There is a famous, potentially apocryphal story about James Cameron’s pitching of the film Aliens. According to legend, Cameron secured himself a pitch meeting to become the helmsman for the early-in-development sequel to the smash hit Alien. The story goes he simply walked in, wordlessly went to a white board and wrote the word “Alien” on it. After giving that a moment to sit, he added the S, suggesting the hook for this film would be there would be more of the titular aliens to deal with in the second go around. And finally, and this is key to the whole flourish that is the myth around Cameron, he changed the S into a dollar sign. He was signed to direct that day.
This anecdote goes to show that a strong pitch for a film can go a long way to getting it created. I’ve talked before about my weakness for the “Die Hard on an X” formula of film, and probably the most famous of elevator pitch formats of all time, “X meets X.” Thus it is easy to understand why a film like The Tomorrow War, the new sci-fi action entry from director Chris McKay, could get greenlit. After all, a pitch like “It’s Terminator meets Aliens” is hard to deny.
Originally set for release in theaters by Paramount before being sold to Amazon Studios amidst COVID uncertainties for a Prime premiere, The Tomorrow War is set against the backdrop of two time frames. The first is the near future 2022, where a major event occurs: time travelers from the year 2051 arrive in modern day to inform the world that they are desperate for soldiers against a menacing alien force that has overtaken Earth. With only 500,000 humans still alive in 2051, and the fate of humanity at stake, global conscription is enacted and civilians are thrown against the alien scourge known as “White Spikes.”
The top level premise is the best hook the film has, though there are some stumbling blocks to be found even there. The tone of the film is extremely dire, as people in the present timeframe become aware of the seeming inevitability of humanity’s extinction and reasonably start to give up hope. The central conceit of the film is that even in the face of doom, action is necessary; but by replacing the real world dangers with faceless monsters. Climate change gets a passing mention, but mostly as a plot device, and in a way that if you blink you might miss it. Thus it draws from the “doomer” sensibility about everything being hopeless and boils it down to “Yes, but in this world, you can shoot the danger in the face with big guns.” The comparison to Aliens, a film with a none too subtle anti-cap message underneath, makes this warfare against unknowable monster aliens feel fairly flat by comparison, even if the presentation of people literally fighting back against doom and gloom could be cathartic.
Into this global crisis steps Dan Forester, played by Chris Pratt at his most sour-faced. Dan is a former Army lieutenant who has been mucking around in that most indigent of positions: a high school science teacher. Even before the incursion of desperate future humans, Dan seems frustrated with his mundane life, wishing for more. While reluctant to leave behind his wife and daughter, Dan is drafted into the war and is thrust forward.
The biggest hurdle for this film is Pratt at its center, which is unavoidable as he was a primary producer of the film. Pratt is an incredibly effective movie presence when he is used correctly, namely as someone who elicits a sense of child-like wonder, wide-eyed and somewhat naive. His Star Lord works because he’s literally still a kid lost in space; he works less well in the Jurassic World films because, well, he’s meant to be the grounded, rugged pragmatist.
Unfortunately, Pratt is far more Emmet than Star Lord in this outing, occasionally cracking jokes but mostly seemingly burdened by the circumstances around him. Which is not his fault persay; putting in maximum Pratt in this scenario would make an otherwise serious-minded doomsday action movie feel disjointed and wrong. Thus it is a case of him not being cast to his strengths rather than a failure of him or the material; the pieces simply don’t congele to maximum effect.
The supporting cast surrounding Pratt is mostly more keyed into their assignments. Yvonne Strahowski plays an Army field commander in the future who has a connection to Pratt’s character that is both fairly evident and spoiled by looking at a cast list, but is still played as a reveal by the film so I won’t mention it here. Her determination and hard-nosed hope for humanity spur Dan on to action. Picking up the much needed comic relief is Detroiters’ Sam Richardson, who sputters and wisecracks his way through moments while also playing the gravity of the future war segments. JK Simmons does a predictably awesome job chewing and meaningfully squinting through his scenes as Dan’s conspiracy theory loving, beard-wearing dad. And Edwin Hodge is perfectly suited for the bad-ass who keeps going back into the future war, a conflict only a third of people come back from alive.
Director McKay, working off a script by Zach Dean, is better known for his work in animation, this being his second directorial effort after The Lego Batman Movie. This is likely why the fully CGI creature effects in this movie are fairly effective. Visually they are a riff on a thousand different monster designs, but most immediately the bugs from Starship Troopers, with grating cries like Jurassic Park dinosaurs. The design isn’t especially inspired, but they move convincingly, and the moments when they are swarming in giant hordes, it gives a proper sense of menace. The action sequences are well shot and executed with clarity, even if some seem to be lingering in tension longer than needed.
More disappointing is the general look of the film, awash in dull oranges and drab scenery. It is surprising McKay is a Lord and Miller acolyte, as his first live-action effort lacks the vibrancy of their best work and feels more in alignment with Michael Bay. Who knew the future would be made up primarily of nondescript offices and sand pits?
And that Bay comparison also can be brought to bear against the film’s laborious pacing. It isn’t overly long by modern Hollywood standards, at only 2 hours and 20 minutes. But the pacing throughout can feel strained, including a final act that ties up loose ends the film itself doesn’t effectively establish. Several times the film settles into the total stakes of the drama, only to resolve and reorient awkwardly. By cutting up certain plot beats and fleshing out the center of the film, the whole effect would be much stronger.
The Tomorrow War is honestly more frustrating than offensively bad. It has a strong hook (that misses an opportunity to be more culturally relevant), it has a stacked, game cast (centered around a miscast lead) and features some impressive action set pieces (but ultimately maybe one too many of them). It is a film I want to like, but found myself growing restless watching. Something is likely lost on it not being pushed to a big screen experience as some of the set pieces would benefit from being able to appreciate their scope and grandeur, but as a straight-to-streaming curio, it plays out as an interesting if flawed sci-fi experiment.
The Tomorrow War premieres on Amazon’s Prime Video on July 2nd