‘The Tomorrow War’ Has Fun With Time Travel and Aliens

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One way or another, science fiction films are looking towards tomorrow, so it’s no real surprise that titles often reference that imminent future in their titles. From The Day After Tomorrow (2004) to Edge of Tomorrow (2014), it’s a shorthand telling audiences that what’s coming may in fact be right around the corner. The Tomorrow War continues that trend, but it’s more than just a title word that it borrows from that Tom Cruise hit. Time travel, war, fast-moving alien invaders with deadly tendrils, and a tough female fighter all come into play, and while it lacks the intelligence, wit, and charismatic lead that hold Edge of Tomorrow together it still delivers an entertaining time.

Dan (Chris Pratt) is ex-military, but while he believes he’s “meant to do something special” with his life he’s stuck just being a husband (to a sorely underused Betty Gilpin), father, and science teacher. Poor guy. That potentially changes one day when a squad of heavily armed young people arrive through a portal with news from thirty years in the future — humanity is at war with an invasive alien species, and we are losing. These visitors have traveled back through time to recruit fighters to return to the future as it’s the only hope left. A year later the nations of the world have united to send thousands of fresh recruits on a daily basis, but reports from the future look grim. Dan’s soon drafted, given the most basic of training, jettisoned three decades forward, and dropped directly into the fight.

The Tomorrow War is a big, dumb “blockbuster” that probably deserved better than a streaming premiere, but even on the small screen it still delivers some fun spectacle, entertaining action beats, and just enough personality to make for a memorable ride. Director Chris McKay (The Lego Movie, 2014) keeps the energy moving, and while redundancy creeps in due to the unnecessarily long running time the combination of action and character keep things from ever feeling truly dull.

The alien creatures feature a design that’s both familiar and fresh — they resemble everything from fleas to the aliens in Edge of Tomorrow, but their white color and spike projectiles bring a unique flair — and their attack scenes are suitably chaotic and aggressive. Our citizen soldiers are armed with automatic weapons, but with only two soft spots on the alien body the creatures are frequently the victors. Gun fights, vehicular action, and high-rise shenanigans offer McKay lots of options for locales and set-pieces, and the result is enough variety to keep things feeling alive.

Zach Dean‘s script is light on a lot of details, which is fine in the grand scheme, but some of what it skips past ends up feeling some combination of lazy or idiotic. The visitors from the future tell us when and where the aliens first appear thirty years down the road, but while most viewers will immediately ask an obvious question, no one in the film thinks to do the same (until the last possible opportunity). Dean’s script also implements some rules to time travel that, while seemingly arbitrary, have the effect of dodging certain questions typically associated with the plot device. So yeah, the specifics of The Tomorrow War are less Primer (2004) and more Hot Tub Time Machine (2010).

The CG is sharp and works to enhance the action and spectacle rather than distract, and there’s both heart and humor to be found in the supporting characters. The former comes courtesy of Yvonne Strahovski as a future commander with both action chops and PhDs whose desperate plan for defeating the aliens is approaching failure. The laughs, meanwhile, come in large part from the always reliable Sam Richardson as another recent draftee. His dryly sarcastic humor and pitch perfect delivery brings a smile whenever he’s on screen, and his absence is severely felt in the second act. A jacked J.K. Simmons straddles the line between heart and humor as Dan’s dad, and while the dynamic doesn’t work as well as the film hopes you can never go wrong with more Simmons.

The biggest sticking point in The Tomorrow War, aside from that excessive running time, is the lead character. Dan and others declare that science is the answer and the priority, but it’s too frequently shoved to the side in favor of more argy-bargy with bullets. Worse, while others get small beats here and there, the film feels compelled to turn Dan into an over-the-top hero again and again. It teases monotony, and then he annoys further with some utterly terrible voice-over narration in the film’s final moments. Pratt is fine, even if his only real gear is a casual, carefree concern, but he’s never able to make the character all that interesting.

A bland lead is a minor concern, though, in a film like The Tomorrow War, as the bigger focus is simple entertainment. It’s exactly that — big, dumb, mostly well-paced, and flashy enough to delight the senses. A minor thread runs through the film regarding the legacy and landscape we leave for following generations and how they’re too often far from positive, but as a theme it’s often overruled by the fun. That’s okay, though… we’ll always have time to talk about saving the world tomorrow.