Perhaps the last thing you’d suppose about The Tomorrow War — which begins streaming tomorrow on Amazon Prime Video — is that its title pulls triple duty beyond describing its premise. It most directly refers to the idea of yanking present-day people 30 years into the future to fight aliens that are about to end the world. But it also reflects unpredictably poignant and potent subtext about generational waves of war-driven PTSD, endlessly Sisyphean challenges of research science, and even the constant worry about whether you’re parenting the right way.
That’s a lot more personality than you’d presume from a film in which someone earnestly shouts “Somebody get a harpoon on that tentacle!” But such are the pleasant surprises of a story that offers a satisfyingly goopy threnody of computer-assisted action and leaves ample space for scientific collaboration, conversation and concentration alongside all that detonation.
Like Without Remorse before it, The Tomorrow War is another sturdy genre exercise punted to streaming in the wake of pandemic-shifted scheduling. It’s also a nice opportunity to see Chris Pratt do something a little more nuanced in blockbuster mode, pitched between his usual extremes of Square Jaw McGraw and Joke Man McCann.
Pratt plays Dan Forester, an Iraq combat veteran turned high-school science teacher. Dan is eager for a life-changing private-sector job but is regularly passed over for someone with more industry experience. He’s being comforted after his latest rejection by his wife, Emmy (Betty Gilpin) and daughter, Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), when his and everyone’s world is rocked by time-traveling visitors from the 2050s.
They arrive with a dire message: In their time, humanity is on the verge of obliteration thanks to the sharp claws, chittering jaws and debilitating projectile shards of aliens called the White Spikes. (By now, you’ve seen every creature design under the sun. While the White Spikes are just sort of a Quiet Starship Cloverfield mash-up, they are at least legitimately terrifying.) There are no negotiations. No placations. “We are food,” the weary soldiers say, “and they are hungry.”
Because the future’s global population has dwindled to 500,000, the math is simple: They need more bodies to fight. So begins a global conscription to send people 30 years into the future for seven-day tours of service. If they’re clinically alive after that, they automatically slingshot back to their time. If they die, their families will get a pre-tax payment of $1 million.
Zach Dean’s screenplay is filled with little adjectival-dagger descriptions like “clinical” and “pre-tax,” while depicting the time-jumping process, “held together by chewing gum and chicken wire,” with head-spinning panic and danger. Sometimes people simply drop to their doom when they hit the 2050s. Some of them come back with bloody-stump arms. He also organically generates ennui and malaise among the present-day people who wonder why they should care about today given what they know about the 10,950 days after tomorrow. And, for a surprising turn in the third act, Dean upholds the essential function of problem-solving research science … and laments that it’s often hamstrung in a lifelong race to outrun mankind’s self-annihilating inclinations.
Beyond that, let’s just say there are conditions beyond his combat experience that make Dan a favorable draft candidate. Let’s also just say that some golden-oldie time-travel paradoxes you know and love from popular fiction also pop up here. Finally, let’s also just say it’s nice to see bossman emeritus J.K. Simmon jacked up for a role that finally lets him flex those muscles.
There are many moving narrative parts across 139 minutes of The Tomorrow War, but director Chris McKay keeps things sure-footed from start to finish — even infusing a bit of the impish, seemingly improvisational energy of his animated hit The LEGO Batman Movie. As a skittish second-fiddle on Dan’s team, Sam Richardson transforms one moment of nervously uttered profanity into a sixteenth-note symphony, and it’s always a pleasure to see Mary Lynn Rajskub (Chloe from TV’s 24) turn up for some well-needed levity.
McKay has yanked the best pages from the Emmerich playbook, with just enough crib notes from Bay, Cameron and Nolan to balance his own comic sensibilities. It’s a tough mix of somber and snappy, but McKay makes it look easy — taking time to establish believable family bonds, bends and breaks and not simply resting on stereotypical characters (particularly with a hot-headed third-tour warrior named Dorian played by The Purge’s Edwin Hodge).
It also pops pro-forma questions of time travel in thoughtful ways. Given the story’s turns, the suspense becomes less about if Dan will survive but whether the fallout of what happens will swallow him whole at a later time. Does knowing how you’ll respond to failure make the failure any easier to avoid? Conversely, does knowing the path to realizing your potential make it any easier to follow? There’s a point at which Pratt has to come off as a visibly changed person given something he’s just seen, and through physical slumps and shifts, he pulls it off perfectly.
The Tomorrow War is the sort of project far enough into Pratt’s man-of-action career that lets him simultaneously poke fun at the pretense of it all and, frankly, play out one of his best roles. It’s also a fleet-footed, good-humored, big-hearted, science-minded and proudly goofy blockbuster with temporal twists and richer text than you expect. The only regret is that its bountiful, buoyant scope deserves a bigger screen.