If you were envisioning the most generic sci-fi action movie possible, it would probably look a lot like The Tomorrow War. It’s a film that would probably work wonders with a lighter touch, but Chris McKay, who previously helmed the delightful The LEGO Batman Movie, makes his live-action debut here and unfortunately seems determined to snuff out most of the comedy and joy that would make his movie remotely entertaining. There’s even a good emotional core about fathers who disappoint their children and the possibility of getting a second chance at that bond. But the demands of being a blockbuster sci-fi action movie (one that Paramount unloaded on to Amazon, which is probably a better home for it since it’s more palatable as part of your Prime subscription than a picture you’d pay to see in a theater) keep detracting from everything The Tomorrow War does well, so you’re left with a drab, forgettable film that feels ill-suited for almost everyone involved.
Dan Forester (Chris Pratt) is a former soldier now working as a high school science teacher, but wishes he would get hired by an R&D firm to do lab work. Upon being rejected for his latest job, he sadly settles into watch the World Cup with his wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin) and their daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) when soldiers from the future arrive with a warning. They tell the world that they’re from 30 years in the future and that mankind is badly losing a war with aliens. In order to keep fighting, they need to draft citizens from the past. Dan, a family man who is also on the outs with his father James (J.K. Simmons), gets drafted and must fight in the war if he hopes to salvage the future for his family.
The Tomorrow War is a film that’s constantly threatening to be interesting before running back to the comfort of tough guys shooting guns at CGI monsters. The premise itself is a sound climate change parable (it is our job to save the future for our children or else there won’t be a world left), but The Tomorrow War never explores it. Chris Pratt is an actor with terrific comic timing, and they give him very few jokes (other action films seem to keep missing that the reason he was so good in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies is that Star-Lord is kind of a goof/screw-up but films like Jurassic World, The Magnificent Seven, and now The Tomorrow War want him to be a square-jawed hero who occasionally gets a laugh line). Even the story about fathers and children doesn’t really work because while Dan makes an important discovery in the future, it’s revealed through dry exposition rather than doing anything more in the first act that hint that Dan’s family life may be less than ideal.
More often than not, The Tomorrow War’s priority is it set pieces, and that’s a problem because the set pieces aren’t remotely interesting. There’s no style to them, they’ve been entirely drained of color, and we know that most of these unnamed time-traveling soldiers are cannon fodder for the aliens. If anything, most of the set pieces play more like video game levels where you’re given a mission (Rescue the lab team! Trap the female alien!) and then someone takes the controller out of your hands so you just have to watch it unfold in the dullest manner possible. Action doesn’t serve character here because it’s not even like Dan is an everyman thrust into extreme circumstances. He’s ex-military, so he has the added benefit of not only being our hero, but an extremely capable one as well.
The film is far more interesting when the comic relief character, fellow draftee Charlie (Sam Richardson), is on screen because he humanizes everything rather than being the tough-guy action hero that Pratt’s playing. When Charlie is frantically gunning at aliens and constantly saying, “Shit!” it’s highly relatable because that’s probably what most of us would be doing if we didn’t get massacred instantly by the aliens that shoot bone spikes from their tentacles. But because Charlie isn’t burdened with machismo and is allowed that everyman status, he’s a more sympathetic figure than Dan, whose only emotional burden is wrestling with things that haven’t even happened to him yet.
Watching The Tomorrow War, my mind kept flashing back to Edge of Tomorrow, another sci-fi action film involving time travel, but one that does everything right. It has a compelling protagonist with a clear arc of going from a coward to a hero. It has compelling set pieces. It builds real emotional stakes without needing a character to explain why there should be emotional stakes. It has good ideas and then builds on that foundation rather than casting them aside for the next round of explosions. I don’t mind that The Tomorrow War never fully grasps the paradoxes its time travel creates or even that it’s yet another action movie that doesn’t know how to utilize Pratt. I mind that it assumes its priorities should be in the set pieces even if those set pieces don’t entertain or illuminate character. Those are the blockbusters that’s fall flat every time.
‘The Empty Man’ is coming!
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