chris McKay
Screenwriter: Zach Dean
Producers: Jules Daly, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, David S. Goyer, Don Granger, Adam Kolbrenner
Executive Producers: Rob Cowan, Bradley J. Fischer, Brian Oliver, Chris Pratt
Director of photography: Larry Fong
Production designer: Peter Wenham
Costume designer: Betsy Heimann
Editors: Roger Barton, Garret Elkins
Composer: Lorne Balfe
Casting directors: Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood
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