‘The Tomorrow War’ Fails To Differentiate Itself From Similar Sci-Fi Action Epics – Review
Amazon Prime Video’s The Tomorrow War has all the makings of a smash hit sci-fi action epic with its large-scale apocalyptic conflict, a group of ragtag heroes, and a fun time travel hook, but it struggles to keep its head above water throughout its two hour and twenty-minute runtime. There’s never going to be another Independence Day (arguably the blueprint for these kinds of movies), but The Tomorrow War lacks the charming and memorable characters of other, better blockbuster spectacles and struggles to stand out from the crowded field it’s playing in, both stylistically and storywise.
The film centers on Dan Forester (Chris Pratt), an Iraq war veteran turned high school biology teacher who lives a tranquil life with his wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin, largely wasted here) and their daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). One fateful evening, in the middle of the World Cup, a time portal appears and a contingent of soldiers emerge. They’ve arrived with a dire warning: in just 30 years, an unstoppable horde of alien monsters have nearly wiped humanity off the face of the planet. In a desperate act, scientists developed a rudimentary form of time travel in order to recruit the people of the past to go through the portal into the future to help fight. It’s best not to think too much into the logistics of it.
The governments of the world instate an international draft, which takes Dan away from his family and back into combat. At least it does after he refuses the help of his estranged, off-the-grid survivalist father (a very buff, bearded, and bored J.K. Simmons) because he’s simply too proud. Dan becomes the de-facto leader of his group of draftees, who include Charlie (Sam Richardson), the chatty head of a tech company, and Dorian (Edwin Hodge) a hardened warrior who’s willingly going into the future for a third tour. Groups have seven days in the future before they’re sent back. The vast majority don’t survive, and those that do are never the same.
The Tomorrow War shows that it’s in trouble pretty early on. Its setup is more tedious than interesting and nearly all of its dialogue is exposition; even emotional moments are just characters explaining something that happened. The film surprisingly takes its time before any big action sequence – Dan and company don’t arrive in the future until around the 45-minute mark – and while that kind of restraint is admirable, it’s also frustrating how much of that time isn’t spent on actually developing the characters.
Pratt seems disengaged for the most part, but he, along with everyone else, isn’t given that much to work with. Dan is someone who’s seemingly dissatisfied with his suburban life and believes he’s meant to do something special, but this never really translates into any kind of personality or action for him, at least not one that we get to see. While in the future, he’s put under the command of an adult Muri (Yvonne Strahovski) and learns that his dissatisfaction tore the family apart, but this only serves as a way to create a half-baked conflict between the two. Dan doesn’t do anything to show that he’s unhappy with his life, nor does he even hint at it, we’re simply told that he does later. All we see is a Dan that’s both a family man and a guy everyone looks to save the day, which conflicts with the story the film is trying to tell.
The script’s issue with clunky exposition dominating its dialogue continues into the second and third acts, and nobody apart from Sam Richardson – who immediately resuscitates the film upon his arrival, only to disappear until the finale – can stand out. Richardson (who’s having quite the week with the release of this, Werewolves Within, and the second season of I Think You Should Leave) is hilarious and gives a glimpse into what The Tomorrow War could’ve been if it didn’t take itself too seriously. As it stands, the film plays things way too straight most of the time despite its silly premise. It’s all the more frustrating that this is the live-action debut of filmmaker Chris McKay, who has worked on all the Lego movies (having directed The Lego Batman Movie) as well as several seasons of Robot Chicken, all of which have smartly satirized the exact kinds of tropes and formulaic structures that The Tomorrow War plays in earnest.
The initial action-packed scene of Dan’s team crash landing into a post-apocalyptic Miami is appropriately intense, and the movie’s alien creatures (known as Whitespikes) are cool, but the rest of the action quickly becomes more and more rote as it goes on. Cinematographer Larry Fong (300, Watchmen, Kong: Skull Island) occasionally tries to bring in a couple of Zack Snyder-inspired shots, but for the most part, the film fails to figure out a distinct look or style all its own. Things get buried under the constant barrage of bullets and alien guts, like how an attempt to depict PTSD among the survivors of Dan’s group lasts for all of three minutes before everyone’s back to normal and a third act switch to a frozen tundra evokes the creeping feel of film’s like Alien for about the same amount of time before going back to shouting and gunfire.
Toss in a remarkably conventional and uninspired score from Lorne Balfe (Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Bad Boys for Life, Black Widow) and it all adds up to the film coming across as an overly familiar product straight from the Amazon assembly line. We’ve been here before, and it’s been done much better. There are pieces for a more interesting story here – the concept of a world-ending war in the near future being fought by today’s children and grandchildren easily feels like a metaphor for climate disaster, but the film never goes anywhere with it. How the world reacts to the knowledge that they’re extinct in only a few decades could also be taken somewhere interesting, but all we’re told is that people just riot a bunch – none of which affects any of the characters, of course.
Scenes between Dan and Muri are one of the few moments where The Tomorrow War is thankfully effective, ensuring that the film isn’t completely heartless. An emphasis on the importance of science and how humans need to never stop innovating, especially in the face of catastrophe, is also nice even though the film’s heroic scientists spend more time firing guns than working in the lab. By the end, you just wish that The Tomorrow War would have a little more fun with itself. This is a movie where at one point Chris Pratt leaps off a snowmobile, launching it into a giant alien, and then basically boxes with it, so why does it insist on taking everything else so seriously?