starring Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, J.K. Simmons, Betty Gilpin
written by Zach Dean
directed by Chris McKay
by Walter Chaw Not to be confused with Joe Haldeman's classic 1974 novel The Forever War, Chris McKay's super-stupid The Tomorrow War doesn't bear up under the slightest prodding yet demonstrates an admirable agreeability to "sciencing the shit out of" part of its solution while dealing, however rotely, with its father/son and father/daughter abandonment themes. Pratt, whose Q-meter stock has fallen because of a few public missteps, proves an affable presence as science teacher-cum-future soldier Dan Forester, enlisted by future soldiers into fighting the tomorrow war against thorn-tossing, bugbear monster things dubbed "White Spikes." See, in 30 years or so, humans are down to their last half-million and need people from the past to bolster their ranks. But doesn't that create some temporal anomaly problems? I'm very glad you asked. Yes, it does. That's why they only recruit people who are going to die within a decade anyway, which is either an incredibly stupid plan in its looseness or an incredibly cynical plan that presumes none of these people will procreate again within the next 10 years--or, you know, otherwise do something that will fuck with the future in an unexpected way. Maybe they've accounted for all that and simply don't share. Or maybe it's like that Mark Hamill anecdote about how his hair should have been filthy and wet for a scene shot out of sequence but meant to follow the trash-compactor escape in Star Wars: As Harrison Ford sagely informed him, "Kid, it ain't that kind of movie."
The other part of that anecdote, though, is how Ford goes on to say something to the effect of, "If people are thinking about continuity issues, then the movie's probably in a lot of trouble." The Tomorrow War is, at least premise-wise, in a lot of trouble. I liked it anyway, in the same way I love Frequency and Interstellar, two other, better films about father/son or father/daughter issues that use the space-time continuum as a metaphor. (Contact is another movie that falls into this category.) It's not exactly a metaphor in the case of The Tomorrow War (the picture's too stupid for that), but rather an expedient narrative framework upon which to drape doe eyes and sad conversations aplenty about lonesome childhoods and the end of the world. (Maybe it is a metaphor.) A too-long opening sees Dan not getting a job and his adorable 7-year-old daughter Miri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) trying, along with his doting, long-suffering wife, Emmy (Betty Gilpin), to cheer him up as they host a Super Bowl par--no, wait, it's a soccer party, in the middle of the United States, because this is science-fiction. Mid-match, on the pitch, a wormhole opens up, and all of these soldiers appear to deliver a message to the world, in English, that our services are needed in the future! One could take a moment to unravel why this is a weird way to go about it, but hey. Soon, what we know will happen happens, and Dan is shot into future Miami--which, with its crumbling facades, demonstrates an extraordinary amount of bad timing, given recent events.
It must be said that this is where the movie gets sort of interesting. Something goes wrong with the wormholing--it doesn't matter what, because we never learn what--and our time travellers are deposited in the wrong place. Hilarity ensues. Dan demonstrates he's good in a pinch, knows how to handle a future machine gun (because his dad is a member of that mythical "well-regulated militia"), and truly cares for his charges, even brash Norah (Mary Lynn Rajskub, who deserves better) and garrulous knucklehead Charlie (Sam Richardson), who is Black, you see. Your other choice for representation is psychotic Dorian (Edwin Hodge), who has now volunteered for his third tour of future-duty because he doesn't have anything at home, man, and he's gonna die anyway. It's not well-thought-out, though it's no less thought-out than the rest of it. The film is ultimately a bildungsroman featuring a white guy who learns, without knowing the necessity of the lesson, how important it is not to get a divorce. Don't ask. Pratt has become the slightly puffier version of John Krasinski in our popular culture, the two of them wormholed from 1955 to evangelize, through their oddly stolid, staunchly derivative, gloriously nonsensical genre/action excreta, how at the end of the day, the most important thing in a young lady's life is a Girl for a mom and a Boy for a dad. The real "Tomorrow War" is their battle for the WASP family unit.
