The Tomorrow War, opening on Amazon Prime this week, is a big, dumb, beautiful blockbuster starring Chris Pratt as a time-traveling ex-soldier science teacher battling aliens who look like giant killer lice. I appreciate a film that takes big swings, and The Tomorrow War is the Babe Ruth of narrative conceits.
Pratt plays Dan Forester, an Iraq War veteran and current high school science teacher who learns, during a Bane-style interruption of a climactic moment of the soccer World Cup, that scientist/soldiers from 30 years into the future are locked in a losing battle with a species of pestilential, man-eating aliens known as “white spikes” (I prefer their older stuff).
In 2051, humanity is down to its last 500,000 people, but they’ve figured out how to open a “rudimentary wormhole” into the relatively recent past. They’re using this bridge, like two rafts on a running river (because “time only moves in one direction”) to draft the manpower future humanity needs to fight off the aliens from the most abundant source of it: the pre-alien invasion past. In other words, the future folk need present people to fight “The Tomorrow War.” Get it? You get it.
One day, while trying to convince a classroom full of defeatist high school kids that science is the key to their future (they’re rightly a little lukewarm on the idea of dutiful self-improvement knowing they’re all probably just going to get eaten by aliens in 30 years) Forester gets an amber alert on his phone demanding that he report to the draft board. A group of fresh-faced, curiously attractive doctors and soldiers from the future order Chris Pratt to take off his shirt for unclear reasons and affix him with a metal wrist cuff that will both facilitate his time jump and alert the authorities if he tries to desert.
So it is Forester is forced to leave behind his modest life and adorable family (which includes precocious daughter and beautiful wife played by a mostly-wasted-on-this-minor-role Betty Gilpin) to join a rag-tag crew of regular Joes about to be sacrificed to the future bugs. This crew includes characters played by Sam Richardson (Veep, Detroiters) and Mary Lynn Rajskub (It’s Always Sunny, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) part of a larger, weirdly-effective Tomorrow War strategy of casting comedic actors in not overtly-comedic roles.
Presumably, these are just actors director Chris McKay knows from his past comedic work, directing The Lego Batman Movie, Robot Chicken, and working in the animation department under Lord and Miller. While there isn’t anything overtly parodic about The Tomorrow War, which is mostly a straightforwardly earnest alien drama, you can tell McKay is having a blast making it, which helps make a lot of the silliness work. McKay and screenwriter Zach Dean are constantly finding the distinction between corny dialogue that makes you groan and corny dialogue that’s so perfectly on-the-nose that it’s kind of brilliant. “I’m just trying to save my daughter,” Forester explains to a fellow grunt, “And if I have to save the entire world to do it, so be it.”
That’s a corny line that could’ve been the tagline to dozens of movies, from most of the Seagal/Neeson/Willis ouvre to Ben Stiller’s “Scorcher” franchise from Tropic Thunder. Yet the Russian nesting doll of spoiler-y plot conceits that The Tomorrow War constructs to justify it are almost avant-garde. The Tomorrow War manages to combine the best bits of Edge Of Tomorrow, Arrival, Armageddon, Alien, Independence Day, and God knows what else in the kind of movie that Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich would’ve directed in their primes if they’d had more talent.
People who’ve speculated about Chris Pratt’s transformation from chubby comedy guy to ripped action hero, and his apparent religious awakening along with it (Pratt is or was a member of Hillsong, the same celebrity megachurch that baptized Justin Bieber) will find endless fodder in The Tomorrow War. Pratt plays a scientist-soldier-teacher who is essentially defined by his faith in a brighter future and his willingness to stick his neck out for others. He’s also a crack shot with a submachine gun, a supportive father, and an expert troop motivator. Did I mention the strong jaw and washboard abs? Image conscious Will Smith was known to only play heroes for a big chunk of his career, but Pratt’s babyface act in The Tomorrow War is so relentlessly ingratiating that it puts Will Smith to shame. His character is so thoroughly heroic that there are times when The Tomorrow War feels like a pro-Chris Pratt propaganda film produced by the Church of Scientology.
Clocking in at 140 minutes, a less-bold version of The Tomorrow War would feel overlong or padded, but The Tomorrow War doesn’t, partly owing to at least three distinct phases. There’s Forester the reluctant soldier, Forester the single-minded scientist, and Forester the unlikely leader of a band of Arctic explorers, which includes his estranged, doomsday prepping, Vietnam veteran father, played by JK Simmons (who I’m not sure is even old enough to be a Vietnam veteran?). Each phase individually would’ve had enough content to fill the entirety of lesser movie. But every time it seems to paint itself into a narrative corner, The Tomorrow World blows through a wall with high explosives or invents a just-plausible-enough interdimensional portal.
Most of the movie is so ridiculous that you figure no finale could possibly do it justice. Yet even after time travel, alien invasion, biological weaponry, and an arctic expedition, The Tomorrow War‘s finale manages to be plausibly “grand,” even compared to what came before it. Never before has a streaming release so capably evoked “Summer blockbuster.”