Humans from the future arrive in the midst of the World Cup. They have a message to deliver to its global audience. Humanity is at war 30 years in the future, and they’re losing. They need to recruit from the past. A draft is installed, and former Green Beret Dan Forester is recruited to fight in the future.
There are a ton of details incorporated into the fairly quick opening act of “The Tomorrow War”: time travel here only works if someone doesn’t exist on one end or the other. The only ones who can travel back in time are those who weren’t born yet. Only people who’ve died in the interceding time can travel those 30 years ahead. The film’s chock full of neat sci-fi details like this that could’ve used more time, but ultimately are never the focus. Instead, what we get is a reasonably-ish successful action movie.
I’ll be honest with you: I think the premise to “The Tomorrow War” is pretty silly. That puts it in line with a lot of big-budget sci-fi. The silliness doesn’t discount “The Tomorrow War” any more than it would “Stargate” or an “Avengers” film. What’s past that silliness? Is it something that elevates beyond its premise, or that spirals into an abyss? Yes.
The Forever War
“The Tomorrow War” is long for an action movie at 2 hours, 20 minutes. The surprise here is that – if anything – it could have been longer and still worked. What makes “The Tomorrow War” most unique is that it keeps on tackling additional stories. It’s an “and then” film. One thing leads pretty naturally into another. You could say there’s a complete film here that ends under two hours and is emotionally and thematically complete. Then there’s a very relevant extra episode that’s needed to finish the story.
“And then” films are really difficult to make work on a big-budget scale. You want your three acts, which “The Tomorrow War” has, and then you want to walk out satisfied. “The Tomorrow War” just keeps piling on acts. You get a prologue, an opening act, a core movie with three compartmentalized action scenes, a dedicated montage two-thirds of the way through, an epilogue, and then another mini-movie after it that has its own three-act structure. It’s weird. It almost never works.
Here, it does. “The Tomorrow War” is a derivative movie that cobbles together from various, more successful sci-fi movies, but with this weird, good, extra bit Frankensteined onto it. That weird difference is the most valuable and unexpected thing about “The Tomorrow War”. That it works makes the movie before it work much better than it should.
The thing about “The Tomorrow War” is that it constantly reminds me of something that did a particular idea better. An early firefight in future Miami Beach pales in comparison to the much maligned, hugely underrated, but excitingly tactical “Battle Los Angeles”. Some of what’s in here will remind you of “Starship Troopers”. One scene is very reminiscent of “World War Z”. These aren’t homages – those will come later in the form of “Alien” and “The Thing”. They’re just action elements that other films have done better.
What few films have done better is to tack a big, old mini-movie on the end that’s so fun to watch that it improves what came before. The movie’s just like, “We’re gonna pin the sequel on the end because it’s a lot tighter and it’ll soften your opinion of the previous two hours”. And they’re right.
Overall, I enjoyed it. I was never bored during the runtime, even if I could often think of other films I wanted it to be more. A lot of supporting elements help smooth the film’s progression – the creature design is superb, the production design is generally good, and there’s some solid action choreography when it isn’t undermined by the editing.
The biggest misstep “The Tomorrow War” makes is miscasting its lead. Chris Pratt is fine. He’s not bad in the role, but he’s not special in it. He gets the job done, more or less. The issue is that Chris Pratt is not an action star. He’s an action comedy star, and this is not an action comedy.
Sure, “The Tomorrow War” has its share of one liners and jokes. A lot of them land flat because the film also wants to be dire and full of loss. It never chooses a lane, and it certainly doesn’t fuse these two lanes together in a way that elevates either. What’s more, almost none of the comedic lines are spoken by Pratt. He’s not here to quip, which is why you cast yourself a Chris Pratt in the first place. He’s here to be charming (close enough), be serious and military (eh…), and be believably emotional in heart-wrenching scenes (um…)
The frustrating thing is that the film did cast the perfect lead, just not as the lead. Betty Gilpin, of “GLOW” and “Nurse Jackie” fame, plays Dan’s wife. That’s who should have been the lead here. That’s who can be winning, serious, and anchor a scene with emotion. She’s already shown with “The Hunt” that she can lead an action movie. Here, she’s miscast as the worried, supportive wife – a role she usually breaks out of with a vengeance. Turns out the role is pretty strained when she can’t.
This isn’t a more-women-leads thing either. I mean, it could be, we could have that conversation, there need to be more women leads (Yvonne Strahovski does get to be pretty badass in this), but that’s not the point I’m trying to make right now. The point is that Pratt is just OK here, and the actor who could’ve been superb was right next to him.
That said, Pratt doesn’t really send anything off the rails, either. He’s exactly who you expect him to be, which holds the film back a lot, but also gives you a known quantity.
The other major issue with the “The Tomorrow War” is that it’s unrelentingly addicted to jump cuts. Or leap cuts. Characters will climb a fence and in the very next shot you’ll see them bounding across a barrier 50 yards away. Are those new characters in a different shot? Nope, same ones, the film’s just leapt us ahead a minute or two without telling us. This isn’t part of the time travel, either. It’s just how the film is edited.