So Dan meets a brilliant future scientist named Col. Forester (Yvonne Strahovski). She's trying to find a toxin that will kill the Queen Alien, which means capturing the Queen Alien for study. Remember that Jurassic World movie where these brilliant dinosaur scientists smear themselves with baby T-rex blood then wonder why the mother T-rex spends the whole movie looking for them? It's fine. Turns out Col. Forester's first name is Miri, just like Dan's 7-year-old daughter. But this woman is 35, so...hey, waitaminute! This is a tomorrow war! I should have mentioned that Dan is estranged from his dad, James (J.K. Simmons), a tinfoil-hat conspiracy nut/survivalist destined to play a key role in saving the whole damned world. Again, for those keeping score, a fundamental Christian and his cult dad are the heroes. Oh, and Dan has a closing voiceover where he vows never to leave his family because there are Promises to Keep for men. The Tomorrow War is like Twilight for Evangelicals instead of Mormons. I gotta say, seems like more fun to be a Mormon just based on that.
And yet, I liked it. It has fun, stupid action and extremely fun, stupid science. I wouldn't even talk about its Evangelical subtext if it weren't so noxious. I'll watch Sam Richardson and J.K. Simmons in pretty much anything, and it's fascinating to unravel how Pratt is the same kind of movie star as Kevin Costner, with the same appeal and same obvious limitations. Pratt would be wonderful as Jake in Silverado or Crash in Bull Durham (if it weren't so naughty), or a gill-man throwing a little girl into the ocean, or even as a clueless Civil War soldier discovering Native Americans for the first time. The ideal role for him, frankly, is as a serial killer; he and Krasinski should reboot In Cold Blood and play Hickock and Smith. I liked The Tomorrow War, too, because there is a long, concerted effort to pretend that science is how they're going to resolve this giant explody movie and, during those bits, Pratt and Strahovski put in the work with the very little they're given. It really doesn't make much sense for her to be cold towards this incarnation of him. And don't spend any time trying to work out why it is that Dan doesn't seem to understand that if he brings the future solution back in time, he can stop the Tomorrow War altogether, thus obviating the need for him to return to the future once enough of the magic formula is manufactured in the past in order to save future Miri from her fate. See, if he staves off the invasion, there's no war... Why does nobody get this? At one point, someone looks at something from the future under a microscope in the present, and I realized that no one had ever thought to do that before. I mean, if you knew of a virus that would kill off the human race in 30 years and you had a sample of it, would you start studying it now or would you wait 30 years? I guess Covid conduct suggests we would wait, so what do I know? Maybe send a dead monster into the past to be studied so it could be eradicated before it...wipes out 99.9% of people?
There's a particularly stupid bit that I, again, liked anyway, where they realize that something has to do with volcanos and then run to the high-school nerd who likes volcanos to ask him some questions instead of, you know, calling a fucking vulcanologist, or Googling the damn thing. Kid, it ain't that kind of movie. The Tomorrow War is a giant, stupid (have I used "stupid" already?) agitprop piece for the sanctity of the traditional nuclear family that's a good time anyway because it's fun to shout at the screen, it's fun to make fun of idiots, and it's fun to pretend for a while that these assholes aren't winning. It's like the megabudget version of Cloverfield nobody wanted because it would have turned out like this, but here it is, and it has its pleasures nevertheless. The Tomorrow War is like an unironic, un-self-aware Starship Troopers, the type of science-fiction that is essentially a Farraday Box for coherent thoughts. It's bad--expensive bad, like old haggis wrapped in gold, so in it goes and out it went. Have I said, "I liked it?" I liked it. I like when meatbags run around doing dumb things to get bitten in half by monsters; I like when a crack team infiltrates a secure site and then their entire plan is that they'll carefully inject a thousand monsters, one by one, with vials of monster poison that makes them scream and thrash around and the plan is that they can do this quiet-like without disturbing the others; and I like how this brilliant man of science doesn't seem to understand that if he changes the past, he will no longer have to return to the future to change the future. There's really no talking to these people, you know? That glazed, faraway stare of fanatical conviction is a function, not a bug. We're fucked. But goddamn, did we make a lot of noise on the way out. Yippee ki-yay, motherfuckers!