Starring: Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy), Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), Betty Gilpin (The Hunt), Sam Richardson (Veep), Edwin Hodge (The Purge), Keith Powers (Straight Outta Compton)
Director: Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie)
Writer: Zach Dean (24 Hours to Live)
Runtime: 2 hours 18 minutes
Release Date: 2nd July (Amazon Prime)
Remember when films from streaming companies were mostly the kinds of things mainstream Hollywood was too disinterested in making these days? They were a haven for the lost art of mid-tier movies; frothy romantic comedies, low-budget thrillers, contemplative sci-fi, teen dramas and the like. Now, bolstered by their stuffed pockets and studios looking to sell as the effects of COVID-19 continue to hound the industry, streaming services are now distributing the expensive, high-concept blockbusters they used to be competing against. The Tomorrow War is the third major 2021 release Paramount has sold to Amazon (after Coming 2 America and Without Remorse) and, with a budget of around $200 million, it’s easily the biggest and riskiest. This is usually the kind of movie that needs a cinematic release to even attempt to be profitable; the kind studios have generally held onto over the pandemic. The fact Paramount sold it essentially at cost value is also telling and, having now watched it, there seems to be a common trait amongst the movies they’re flogging to Amazon: they’re all not very good.
Judging movies from a hypercritical, CinemaSins-style perspective is not only grating but antithetical to having fun, especially when it comes to movies taking place in heightened realities. That said, that kind of criticism is hard not to fall into when the premise is so fundamentally flawed, and the plot of The Tomorrow War has one of those. The concept of soldiers being sent hurtling through time to fight an alien invasion in the future sounds cool, but it immediately raises basic questions about logic and strategy. Why send so many people into the future to fight an insurmountable war rather than spending the intervening thirty years preparing to stop the attack before it happens? Why are we just sending random civilians regardless of their background to be inevitable cannon fodder when it’s clear a military victory is unlikely without a scientific solution? If the future is practically incapable of bringing this scientific solution to fruition, why aren’t we sending scientists from both time periods back and forth to take advantage of each other’s knowledge and resources? The film does answer some questions, but plenty of others have either been ignored or perhaps not even noticed by the filmmakers themselves. I don’t like to nitpick story logic and write movies off because of plot holes, but this is a film built on unstable ground and it simply isn’t smart or nimble enough to escape the obvious pitfalls. On that basis alone, I fundamentally cannot recommend The Tomorrow War.
This is a shame, because it has plenty of redeeming qualities. The themes of its story are at least relevant and interesting, mainly in how it explores trauma, mental health, and fractured relationships. Whilst it remains focused on a small group of characters, the world-building does a decent job of showing the global effect of this war in both the present and future, which feels especially relevant in today’s pandemic climate. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, the film also has a decent sense of humour that keeps the action fun and breezy; director Chris McKay’s background in animation is especially present in these moments. The problem comes in mixes these two halves, flitting tones from scene to scene in a way that makes it hard to fully invest in the film’s world, and this then flows into the film’s pacing and structural unevenness. There is a solid 90-minute sci-fi actioner in here that seems like it’s building to a natural conclusion, but then it keeps going and does essentially a whole truncated sequel as its actual climax. The third act radically changes tone and feel, starting out with a contemplative eeriness more akin to Prometheus before reaching a quip-filled final showdown that’s a lot of dumb fun but seems like it would be more fitting in a Fast & Furious flick. None of these approaches are inherently wrong and could be woven together, but the final product is more of a hodgepodge of these ideas rathe than a smooth blend.
Putting aside his problematic personal beliefs, Chris Pratt is a likable and charming actor, but he’s only ever as good as the material he’s working with. Think about it: he’s great as a part of Parks & Recreation, The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy, but does his presence do anything to elevate the overall quality of Passengers or the Jurassic World movies? At the start of his rise to stardom, Pratt was a breath of fresh air to the samey faces of typical Hollywood leads, but now he’s just another one of them and his presence in The Tomorrow War could have easily been fulfilled by any number of comparable actors. He’s funny and affable, and he pulls off the movie’s emotional moments surprisingly well, but Pratt does little to make him more than just another everyman protagonist. Yvonne Strahovski is pretty good as Pratt’s CO in the future war and they form a unique and emotionally strained relationship, though she arrives too late and leaves too early in the story for her impact to really land. J.K. Simmons and Betty Gilpin have some great moments as Pratt’s father and wife respectively, and Edwin Hodge makes the most of his role as an experienced solider with a death wish, but none of them are in the story long enough. The big standout of the whole picture is Sam Richardson as the reluctant nerdy draftee Charlie, who brings a human quality missing from most of the proceedings and some of the film’s best comedic touches. He ultimately does what Pratt fails to do: he takes a basic stock character and turns them into someone unique and memorable.
On a spectacle level, The Tomorrow War shows off its fat wallet and it’s a shame it isn’t getting any kind of theatrical release to show it all off. Its apocalyptic future world is still the expected landscape of ruined buildings and ramshackle military bases, but it has at least gone to the effort of crafting a cool and original concept for its alien menace. These creatures, referred to as Whitespikes, avoid the usual insectoid inspiration and are more monstrous and eclectic in their design, mixing in elements from all over the animal kingdom that at first look clashing but quickly seems natural. The film really picks up anytime they are on screen, and the story only hints at a wider mythology for these creatures that would be interesting to explore in more stories. That said, as cool as the Whitespikes are, much of the actual action is pretty staid. Most of it is just a lot of Pratt and co running and shooting, running and shooting, running and shooting, an explosion, then more running and shooting. The only time the action comes alive and does something different are in two moments: the in media res opening showing Pratt’s time jump going horribly wrong, and the aforementioned finale. It also feels majorly hampered by its PG-13 rating and, though it tries to get around violence rules by making the alien blood green, the cinematography and editing hamper all of the interesting gory moments to the point they lack any real impact.
The Tomorrow War has all of the elements it needs to be a fun and original Hollywood blockbuster, but it lacks the skill and confidence to pull most of it off. The illogical nature of its core premise is enough to sink it on its own, but smart filmmakers could have found a way around those issues and turned it into something smart as well as entertaining, but it has no interest in answering those questions. So many times it comes close to being able to overcome its flaws and at least qualify as dumb summer fun, but it never does and that ultimately makes for a very frustrating and confusing watch. If nothing else, it works as a showreel for Chris McKay to move more into live-action filmmaking, but hopefully next time he finds a script that stands up to more scrutiny.
FINAL VERDICT: 5.5/10