Producers: Jules Daly, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger, David S. Goyer and Adam Kolbrenner Director: Chris McKay Screenplay: Zach Dean Cast: Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, J.K. Simmons, Betty Gilpin, Sam Richardson, Edwin Hodge, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Jasmine Mathews, Keith Powers, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Seychelle Gabriel and Mike Mitchell Distributor: Amazon Studios
There’s a plot turn introducing the final act of Chris McKay’s sci-fi movie—an ostensibly “original” (i.e., not based on a graphic novel) but highly derivative alien-invasion meets time-travel tale—that identifies the target audience pretty nicely. When the plucky group aiming to abort the invasion before it even begins needs information about volcanoes, whom do they turn to? Martin (Seth Schenall), a nerdy high-school student (Seth Schenall) obsessed with them. And he, of course, provides the key data. Is this cute, or pandering, or both?
We have met this kid early on, in the class taught by Dan Forester (Chris Pratt), a former Special Ops soldier in the Iraq War now (in December, 2022) teaching biology. Dan’s happy with his personal life—his marriage to Emmy (Betty Gilpin), his relationship with their darling, science-obsessed little daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) but is looking, thus far unsuccessfully, for more fulfilling work.
His opportunity arrives, but not in an agreeable way. As Dan’s watching a World Cup game during a Christmas Party, the match is interrupted by a wormhole that disgorges a heavily armed force led by a soldier quickly identified as Lt. Hart (Jasmine Mathews). She informs the world that they’re not invaders but earthlings from 2051, who are engaged in a war against hordes of ravenous aliens—and losing. They’re seeking the aid of earlier generations of humans, who they hope will come to the future to fight in their ranks.
The world responds with a global draft, but the result is so dire—the vast majority of those sent for a seven-day tour do not survive—that antiwar activity soon arises. When Dan receives his draft notice, he briefly flirts with seeking help to evade it from his estranged father James (J.K. Simmons), who abandoned him years before and became an anti-government recluse living off the grid, but ultimately decides to go despite Emmy’s protestations.
A brief prologue has already provided a snippet of his squad’s disastrous arrival in a devastated Miami Beach, but now the film depicts a bit more fully Dan’s absurdly insufficient basic training alongside his fellow civilians—most notably nervous, motor-mouthed scientific researcher Charlie (Sam Richardson), concerned Norah (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and gruff, solemn Dorian (Edwin Hodge), who’s volunteered for a third tour—before showing their deployment into a ravaged, dangerous battle zone. Soon they’re not only engaged against the fast-moving, snarling, hard-to-kill White Spikes, but assigned by their commander (Yvonne Strahovski) to try to rescue a research team trapped in their vicinity or, failing that, recover some canisters of what turns out to be an experimental toxin that could be used to kill the aliens.
After a costly battle they succeed in retrieving the drug, and the survivors wind up at a base in the Caribbean, where Dan meets the commander. Soon they’re collaborating on trying to refine the toxin to make it effective against the aliens’ “queen bee,” and also in developing a personal bond—something that involves Dan learning a few unpleasant facts about his post-2022 life. He makes it back to his own time with the toxin in hand, but the collapse of the wormhole makes it impossible to return it to 2051 for deployment.
That’s where the volcano-obsessed kid comes in, and to Dan’s re-engagement not only with a couple of his old 2051 comrades but his own father to mount a sort of “Dirty Half-Dozen” mission into Russia to stop the invasion at its very start. Success will alter history, of course, but for the better, and also allow for a big, satisfying finish.
“The Tomorrow War” is really two movies mashed together. One is the personal story of Dan, whose recruitment into the “future army” has a redemptive effect, bringing about both his reconnection with his own father and a chance to rectify the mistakes he’d made with his wife and daughter. Those elements have less impact than they might, though, because the background to each is merely recited rather than shown, and it’s difficult for the actors to give it the gravity it needs.
The monster-battling portion of the picture, on the other hand, is marked by solid action choreography and more than adequate CGI. The creature design might be indebted to H.R. Giger, among others, but it’s distinctive enough to hold one’s attention even if it’s rather overused. The other craft contributions—Larry Fong’s cinematography, Peter Wenham’s production design, the editing by Roger Barton and Garret Elkins—are all of pro caliber (no surprise since the picture was produced by Paramount for theatrical release and only sold to Amazon after repeated pandemic delays), but the droning score by Lorne Balfe sounds as if it were recycled from other sci-fi movies.
As to the acting, Pratt anchors the picture, conveying Forester’s essential decency while handling the physical demands of the part convincingly, while Strahovski and Gilpin hit the mark as the women in his life. As his father Simmons is his usual reliable self, bringing his patented sense of humor to line readings and reaction shots, and Richardson—recently seen as the lead in “Werewolves Within”—is equally engaging here. Armstrong is a likable child, and Hodge smolders powerfully as a driven man with a secret—an old melodrama standby, as it happens.
As such medium-level CGI-heavy sci-fi flicks go, this one isn’t bad; it may borrow prodigiously from earlier movies, and its beats are awfully predictable. But director Chris McKay brings to his live-action work some of the energy he did to “The Lego Batman Movie,” and the cast is good. It also tries for a human dimension, though in that respect if falls rather short. So while “The Tomorrow War” is at best a medium-grade example of an overpopulated genre, it’s tolerable.
That volcano-obsessed high-schooler is a stretch, though.