Visitors from 2051 arrive with news of a war with an alien species that is on the point of wiping out humanity.
By the time the future comes knocking, there are only half a million humans left, after a three year war with an alien species that just appeared in Northern Russia as if from nowhere.
It’s December 2022, in the middle of the World Cup final in Quatar, when a shower of light heralds the appearance of a group of armed soldiers, here to announce a future war that is on the point of eradicating humanity for good. Instantly the world springs into action: jump stations utilising rudimentary time travel technology are set up around the globe, while civilians are drafted for seven-day tours of duty to 2051. Few return, and no one has any photos or video evidence of what these White Spikes look like. Who would go if they knew?
With several different films seemingly squeezed into its 138 minute run time, at least The Tomorrow War is value for money. Sprawling and earnest, tense and exciting, often just plain silly, it tries to be all things to all people. It doesn’t pull it off, but this is still an enjoyable and occasionally thought-provoking ride, despite having more loose ends than a five year old’s knitting.
Chris McKay’s film (executively produced by its star Chris Pratt) warns us not to ask what the future holds, as we may not like the answer. At the same time biology teacher Dan Forester (Pratt) is trying to save future generations as humanity is threatened with annihilation, and he and his fellow time-hop soldiers suffer for not being told enough of what they’re up against.
And for a film about jumping thirty years forward and back again it’s fitting that it’s also a throwback movie with added modernity. The Tomorrow War is a messy, loud and violent actioner; yet for a world both exhausted and crying out for popcorn fun, it also tries to ground itself foremost in family and friends to the extent that Dan even states that he’s happy to save the world as a by-product of saving his daughter.
The initial draftees are all middle-aged, presumably, as Rob and new friend Charlie (Sam Richardson) agree, to prevent time paradoxes as they’ve already died by 2051. Quite a lot to deal with on top of being sent to the future with only a 30% chance of survival. Rob and Charlie’s jump to the future goes badly, as scores are deposited on the roof of a building in dark, burning Miami Beach. Several fall off and die. The lack of value attributed to a single human life is stark in their battle to save the species.
A disastrous (but exciting) series of encounters, as we see middle-aged, mostly out of shape men and women stand their ground, firing pointlessly at the aliens to give their colleagues a few more seconds, ends with Dan and the other survivors waking up in a camp in South America. There he meets Colonel Muri Forester (Yvonne Strahovski) the grown up daughter he left behind aged nine a few hours before.
Muri has brought him for a reason and it’s not sentiment, or so she claims. At this point the film moves from generic big picture action to smaller scale drama, with plenty of time for father-daughter chats including, as imminent danger looms, those deep talks that waste valuable time (I’m sure directors do this deliberately to wind us up). The pace and style change again later, when we move back to the present day.
People who have seen much more of the war than Dan has question whether sacrificing oneself for comrades you’ve only just met, when that probably won’t help humanity, has any use; for them it’s sentimentality, time wasting, angels dancing on the head of a pin. Of course Dan’s view triumphs — how could it not, when we’re told that the aggressive alien White Spikes only care about the survival of their species? There has to be something that sets us apart and this is absolutely not one of those self-flagellating “but are we the real monsters” flicks.
The Tomorrow War‘s fearsome earnestness is thankfully punctured by the brittle, forthright Dorian (Edwin Hodge) and warm and funny Charlie (Sam Richardson), a scientist vastly unsuited to life wielding a gun (his stairwell scene against a White Spike revels in its tension and its humour, and is long enough to show us up close what a monster can do). The terror of the draftees is well done, sent to 2051 with almost no training and no idea of their opponent. They are, like “real” soldiers often are, fodder, a disposable holding line.
At 138 minutes the movie certainly suffers from bloat. After the tense and exhilarating first half, which blends action with a compelling sci-fi set up, the rest requires some stamina. The central section is daddy-daughter issues and the final third daddy-son issues with some Alien thrown in. By the end I did feel like I’d made it to 2051. The length, different pacing, tone and locations mean it would have worked well as a three part mini series — there are cliffhanger moments in just the right places.
Strahovski is a charismatic and believably cerebral action heroine, whose lack of time for niceties turns out to be as much about her childhood after Dan went off to war as her own experiences in it. The decidedly uncharismatic Pratt is fine, though he’s not an imposing presence and often feels like the straight man to the more interesting Charlie and Dorian, whose characters are larger than their screen time. Betty Gilpin barely registers as Dan’s wife Emmy.
The White Spikes are terrifying, both from a distance as they swam towards a human target, and up close, with clawed tentacles and prison-bar teeth. Uncontrollably vicious, they look like they’ve been living underground for too long. (Naturally they have one vulnerability, and naturally no one bothered to tell the draftees dropped there with Dan.) And even among the familiar action movie production design there are some gems; as Dan and his friends investigate a snowy ice cavern we track them through long white stalactites, like the teeth of a White Spike.
I like the darkly funny idea that my generation, the one that hasn’t been drafted for any wars, is heading out to secure the future for the children they are forced to leave behind. Karma for house prices, perhaps.
The “ordinary people putting their heads together” in the last section is daft, with their obvious questions that no government apparently thought to ask earlier, though it plays into the idea of individuals making the breakthroughs. No government seems to have considered putting their energies into stopping the war from happening in the first place. There’s also some cherry-picking over time travel, what will or won’t work according to movie science. Not that it matters — unlike TENET I wasn’t scratching my head later to make it make sense. It doesn’t, and that, like the movie, is fine.
The Tomorrow War is streaming on Amazon Prime:
Watch the trailer now: