A lot of storyline is crammed into the two hours and twenty minutes of The Tomorrow War. It’s bursting with military ops, time travel, alien invasion, parent-child estrangement and reconciliation, and a dire warning of the consequences of reckless global warming. Its supporting cast is consciously diverse, and the movie embraces science as a key tool of civilization.
But at heart, this is a standard shoot-’em-up whose bad guys are such mindless flesh-eating monsters (think of the original Alien, times a zillion) that slaughtering them in ever more elaborate action sequences becomes the movie’s main objective. They’re like targets in a video game—except when killed, they don’t just evaporate in a few pixels of digital smoke. They explode spectacularly, spewing blood and gore and goop in all directions. This movie brings a whole new meaning to painting the town red.
Normally, I prefer movies on a giant screen, but it’s kind of a blessing that this one is only available TV-sized.
Scripted by Zach Dean and directed by Lego Movie alumnus Chris McKay, The Tomorrow War begins with five minutes of chaotic, incomprehensible action. Then suddenly it’s “28 Years Earlier,” and we meet affable everyguy protagonist Dan Forester (Chris Pratt), a mild-mannered high school science teacher and Iraq war combat veteran.
He, his loving wife (Betty Gilpin) and their adorable daughter (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) are hosting a Christmas party when the soccer match on TV is interrupted by a battalion of soldiers materializing out of thin air. They are military personnel from the future commandeering the world stage to warn that humanity will be wiped out in 30 years unless recruits from the present join their forces battling to save the world from alien invaders. Instantly, all the world leaders cooperate—that’s how we know this is fantasy—and start drafting able-bodied citizens to ship off into the future.
So far, there’s a nice little Day The Earth Stood Still vibe going on—until boots hit the ground in the future (courtesy of Jump Bands attached to each recruit), and we find out this is not some sophisticated alien race with an agenda, but a plague of giant, exoskeletal insectoids devouring anything that moves. Their mouths open in multiple directions, like an origami box, and they have a separate mouth at the end of each of their many flailing tentacles. “We are food, and they are hungry,” explains the kickass research team leader calling herself Romeo Command (Yvonne Strahovski). (She also gets the best line in the movie: “Someone get a harpoon on that tentacle!”)
This is basically the first story arc as the plot thickens. The draftees don’t accomplish much during their seven-day deployments, besides providing live bait while the researchers in the future try to develop a chemical weapon to fight back. But it’s weird that the original mission is to recruit more humans from the past for the aliens to eat instead of going back in time to prevent the alien invasion from happening at all. This finally does occur to somebody, but not until the third story arc, when the movie is almost two hours in.
Meanwhile, relationships evolve between Dan and Romeo Command (who turns out to—well, you’ll find out), flinty Dorian (Edwin Hodge) on his third deployment, and nervous, goofy but stout-hearted Charlie (Sam Richardson). J. K. Simmons brings his wry orneriness as Dan’s estranged, paranoid Vietnam vet dad, who runs an underground engineering lab.
Most are on hand for the finale atop a dangerously melting glacier in Russia (harking back to the frostbitten creepiness of The Thing). Even the science nerd kid in Dan’s class gets a part to play in the story’s resolution.
Overall, The Tomorrow War delivers a hefty slice of mindless summer entertainment, if you like your messages simplistic (“To be the best, you have to do what nobody else is willing to do,”) and your mayhem uncomplicated by any moral ambiguity.
THE TOMORROW WAR
With Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, Sam Richardson and J. K. Simmons. Written by Zach Dean. Directed by Chris McKay. A Paramount release. Rated PG-13. 140 minutes.