Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
The most prominently overused concept is without a doubt, the time travel film. Granted, there’s currently a lot more superhero films than time travel films, but it’s hard to deny there’s only so much you can do with that idea. Films like Back to The Future (1985) and The Terminator (1984) practically wrote the rule book, and even modern examples like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2005), About Time (2013) or Avengers: Endgame (2019) are just following those rules. Whether it’s a time loop, or alternate timelines, you can’t get away from the already established rules, or (more importantly) the unavoidable logic problems. With that in mind, it’s fascinating to see The Tomorrow War (2021) still try and shake up the formula.
We are introduced to Dan Forester (Chris Pratt), a former military serviceman currently working as a high school teacher. Even though his life is relatively peaceful, he can’t help but shake the feeling that he could be putting his talents to greater use. His wife Emmy (Betty Gilbin) and daughter assure him there’s more in store for him, which ends up being true in a shocking way. One fateful night, soldiers from the year 2051 arrive in the present, warning that a terrible war against aliens rages in the future. The alien threat has nearly defeated earth, forcing the future to call on the past and recruit additional soldiers for the war effort. To avoid any paradoxes, only people who would be dead by 2051 are drafted, meaning Dan is quickly taken into fight. Like all draftees, Dan is only called for a seven day tour of duty, but those seven days may determine the fate of humanity.
Right off the bat, this particular time travel plot causes the viewer to scratch their head, as it defies the one fundamental reason to even travel back in time. If you’re going to travel back in time to save the future, why bring people back to the future where the war is clearly already lost? Wouldn’t it make more sense to use your near 30 year head start to beat the aliens before they even arrive? Naturally the characters eventually come up with this bright idea, but it’s hard to believe no one thought to do that straight away. As a result, we are inexplicably stuck watching the present timeline be forced to fight the impending threat in an incredibly nonsensical fashion. It wouldn’t be much of an issue if the story was treated in a comedic manner, but it opts for a dour and funereal tone.
To be fair, that seriousness somehow makes the film feel like it has some narrative weight, which does at times distract from the silly plot, contrived set up and thin characters. This is most notable in the action sequences, which might just be some of the most climactic scenes put on film in recent memory. This isn’t to say other films aren’t more climatic, but it’s notable how every action scene feels like it could be the final battle in any other film. In a way, this makes The Tomorrow War enjoyable to watch, as it pulls out all the stops every time the guns come out. Even though the plot mechanics make no sense, the constantly skyrocketing stakes do make the viewer sit on the edge of their seat. These aren’t the most imaginative set pieces, but they do their job.
With that in mind, the constantly climatic tone naturally heightens the emotional drama. For long stretches The Tomorrow War focuses on the connection between Dan and Muri played by Yvonne Strzechowski, thus centring the storytelling around a building friendship. In the moments where it needs to pull heartstrings, The Tomorrow War mostly succeeds despite having less than refined storytelling. Additionally, this character dynamic is not without its issues, as we don’t get to spend as much time with both of them as we’d like. Happily, it’s paired with the relationship between Dan and his father played by J.K. Simmons, which picks up the slack when the plot slows to a crawl. The balance between these two elements isn’t very smooth, but they are still thematically linked in a decent manner. You could even argue the nonsensical plot is in service of an examination of paternal duty.
Regardless of The Tomorrow War’s attempt to be original, it still can’t help but borrow heavily from what’s come before. Along with Army of the Dead (2021), this is now the second recent action film which feels like a lightweight copy of Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986). While not as obvious as Army of the Dead, The Tomorrow War lifts imagery, ideas and plot threads from those earlier films (and other science fiction films in general). The Tomorrow War isn’t without its own interesting moments, but it does at times feel a little too much like a Frankenstein combination of other films. This isn’t helped by the designs of the aliens, which aims for terror but ends up being a little bland.
To help smooth over the film’s kinks is Chris Pratt in the lead role, who continues to be a likeable presence on screen. Some argue that Pratt can only pull off comedic or smarmy Han Solo-esque characters (and that’s certainly what he’s most known for), but he’s always had an ability to bring out a boyish vulnerability in otherwise ruggedly charming tough guys. He has more range than he’s often given credit for, and The Tomorrow War allows him to play to his strengths while also playing against type. He carries the film, which is a good thing considering the notably impressive performances by J.K. Simmons and Yvonne Strzechowski aren’t given nearly enough time to shine.
Modern moviegoers watch a film and decry that it’s either all the way good, or all the way bad. The nuance in the middle has been somewhat lost, as films are never allowed to just throw things at the wall and compare what worked with what didn’t. The Tomorrow War is the perfect example of this, as it’s a film with many enjoyable qualities, and just as many daft ones. It’s not hard to see how people could come away from it and absolutely despise it, but it’s equally possible that some viewers may be thoroughly entertained and appreciate the film’s attempts at complexity.
Best way to watch it: On a lazy Sunday.