Sometimes when watching a film, that old chestnut about “trying to do too many things, and doing none well” comes immediately to mind. It remains a potent adage because so many fail to remember it and take heed. Take director Chris McKay and writer Zach Dean’s The Tomorrow War as a fine example. Within a bloated 138 minutes, they attempt to cram together a coherent story involving time travel, humanity-eating aliens, forced conscription, cute science moppets, father/son & father/daughter estrangement, over-the-top action set pieces, comedy and a Vietnam allegory.
You should be tired just reading that. And worse, they don’t land any of it well.
Unfortunately, The Tomorrow War isn’t allowed to be the dumb, “just go with it” summer spectacle it should have been, a la Independence Day. Instead, McKay and Dean force it to be a self-aware and “smart” time travel drama, with feelings big enough to crack generational war trauma issues, among lots of things that go “boom!” and “pew, pew, pew.”
The story itself is too convoluted and speciously conceived to try to dissect without making your brain scamper to its safe place. All you need to know is that in 2022, soldiers from 30 years in our future will dramatically appear in the middle of a World Cup soccer match to tell humanity that in 11 months, aliens will overtake the planet in an extinction level event. Thus, all able-bodied people from 2022 need to prepare to go with them into the future to save our collective existence.
With minimal debate, every nation creates a forced conscription draft—which yes, is kinda fascist—for a seven-day tour of duty. Only 30% ever come back, but everyone is now considered a hero and you’re saving your kids and grandkids! No one really talks about those who don’t have kids, or who aren’t patriotically predisposed to accept being cannon fodder, but that’s a silly quibble, right? Because Chris Pratt as Dan Forester is the poster guy example for what everyone should be in this story: Handsome, a Gulf War vet, a science teacher and perfect dad of a science-obsessed six-year-old daughter. When he’s called up, Dan has a moment of doubt about leaving his family, but then decides he’s got a purpose for his daughter and gives it his gosh dang best.
Honestly, the first act scenes with Dan, his wife (Betty Gilpin) and daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) are so sweet and genuine, they promise a film that might actually have a degree of measure in its storytelling. But that goes off the rails as soon as Dan is drafted and thrown into time jump prep 24 hours later.
A knowledgeable guy and former soldier, he’s dumped in with everyday people possessing no war skills, who are adequately briefed on the basics of time travel limitations (wink, wink to the audience asking the same questions at home) but not important things like what the aliens—known as White Spikes—look like, or perhaps their known biological vulnerabilities for precision shooting and defense. I guess it’s comforting to know criminally poor communication and planning isn’t a lost art in the future.
Less than a day into training, Dan’s unit is emergency jumped to the future…because of reasons. They’re then erroneously zapped forward with wrong coordinates and dropped from the sky to their deaths. Cool. (Strangely this film doesn’t seem to mind random mass casualties, but really cares about individual death.) Dan and a handful of other “lucky” recruits live, because they land in a rooftop pool, only to be commanded to execute a search and rescue at a lab before the military carpet bombs the alien-overrun city—in about ten minutes.
In a movie that clearly adores countdown clocks like no other, this particular one sets the tone for just how overstuffed and implausible every directive will be going forward. Aside from Dan and third-tour grump Dorian (Edwin Hodge), the unit is hopelessly ill-informed, trained, gunned and supported by existing troops or command. Even suicide missions are like, “This is a bit much, guys,” but we still get overdone montages of sacrifices made by characters we barely know, huge plumes of flames that would realistically incinerate everyone and escapes that are never explained.
The film basically rinses/repeats that M.O. over and over with some variations, while also packing in future family drama for Dan that tries to connect his own Vietnam-surviving father’s (J. K. Simmons) problems to those of his daughter, all of which are wincingly strung out across all timelines until the end.
Speaking of, McKay doesn’t know how to close this thing. Every time one hopes a setpiece will be the resolving mission, there’s another one—and they’re increasingly derivative of better films like Aliens, with dumber logic and a startling lack of concern about things like bomb-induced avalanches or how fast hypothermia sets in for someone not wearing a jacket in the Arctic.
To be nice, the film looks great. The aliens are intense and threatening but they’re ciphers in terms of being anything more than endless stomachs. And the cast really tries. But to quote Sam Richardson’s nerdy character Charlie when he’s forced to unload a clip into the aliens for the first time, his spontaneously screamed string of “Shit, shit, shit…” really sums this all up.
Director: Chris McKay
Writers: Zach Dean
Stars: Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, J. K. Simmons, Betty Gilpin, Sam Richardson
Release Date: July 2, 2021 (Amazon)
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.