A mega budget blockbuster based on a completely original concept is an increasingly rare phenomenon in the modern era where the franchise rules above all else, so it’s something of a shame that The Tomorrow War is premiering exclusively on Amazon instead of the biggest screen possible. It’s packed full of sweeping visuals, bombastic action and some incredible creature design, but it’s also missing one or two key ingredients that ultimately fail to see the execution of the high concept match the limitless potential in the premise.
In fact, the first act of The Tomorrow War is entirely emblematic of its problems as a whole. The movie opens with Chris Pratt’s Dan Forester falling from a great height as we see bodies dropping all around him, promising that there’s going to be plenty of effects-driven spectacle, then it abruptly cuts to the ‘real’ opening scene. Dan is a high school science teacher with designs on trying to take his career to the next level, and he’s got a bunch of people over at his house to watch a soccer match. This neatly establishes our protagonist as a family-orientated everyman, albeit one that’s handsome and chiseled with an extensive military combat background, which instantly eliminates several of those everyman qualities in one fell swoop.
During the big game, a band of time travelers appear from out of nowhere to warn the citizens of 2022 that three decades into the future humanity is losing an intergalactic war, and they’ve come back in time to recruit soldiers and stem the tide before it even turns. That leads directly into credits montage that fills in the narrative blanks and paints the story in its broadest strokes, before we dive back into the Forester family life.
He’s very close to his wife and daughter, but estranged from his father. After being drafted to fight in the titular conflict, he pays a visit to his old man, played by J.K. Simmons sporting a bushy beard and bulging biceps. Their dynamic is also established, before Simmons promptly vanishes from The Tomorrow War entirely for the majority of the next two hours. By shifting between action, family drama and exposition more than once within the opening 45 minutes, the plot doesn’t really find its rhythm until we’re almost a third of the way through the film, so the extended opening to set the stage can often feel like a bit of a drag.
However, things kick up several significant notches when the first major set piece arrives. Before that point, though, we’re introduced to the various other draftees, the majority of whom don’t really matter because everyone knows they’re just cannon fodder at the end of the day. That being said, Sam Richardson’s Charlie is ironically and arguably a much better audience surrogate than Dan, because he’s the one willing to question the physics and logistics behind everything that’s going on, even if he’s largely just there to provide comic relief.
Making his live-action directorial debut, Chris McKay proves surprisingly adept when it comes to staging the pyrotechnics, ratcheting up the tension during the search for a missing medical team, building up to the reveal of the White Spikes. It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to call the alien invaders some of the best looking creatures we’ve seen in a Hollywood blockbuster for years, with the design and effects team deserving of massive praise for a terrifying band of faceless and eminently dangerous intergalactic predators.
The strongest part of The Tomorrow War is undoubtedly the middle, which further explores Dan’s family dramas and positions a time traveling war for the fate of our planet as secondary to his desire to connect with his daughter, mend the broken relationship with his father and generally gain a second chance at everything, an impressive feat to accomplish in such an expansive crowd-pleaser. The mechanics of The Tomorrow War are largely sound within the framework of the story, although it inevitably goes a little too hard on over-explanation at points, and one of the most important revelations surrounding the reasoning behind drafting process does severely lessen the emotional stakes at the end of the day.
Not to go too far into spoiler territory, but once Dan pitches up in 2052 you can see where his arc is heading from a mile off, but McKay doesn’t seem to mind. In essence, The Tomorrow War is a 1990s-style blockbuster slapped with a 21st Century coat of paint, where a roster of character actors are dropped into an unwinnable situation where only teamwork, the power of family and no small helping of fortunate coincidences can save the day.
That’s far from a bad thing, but it makes things very predictable, even if there’s enough variety in the action to punctuate the melodrama. A very modern problem that affects The Tomorrow War is the fact it’s at least 20 minutes, if not half an hour too long, with so many tentpole titles determined to squeeze every last penny out of their budgets that they tack on an unnecessary finale once most of the storyline developments have been resolved.
An encounter at the beginning of the movie between Dan and one of his students comes full circle eventually, leading to a sigh-inducing classroom scene that sets the motley crew of old and new soldiers up for one last showdown. Admittedly, it gives us the opportunity to see J.K. Simmons come in from the fringes to kick all sorts of alien ass, which is just as awesome as it sounds, but in the grand scheme of things The Tomorrow War should have really wrapped up by the time it even happens, making it largely redundant.
Zach Dean may have written a script that wasn’t based on existing IP, but The Tomorrow War is heavily indebted to both James Cameron’s Aliens and Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow, even if it’s nowhere near as good as those titles. That being said, it’s still a solidly entertaining popcorn flick, one that boasts an inventive spin on the time travel formula, an engaging enough parable on the importance of family and the dangers of climate change, delivering the sort of glossy fun-filled adventure that isn’t concerned with building or expanding a shared universe, something we don’t see often enough these days.