Nobody calls the war in The Tomorrow War “the tomorrow war”—they call it the “future war”, which couldn’t be the title because it was already used in 1997. That movie, according to Rotten Tomatoes, is about a nun sheltering a runaway space slave from his cyborg masters and their dinosaur trackers. I regret to inform you that The Tomorrow War is not that movie.
Instead, for some reason, The Tomorrow War is about a war against aliens in the year 2051. Facing total extinction, humanity hastily constructs a time machine and sends soldiers 30 years into the past to recruit reserves. Armies from around the world are sent forward in time to help, but the aliens make short work of them, and the forces of the future resort to drafting civilians. One of these unlucky conscripts is Dan Forester (Chris Pratt), an Iraq War veteran who loves sports, his family, and probably an ice-cold beer.
Screenwriter Zach Dean peppers the script with familiar Hollywood-isms. Dan is your regular macho everyman, ill-defined but for his prowess as a soldier and a father. Wars are being fought via time travel, but people still get their war gossip from primetime news. And there are plenty of “boomerang lines”—you know, otherwise trivial lines of dialogue that are delivered with conspicuous importance, like the movie is winking straight at you and loudly, rhetorically wondering, “I wonder if that’s going to come back around.” Dan’s father James (J. K. Simmons), a Vietnam War veteran who abandoned his family to spare them from his PTSD, is one such boomerang slinger. You can practically see his words arcing toward the third act.
After Dan’s rendezvous with his father, he’s picked up and sent to the year 2051, and the screenplay’s most obvious defect shifts from predictability to illogicality. The Tomorrow War failing to hold up to real-world logic isn’t a problem—we don’t go to sci-fi action movies for scientific accuracy—but the movie crumbles under the weight of its own internal logic, which is definitely a problem. When Dan’s unit is first shot 30 years forward, the techies accidentally miskey the coordinates, transporting the civilian soldiers to a destination hundreds of feet above the ground. Most of them fall to their deaths, save for the named characters, who land fortuitously in a rooftop pool. You expect us to believe that humanity invented time travel to shore up the war effort, but we can’t be bothered to keep our people alive with the right keystrokes? The film fails to do its own concept justice.
But when the aliens come out to play, The Tomorrow War turns surprisingly lucid. The look of the creatures, courtesy of Godzilla vs. Kong concept designer Ken Barthelmey, is legitimately frightening. The aliens have that gangly, sneaky/speedy, insectile design that’s in style right now—think Stranger Things and A Quiet Place—but Barthelmey bestows them with the perfect number of queasy additions. The sight and sounds of their first reveal are unforgettable.
And cinematographer Larry Fong shoots the battles against them with aplomb. Fong’s style is one of slick, violent beauty, owing much to his eye for movement: the way he shoots action lets us consistently locate objects in a space that we’re only seeing bits of at a time. His camera doesn’t just follow the action; it maps it out, choreographing the movement of the space containing the moving parts until all the axes align and the rotation is virtually balletic. The Tomorrow War’s action combines senses of scale, movement, clarity, and color to engrossing effect. It’s not all peak visual warfare—the alien army tends to converge into a CGI sludge—but it’s assuredly strong.
The actiony midsection even adds some emotional conflict when Dan finds out that his future self eventually abandons his family, just as his own father did. The screenplay seems to be toying with the effect that time and trauma have on character. But then—do you hear that? That deafening whoosh? That’s the sound of hundreds of boomerangs soaring back in. The last 40 minutes of The Tomorrow War absolutely pelt you with the obvious twists that were signaled in the first act. It’s cliché and expected, but even worse, it reveals how dreadfully thought-out the story was. If previous acts threw logic out the window, the last act throws itself into reverse and backs over logic’s mangled body. Not only do the characters’ decisions stop making sense, but the movie also starts contradicting itself left and right, tripping over promises it made in the second act to deliver on promises it made in the first. The resulting plot holes massacre any sense of immersion that remains. By the finale, the thing’s barely holding together.
At least The Tomorrow War makes a better argument for Action Hero Chris Pratt than all the previous attempts to make that happen. A talented comedian, Pratt wears the goofy dad hat well, and he’s an appealing action star when he lets his fatherly concern bleed into battle scenes. But when he’s aiming for unflappable heroism, he’s as charismatic as cement—an embarrassing dad instead of an endearing one. He’s not the kind of actor you want to burden with dramatic monologues. Does The Tomorrow War give him one? Of course it does.