The Tomorrow War debuts on Amazon Prime Video on July 2.
It’s been a wild ride from Parks and Recreation to Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World. In a rare feat, Chris Pratt made the leap from character actor to action star, and he did it with an enticing swagger and a gleefully goofy sense of humor. He’d forged a comfy niche where audiences enjoyed watching him boldly swing into action and whip out witticisms. So, what possessed him to sign onto The Tomorrow War, a profoundly insipid and unsatisfying sci-fi action-flick that shows off only what he is not.
Pratt is at his best playing knuckleheads, who are lovable even when arrogant. One crooked grin and we might forgive him all of his trespasses (even when they turn our favorite superheroes to dust). However, in The Tomorrow War, Pratt goes against type, shedding his wise-cracks and cockiness to play a sulking scientist with daddy issues and thwarted ambitions. You see, Dan Forester (Pratt) feels his biology skills are wasted teaching high school science. He dreams of working in a groundbreaking laboratory. But while lamenting to his tall wife (an underused Betty Gilpin) and young daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), the world as he knows it changes forever. A squadron of soldiers from the future trudge through a wormhole and onto a global broadcast to drop a bombshell: 29 years from now, mankind is losing a battle with a ravenous and mysterious alien force called the “white spikes.” Naturally, Dan will be pulled out of his miserable life (with his loving family, steady job, and spacious home) to tromp into a high-stakes battle not only for his daughter’s future but for the future of all mankind.
The original screenplay by Zach Dean is sure to mention that Dan has a history in the military. So, of course, he’s a no-nonsense, born-to-lead hero even when the world is falling apart around him. Couple this with the smarts suggested by his scientist aspirations, and Dan should be a real force in this film. However, Pratt just doesn’t have the range to make it work.
This is the kind of part you might imagine Tom Cruise playing three decades back: a self-assured but slightly sad man-of-action. Chris Pratt is no Tom Cruise. Without the wise-cracking and cheeky grins, he seems at a loss as to what to do with his face. A resting furrowed brow might be meant to express incredulity, determination, consternation, maybe even constipation. The point is, it’s Pratt’s only move. Whether he’s facing an alien onslaught, confronting his estranged father, or having a heart-to-heart with his heartbroken daughter, Dan furrows that brow. And just like that, the dazzling screen presence that’s launched Pratt into multiple tentpole franchises is extinguished. It’s as if smirks were the source of his star power, and now he’s Samson, shaved bald and unremarkable. By the time a telegraphed plot twist calls on him for pathos, he’s long lost the thread.
Throughout the film, Pratt is outshone by a sprinkling of supporting players who all deserve better. Gilpin, who was riveting in GLOW and The Hunt, brings a welcomed intensity to the thankless role of Dan’s wife, a stock character defined chiefly by her support of her hero husband. Yvonne Strahovski, Edwin Hodge, and Mary Lynn Rajskub play varying degrees of steely to snarky in future battlefields that ache for character. Rocking a burly bod and a grizzled beard, J.K. Simmons delivers spark in a small but potent part as an off-the-grid rogue. But even this paragon of character acting struggles to make Dean’s stale script work, choking on a “metrosexual” joke that is old enough to buy a stiff drink.
The comic relief is chiefly shouldered by VEEP’s Sam Richardson, in a role that could have been Pratt’s not so long ago. Playing an affable everyman who rambles when he’s nervous, Richardson wedges levity into every moment he’s able: before wildly reckless military maneuvers, in between brutal battle scenes, and amid mind-numbing exposition dumps. While his manic energy is welcomed, the bits he’s given are uninspired. Sure, in the moment, it’s funny watching him flee while hollering expletives. But none of the so-called jokes stick long enough to be remembered.
Which is to say, maybe even a true Cruise couldn’t have saved The Tomorrow War. Dean’s script is overstuffed with lazy jokes, sappy speeches, and clunky proclamations like, “We are literally living on borrowed time.” Yet none of this is as bad as the main plot, which is just inexplicably dumb.
In The Tomorrow War, mankind has invented time travel. Specifically, it’s a form of time travel that allows people from 2051 to come back to 2022 or vice-versa. They cannot go anytime else. Why not? This very good question is waved away with a nonsense explanation involving a bunch of mixed metaphors about chicken wire, chewing gum, and rivers. Okay. So, what do the people of the future decide to do with this time-shuttle power?
If you’ve ever seen any other time travel movie or TV show ever, you’d think they’d use it to pass along information or tools to help change the intervening 30 years and give humans an advantage against the vicious white spikes. But apparently, the people in The Tomorrow War have totally different pop culture touchstones than we do, because this idea isn’t even suggested before every nation in the world marches their military forces through a glowing blue portal. And when that’s insufficient, conscripted civilians are chucked into the future war without training or even any idea what the aliens look like.
That is a mighty big ask to accept on an Act Two setup. Yet, The Tomorrow War seems totally unaware, barreling into a plotline that makes less and less sense as it spirals to an unimaginative climax of explosions, glossed over casualties, and a final showdown that is mind-numbingly trite.
Maybe you’re not worried about plot and character and are just seeking some cool action sequences and creepy creatures? Here too The Tomorrow War disappoints, seemingly plucking inspiration from everything from Skyline and Independence Day to Cloverfield and Gremlins but pulling away all the wrong lessons. The action sequences are sprawling, full of CG carnage and creatures. Some of these are gross and gloppy in a way that owes a debt to Joe Dante. Others turn a tidal wave of civilian deaths into a grim spectacle. Yet, there’s little art to the pacing or plotting of such sequences, so it all just feels plodding. Even the white spikes that should be ferocious look increasingly silly the longer the camera leers at them. They are a pasty jumble of limbs, tentacles, and mouths that look like a sloppy rip-off from Stranger Things.