NICHOLAS CHANG | REPEAT OFFENDERS
Judging by the premise of Chris McKay's The Tomorrow War, you'd expect something along the lines of Edge of Tomorrow, Independence Day, and other 1990s action films, or simply another generic Hollywood blockbuster that delivers on relentless action after relentless action. To an extent, The Tomorrow War reaches levels of providing chaotic set pieces, but it offers some food for thought that isn't explored to its full potential.
Imagine this: you're celebrating Christmas with your family and friends, preparing for your future, and everyone's watching the latest World Cup game live. Until that game is disrupted when a group of time travellers appear out of nowhere and arrive with a message: they come thirty years from the future to warn humanity that they are at war with an alien species known as the "Whitespikes," and they are on the losing side. Worldwide governments sign an international draft to enlist thousands of citizens into the war, sending them into the future through a wormhole device called the "Jumplink." However, only a few of the drafted citizens survive, and anti-war movements begin to grow regarding the military's limited training and enlisting methods. At the same time, most of society faces an existential crisis regarding the increasingly closer date of the war. Ordinary family man and former Army Ranger Dan Forester (Chris Pratt) is drafted against his will and forced to separate from his wife and daughter (Betty Gilpin and Ryan Kiera Armstrong, respectively). He must confront his past and team up with a military scientist (Yvonne Strahovski) and his estranged father (J.K. Simmons) to rewrite the fate of Earth.
While The Tomorrow War eventually makes its way to the action, its first half-hour offers a surprisingly thoughtful setup of its premise. When Forester teaches a biology class and tries to engage the students with their learning material, one of them questions the purpose of education if their future leads to an end, helping to establish the existential stakes of the film. Then those who survive from drafting the war end up with severe PTSD, with Forester's wife leading regular group talks. Dan has no way out when he's chosen to enlist, which may end up tearing another family apart. Even governmental and military policies regarding drafting are controversial, almost creating parallels with the real-life events of the Vietnam War and the United States' overall involvement. Although the lack of extensive military training for new draftees can be interpreted as a plot hole, I believe this represents an opportunity for screenwriter Zach Dean to highlight the American military's desperation and potentially destructive nature. The Tomorrow War may have veered into a satirical or cheesy direction, but instead, it uses its apocalyptic setting to set up a serious tone that suits the story circumstances.
The attempts to build character are admirable, with the relationship portrayed between Pratt and Strahovski aiming for hit-or-miss emotional beats. The problem with The Tomorrow War's protagonist Forester is that he lacks an exciting personality or charm, aside from character background. He embodies the everyman character tropes, and Chris Pratt certainly does an excellent job with his material, but the character never seems to embody truly unique traits outside of that. The limited consideration of developing the characters is unfortunate, and the supporting team is given little opportunity to shine. J.K. Simmons' performance proves he enjoys playing as anti-government survivalists and provides some sense of estrangement in his characterisation. Sam Richardson offers a standout performance as draftee Charlie, where, despite distracting comic relief, he manages to capture the anxious nature of his character. In contrast, Edwin Hodge offers a bruising performance as a cancer-stricken draftee who's deeply impacted by his observations of the war and wants to control his fate. Hodge's character provides the most interesting personality of the entire film, but Dean does little to delve into this arc.
Despite The Tomorrow War successfully setting up its plot stakes and epic scope, director Chris McKay prioritises high-intensity action as soon as the main characters enter the future. As a result, the plot begins to feel secondary, but the action, fortunately, delivers as the characters shoot against the Whitespikes and rush through America's dystopian and utterly apocalyptic future. It also allows cinematographer Larry Fong, who has collaborated on four of Zack Snyder's films, to immerse audiences into a hellish and futuristic atmosphere of 2050s America. Geography is emphasised to highlight how most buildings are on the brink of collapse, hallways are dangerous to traverse in, Whitespikes stalk the streets to hunt down any sense of human life, and destruction makes its way in every corner of the world. Ken Barthelmey's design of the Whitespikes is terrifying, emphasising these aliens' threatening natures and heightening the intensity of The Tomorrow War. Through surprisingly marvellous photography and the visual effects team providing attention to detail for the creature designs, The Tomorrow War offers an entertaining spectacle.
While The Tomorrow War offers more meat with its style than substance, I can easily forgive most of its flaws – until the third act happens. It leads to an jarring shift in tone and disrupts the decently paced build-up of the film's intense stakes. Dean's script resorts to convenient plot devices and defiance of logical time-travel rules to force its way to an easy resolution. But in the process, The Tomorrow War loses track of its existential themes and underdelivers with its high-nature concept. Character relationships take uninteresting turns, and the emotional beats feel clumsy. Had The Tomorrow War utilised a sharper script to focus on character depths and themes, its 138-minute runtime may have been justifiable. But while editors Roger Barton and Garret Elkins certainly know how to cut the action and increase the stakes, they also should've received notice to trim perhaps fifteen minutes. If anyone goes into The Tomorrow War hoping for a complex plot and interesting characters, then they'll be disappointed, and that'll only grow due to the massive third-act problems.
Despite these flaws that derail a perfectly solid blockbuster, The Tomorrow War is still efficiently entertaining escapism. The script’s ludicrous nature threatens to overshadow The Tomorrow War, and while McKay's direction feels uneven, he offers satisfyingly intense B-movie action stakes and an exquisite visual style that proves its cancellation of a theatrical release to be a huge shame. Know what you're in for, and The Tomorrow War is worth your time.
The Tomorrow War is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.