Dir: Chris McKay. Starring: Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, JK Simmons, Betty Gilpin, Sam Richardson. 12, 138 mins.
When Will Smith punched an alien in Independence Day and welcomed it to Earth, it was glorious – a firmly tongue-in-cheek evocation of how America sees itself, as the globe’s bare-knuckled saviour. When Chris Pratt repeatedly shanks an alien in The Tomorrow War, while angrily whimpering “die”, it has the look and feel of a bar brawl – not exactly glorious, though an unintentionally fairer representation of America’s true nature.
This sci-fi wreck, which Amazon acquired from Paramount Pictures for an eye-watering $200m, certainly likes to think of itself as being as patriotic as the films of Roland Emmerich. Much like Independence Day, it’s about a global war against extraterrestrial invaders that only the United States seems to be actively participating in. Here, the battle’s actually being fought 30 years in the future, with reinforcements from the present being drafted and forced to dive down a time-tunnel in order to join the fight.
The Tomorrow War hopes audiences will thus also be reminded of Edge of Tomorrow, Alien, Back to the Future, and, for less logical reasons, Pratt’s own Jurassic World franchise (the aliens have adorable little T-Rex arms and shriek like velociraptors). In fact, think of anything else, The Tomorrow War begs – anything that might distract from the vast, spinning black hole of purpose at its centre. It has no idea of what it is, what it wants to do, or why it should take up nearly two and a half hours of anyone’s time.
The film is written by Zach Dean, whose experience is primarily with grimy crime stories, and directed by The LEGO Batman Movie’s Chris McKay. Both of them seem so creatively at odds that Pratt, as their star, acts like his brain’s being split in two, his eyebrow so violently cocked in confusion that it threatens to leap right off his face. At first, his character, Dan Forester, seems like he’s a variation on the Golden Retriever-like goofball he played on Parks and Recreation (and, to some degree his Marvel character, Star-Lord).
A central concept in The Tomorrow War is that these vicious aliens, the white spikes, are so relentless that they’ve nearly wiped out the world’s population in 2051, necessitating that present-day Earth sends endless waves of ordinary, randomly picked citizens as back-up – including Dan. There’s no real explanation as to why the US government never established a formal training programme (too long is spent having to explain the ins and outs of why they can only time travel to one particular spot, in one particular way). It does mean that Dan is surrounded by sitcom actors, like Veep’s Sam Richardson and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Mary Lynn Rajskub, reeling off faint jokes about how boring their lives are and how likely they are to die.
But, at times, Dan’s expressions will suddenly stiffen into cement and we’re reminded he’s actually a competent military veteran, who loves nothing better than a vague, stoic expression like “I’m not a hero, I’m just trying to save my daughter”. For a film that features several sequences of characters leaping slo-mo out of the way of an explosion, The Tomorrow War has the odd audacity to insist it’s also a moralising lesson about the effects of PTSD on the families of American veterans. There are plenty of tortuous, faux-profound close-ups of shaking hands, spliced in between the shots of rampaging dino-aliens getting filleted by bullets.
Dan was abandoned by his father James (JK Simmons, still bearded and ripped like he was in 2017’s Justice League), who was so broken by his experiences in Vietnam that he feared for his own family’s safety. But, since The Tomorrow War is a film with zero sense of identity, the message its characters walk away with is not only deeply crass but genuinely offensive to those it's pretending to champion. James is chastised for his “mistake”. Dan must become the better man. And The Tomorrow War pretends it’s taking the high ground right as it plummets off the cliff of reason.
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