Reel Review - The Tomorrow War (2021)
The Tomorrow War is a confused mess of a movie but it’s still pretty damn well entertaining. Even if only because of Sam Richardson.
In 2022, biology teacher and former Green Beret Dan Forester (Chriss Pratt) gets conscripted into a war… that hasn’t happened yet. Dan and his fellow conscripts have to travel to the future to turn the tide in a war that mankind is fated to lose.
To be completely honest, I’ve never struggled quite so hard to write a film’s logline—and I don’t think that I quite nailed it, either. That could be an indication that I’m just not a good copy writer or that The Tomorrow War is a muddled and messy movie that even the combined wordsmithing talents of William Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck would be insufficient to describe. Let’s go with the latter.
All of the problems begin and end with the film’s production. Allegedly, writer Zach Dean’s original script was a “dark and emotional sci-fi”. It even had a cooler name, Ghost War, that producers changed so as not to offend the genocidal communists in power in China. Priorities.
But I digress. Skydance Media had, apparently, greenlit Dean’s original “dark and emotional sci-fi” until the film’s eventual star and executive producer, Chris Pratt, got his hands on it. Pratt and the film’s director, Chris McKay, claimed that Dean’s script made 2006’s dystopian sci-fi thriller, Children of Men, “look like a comedy” by comparison. In order to make the film bankable, they claimed, they had to lighten the tone. Given that knowledge, it’s difficult to place the blame for the resultant mess on anyone other than the two misguided Chris-es.
The film’s waffling tone makes larger leaps than its characters do across the spacetime continuum. It never quite decides whether it’s an action film with some comedy, a comedy with some science fiction or a science fiction with some drama. The result is that it is none of those things. The science fiction is too shallow to be serious. The drama is too short to be deep. Maybe only the action and the design and conceptualization of the “White Spikes” delivers the appropriate balance of each of the film’s elements.
The film’s tonal discord is most apparent in the dramatic moments—presumably the bastardized remnants of Dean’s original concept. With the exception of the second act’s final action sequence—which one imagines is where most of the obscene $200million budget went—McKay elides over the film’s tenderest moments to get to the next joke or explosion. Or, more often than not, he simply uses those moments to bore us with exposition.
Exposition is another point of weakness for this movie. While no rational human being would expect “realism” from a movie that combines aliens and time travel, the manner in which The Tomorrow War’s plot unfolds beggars all belief. Apparently, according to McKay, a high school student will be the one to save our planet with his knowledge of volcanoes when the aliens arrive. Someone get Volcano Boy a cape and a mask.
To be fair, perhaps only 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow combined time travel and aliens and successfully managed to explain them both within the confines of its runtime in a manner that didn’t make audiences roll their eyes. But with more than a few deus ex machina, The Tomorrow War never even tried.
It’s difficult to understand why Pratt and other members of the production team felt the need to weigh in on—a.k.a. ruin—Dean’s script. Dark science fiction films such as 2009’s District 9 have proven popular with audiences and critics alike. But, considering the film’s cast, it never looked like producers took Dean’s original script seriously. Some of the casting choices—Chris Pratt, J.K. Simmons and Sam Richardson, for example—are clear indicators that McKay and others never intended to make a dark sci-fi punctuated with comedy. They just wanted the laughs.
Audience members who thought that Guardians of the Galaxy’s funny guy, Chris Pratt, would, at the very least, provide some laughs as the plot laboured on will be disappointed. There’s nothing inherently funny about Pratt’s Dan Forester and, try as he may to bring levity to his character, he simply doesn’t have the room. The most that he accomplishes to portray is a likeable, if a little goofy, biology teacher who, in no one’s imagination, could ever have been a Green Beret in anything other than the Teletubbies’ Army. I would say that it’s not his fault but… he messed with the script when he didn’t have to so he’s lying in the bed he made. Instead, audiences will get their laughs from Sam Richardson who delivers a steady stream of rib-busting one-liners.
There aren’t any technical standouts for this film but, fortunately, members of the crew’s creative team received more focused direction from McKay. Creature designer Ken Barthelmey’s “White Spikes” are, truly, terrifying. They don’t die easily, they’re fast, they’re relentless and they’re swarming. You do get the sense that they could eradicate all of mankind. Lorne Balfe’s score, also, hits its target even if it does feel like it would have better suited Dean’s original, darker script. The eponymous theme song does, however, augment most of the movie’s pivotal action sequences.
Amazon is talking about a sequel for The Tomorrow War—tentatively titled The Next Week War (just kidding). However, given the movie’s mixed response from critics—at the time of writing, it has a 52% rating and 66% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb respectively—the decision to charge ahead with a sequel has to be a bald-faced money grab. Though critics are often—and almost always these days—far off the mark, they did get this one right. Hopefully, Amazon will leave The Tomorrow War where it belongs: in yesterday’s watchlist.