The Tomorrow War (dir. Chris McKay): Film review

I’m not sure why I thought that The Tomorrow War was based on a young adult novel, but I’m glad I did, because it allowed me to approach the material with the concessions that I typically offer YA adaptations. What I mean is that the film has a fair amount of cheese, and a certain look to it that, had I known it was an original script, probably would have felt even more silly than it already does. We can get into that shortly, but as it stands, I found The Tomorrow War to be quite enjoyable, even with the knowledge that the accidental goofiness within is not the result of a younger target audience combined with the structural difficulties inherent to adapting a novel. It’s far from a perfect flick by any means, but as far as mostly-family-friendly blockbuster actioners go, it’s legit. 

Chris Pratt (who is also executive producer) plays Dan Forrester, an ex-military science guy and family man who shares my first name, which also happens to be the best name. Despite not being picked for a job promotion he so desperately wants, things are still good for him. His wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin) is an equally talented academic, and the two have a loving marriage. Their daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) is already showing signs of the same intellectual curiosity and aptitude that her parents share, and clearly idolizes Dan in a big way. It’s the American dream, and as evidenced by the holiday party where our story begins, it’s a dream shared by a lot of Dan’s friends and neighbors. 

But the American dream IS ABOUT TO DIE!!! 

There’s a soccer game on TV, and just as a player is breaking away toward what is sure to be a historical goal, a gigantic purple portal opens up, and out tumbles a team of futuristic soldiers. The leader of the soldiers makes a powerful declaration: thirty years from now a bunch of aliens will attack the earth, and the battle is one that the humans of the future are “currently” losing. The future force needs soldiers from the present day to travel with them and bolster their numbers against the alien threat. Soon, a draft is instated, and Dan is being sent to the future to fight. 

The time mechanics are pretty clean since there’s very little by way of back and forth between the two timelines. Until the third act, when timey-wimey plot elements are introduced, The Tomorrow War is a relatively straightforward run-and-gun movie, with some hammy dramatic elements that, against my better judgment, worked on me well enough to not be a problem. 

What Dan finds in the future ties directly to his past (present?), and it’s from here that the film invokes themes involving regret, fatherhood, and parental responsibility, all of which mirror the issues he has with his own father (J.K. Simmons). Pratt handles this material well, and comes off as a believable character, even with his increasingly noticeable acting choices. Being that he’s known for his humor, it’s nice to see Pratt lean more into a dramatically focused character. He does this with such aplomb that throwaway jokes don’t really land due to a tonal mismatch (and the fact that a lot of the gags appear to have been moments of improv tacked onto the scene they were initially cut from). There’s a weird feeling every time the film tries to be funny, but luckily there’s a cast of comedic talents to help make these moments work a bit better (Sam Richardson, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and Mike Mitchell). 

The action is pretty slick for the most part, and the alien creatures are downright terrifying. Director Chris McKay’s previous work is in animation, and it shows here. While a lot of what we see on screen was indeed created in a green-walled studio, there’s a visual imagination on display which is steeped in a medium that doesn’t always require tangible things in the shot. We saw it before with Brad Bird helming Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Taking the limitless possibilities of animation and applying them to live-action leads to inspired design in heavy action sequences, as well as a pretty seamless mix of digital and in-lens objects. This is very much the case here. 

It all gets a bit unwieldy during the third act transition, and I’ll admit that this may just be because I missed a detail or two regarding the overall “plan” of attack as espoused by the more expositional characters, but even so, it all leads to an exciting finale that totally rips, even if it makes little logistical sense. Watching The Tomorrow War, I felt some pretty strong B-movie vibes, and when the film embraces this, it rocks extremely hard. It’s when it takes itself too seriously that it ends up coming across as silly. 

Released on Amazon Prime July 2, 2021.

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