DIRECTED BY: Chris McKay / CAST: : Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, J. K. Simmons
More along the lines of a late ‘00s summer blockbuster than an overripe 2021 big budget action flick, The Tomorrow War oozes with that post-Transformers carefree spirit, but with a time travel spin. Despite having a plot that’s constantly evolving and moving from one location to the next, the futuristic sci-fi action film always keeps its head on its shoulders. In 2022, a former Green Beret, Dan Forester (Chris Pratt), who’s currently working as a high school biology teacher, fails to get his dream job at a research facility.
Down about the news, the family man is hosting a Christmas party at his home with his wife, Emmy (Betty Gilpin), and their young daughter, Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), as the World Cup airs on television. Then suddenly a group of military soldiers interrupts the broadcast via a large portal in the middle of the field. They inform everyone that they’re from the year 2051 and give a warning that Earth is on the brink of extinction at the hands of alien creatures called Whitespikes.
In the following weeks, society is essentially crumbling to pieces with the news that the futures they’ve been working towards may no longer “matter.” The first ever worldwide draft is instated, where adult civilians of any age are being forced to go into the future and fight, untrained, against the Whitespikes.
Of course, Dan is drafted and sent to the future where he becomes the de facto leader of a small squadron of very-non-military personnel. It’s there that he learns about his “future past” and how to better appreciate the life he’s actually been given.
Although The Tomorrow War doesn’t necessarily take a whole lot of risks with its story, the way the events unfold is rather unique to this film alone. The plot is always moving in a logical direction, yet one that could only happen with this premise. Rather than focusing on a single mission for its protagonist, the mission, and thus the movie, is constantly evolving as new conflicts arise.
Director Chris McKay, along with screenwriter Zach Dean, always has a firm grasp on the realities of a bizarre circumstance like this, toeing the line between following unwritten regulations put in place for a blockbuster movie and remembering that there are humans at the center of it. We see Dan break the news to his wife and daughter, each giving a completely different response.
His wife immediately thinks about how he can get out of it: “Let’s run,” while his 9-year-old daughter begins weeping, seeing that there’s no other choice, as children do often accept news they’re given, both good or bad.
At the film’s core is a very sweet father/daughter story between Dan and Muri that drives our anxiety in a way that even the best blockbusters aren’t usually able to do. For instance, in a similar film, Independence Day, we occasionally forget about Will Smith’s character returning home to his kid. But in The Tomorrow War, we can’t stop stressing about it.
McKay lays down an incredible first act, setting up an honest and inspired relationship between Dan and Muri. There’s an early scene where the two of them are talking on the couch and we see, with intimate low angles, from the young girl’s perspective how much of a hero her dad is to her, even if he considers himself a failure.
But just as the director brings a level of attention to the small moments, he compliments them by doing so with the big ones as well, such as the arrival of the soldiers at the soccer game where we feel a level of uneasiness seeing such wild and spectacular things happening at a familiar-looking sports event. We see the future people arriving on TV, just as those sitting at home would be experiencing it. This doesn’t just look like a typical futuristic movie— it’s tied to reality.
The timeline details can get a tad murky, despite best efforts, and the second act drags a bit long, even if it’s a way of investing in the emotional weight of the characters, but The Tomorrow War is almost completely entertaining no matter what’s happening. The action sequences are wonderfully composed, utilizing suspense and deliberate choreography of even the grandest explosions and the wildest chaos. Some of the effects get a little wonky during the finale, but it’s the on-location settings and practical set pieces that make th is movie feel real.
Director Chris McKay always has a firm grasp on the realities of a bizarre circumstance like this, toeing the line between following unwritten regulations put in place for a blockbuster movie and remembering that there are humans at the center of it.
Rather than finding a villain who’s objectively worse than his criminal protagonists, Gunn focuses less on the villains themselves and instead plays with the idea of these protagonists fighting people as bad as they are. Rather than being force-fed sympathy for these antiheroes, we learn right away that they’re actually very bad people themselves.
Finding the payoff for a theme that almost betrays his main characters, Gunn doesn’t try to make superheroes out of villains, but shows them as the screw-ups that they really are. Tortured and relatively levelheaded,
Elba’s Bloodsport is the heartbeat of the film even when we don’t love his character. As a straight-man, the actor doesn’t react for comedy, but as someone who’s authentically irritated with the fools around him. And yet he’s still capable f maintaining his own buried sense of humanity, with a pathos that embeds itself implicitly rather than hitting us in the face. Always a standout in any movie he’s ever in, Elba has never been better than he is here.