At one point, characters arrive somewhere new. In the same, very brief conversation where they express this is somewhere no one’s ever been before, they then blow up an extensive series of bombs one of them has set. Obviously, there should’ve been an interstitial scene here of them waiting/eating/connecting while the explosives are planted – they could’ve had the dialogue that’s often instead shoved into the middle of action scenes. These moments are often laughably obvious.
It’s a limited quibble, and it’s easy enough to make sense of, but it happens all the time. It can jar you out of the action, but it’s a much worse filmmaking offense when it happens in dialogue scenes. We’re used to seeing contiguous dialogue and action scenes, and we’re used to seeing montages that do this kind of skipping. When the film shifts between the two of them without giving its audience separation and markers that this is what it’s doing, it makes an audience lose its orientation within a sequence. There are scenes where everything will be contiguous, we’ll skip ahead, and then everything will be contiguous again. An element within a scene will skip ahead without the other elements in that scene doing the same thing.
It doesn’t make anything difficult to follow for longer than a second or two, but if it’s happening every three or four minutes in a 2 hour, 20 minute film, that adds up to 40 times that you’re jarred into re-grounding your orientation to what’s happening or, at best, just waving it off. That’s a lot over the course of a movie. Like I said, it’s a limited quibble, but it is a repetitious one. There’s only so many times you can go, “Oh, ‘The Tomorrow War’, you’re so silly”.
That style of disorientation can have a purpose. It can be used to incredible effect in action movies – look no further than Tony Scott’s entire career. Hell, Scott even directed a time travel movie that used that approach to exquisite effect (“Deja Vu”). Yet here, it seems as if there’s already so much runtime, we’re just leaping ahead mid-scene in order to keep it under 140 minutes. That’s not a unique, intriguing film editing grammar used to paint a disorienting world. That’s just disorienting in a world that isn’t designed to communicate that way in the first place.
It’s hard to say whether this undermines the film’s atmosphere, or if it just never builds that much atmosphere to start. You can’t help but feel that another filmmaker could’ve given the scenes and characters more breathing room, and the whole world more atmosphere, without necessarily making it longer. For a film that’s so interested in efficiency in its gigantic story, taking more artistic chances and going slower in a few areas can have their own way of making other elements more efficient.
Director Chris McKay has previously helmed “The Lego Batman Movie”, and there can be a feeling at times that the broader strokes used in CGI-styled animation lack some of the specificity we look for in live action. McKay is a lot like Pratt here – very serviceable, but he leaves you wondering how much more could have been done with a film like this.
More than anything else, I look at the $200 million budget and wonder where it went. I don’t think it all shows on-screen. I can’t help but imagine how a Francis Lawrence might’ve drilled home the harrowing psychological elements of “The Tomorrow War”. Here, they’re never more than a brief flavor. What about a Gore Verbinski who leaves every dollar of that budget dripping off the screen? In some alternate universe, there’s a deeply weird, tense, nerve jangling version of this directed by a late 90s auteur making a comeback like Alex Proyas. I can’t help but think back to what Roseanne Liang did earlier this year with a very uneven but atmospherically spectacular “Shadow in the Cloud” on only $10 million.
This is a lot of negatives for something that I did like. If this is your kind of big-budget fare, dig in. Yet while I enjoyed “The Tomorrow War” and found it fun, it could have been so much more in so many different directions.
One critique making the rounds that I completely disagree with is that “The Tomorrow War” hearkens back to 90s movies. It doesn’t. “Independence Day”, “Stargate”, “Total Recall”, hell – even worse movies than this like “Congo” or “Godzilla” – focused on character and elements of mystery. They took their time with reveals and revelations.
“The Tomorrow War” may be the most late 2010s movie we’ve had yet: it has a schedule to keep, characters speak in exposition, emotional moments are chiefly dumped into the middle of action scenes, there’s an overuse of POV, scenes need to stop regularly to present a tableau. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a way to fuse these elements well: just look at the last two “Avengers” movies.
90s big budget sci-fi was defined by a focus on character duality, an ebb-and-flow pace, and a self-effacing, dry sense of humor. “The Tomorrow War” is defined by on-rails character arcs, a more-more-more pace, and the infallible hero. This is nowhere close to a 90s throwback and the critics saying this are…look, just don’t ask them to watch your kids or make sure no one steals your laptop at the coffee shop while you go to the bathroom; they cannot be trusted.
“The Tomorrow War” works well enough, and for a movie that keeps tacking more on, that’s actually pretty impressive. The next step after that is seeing how much more it could have done, how much potential it leaves on the table just working well enough. It’s an enjoyable film, but in a strange way what’s almost as enjoyable is the giant shape it leaves in my mind of everything else it could have been. It creates an afterimage that I also find pretty fun to think about, which is a unique but exciting extra gift that makes the film more memorable than it should be.
“The Tomorrow War” is like one of those worksheets they give you in grade school, where you have to find all the mistakes in a picture. That picture’s always fun and busy and interesting, but so is circling all the mistakes in the drawing. “The Tomorrow War” is a good enough film, but where it truly excels is as a conversation piece. Take anything in it and it could have been done worse, or better. What a time to be alive.
You can watch “The Tomorrow War” on Amazon.
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