An elite team of futuristic, “Rambo”-style researchers saves the day in “The Tomorrow War,” a time-traveling actioner released this past weekend on Prime Video that harkens back to yesteryear’s blockbusters. Led by relatable everyman star Chris Pratt, the plot moves briskly and keeps motivations clear — defeat the aliens, save your family — in a welcome throwback style that returns big-budget science fiction to form.
Finally, Sci-Fi That Puts Action Over Politics
This genre has focused on social commentary in recent years, creating films that are increasingly brooding and dark. From “Annihilation” (starring Natalie Portman) to forgettable “The Midnight Sky” (with George Clooney) to Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” (whatever that was about), sci-fi has been defined by abstract intellectualism, a tone of dread, and low box-office results.
By contrast, this flick from director Chris McKay (“The Lego Batman Movie”) offers an appealing balance of edge-of-your-seat tension, character moments, and action set-pieces. He wears his influences on his sleeve, with visual or dialogue shout-outs to sci-fi hitmakers James Cameron (“The Terminator”), Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day”), and Steven Spielberg (“War of the Worlds”), among others.
It’s no small feat to keep audiences engaged for more than two hours, but McKay pulls it off, thanks to likable, bankable star Pratt. Pratt’s role as a family man with a particular set of skills makes this reminiscent of past action films starring Bruce Willis and Liam Neeson.
“I will do what no one else is willing to do,” says Pratt’s character to his daughter early in the film, a line echoed later.
A Likeable Take On The Humans v. Aliens Trope
(Note: some light spoilers follow.)
Thirty years in the future, humanity is fighting a losing war against alien invaders and sends a warning back to our present day, recruiting volunteers to change the course of history. World leaders collaborate to institute an efficient global draft (suspension of disbelief always plays a part in sci-fi), as the future denizens who’ve ventured back three decades have jerry-rigged tech to transport people forward. Like some of the genre’s best entries, “The Tomorrow War” just accepts time travel as reality and forgoes tedious invented jargon.
Pratt’s character, a special-ops veteran, gets thrown in with a motley crew of retirees, self-interested survivalists, and a wise-cracking smart guy who somehow manages to live through multiple armed conflicts (“I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this,” says the recruit played by comic actor Sam Richardson, surveying alien carnage in 2051.) Naturally, Pratt becomes the de facto leader and this unit’s actions are central to the world-saving plot.
While they are assigned to support the research team, they’re smart enough to recognize only 30 percent of draftees have made it back from week-long missions — but scrappy enough to challenge the odds. They’re also backed up by serious military hardware, as several scenes feature a squadron of F-35s, the F-22 demo squadron from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, and a C-130 courtesy of the 94th Airlift Wing at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Georgia.
Contributions from the U.S. military are perhaps why America plays an outsized role in saving mankind, while other nations barely make a cameo. Yet the impending doom of the film’s premise keeps guns-and-glory bravado in check. An early scene shows an extremely quick and almost dehumanizing onboarding process for recruits, which seems realistic for a years-long global draft claiming tens of millions of lives.
Sensible Plot and Nuanced Character Relationships
Two elements in particular make “The Tomorrow War” work. The film follows Pratt and his unit through several immediate objectives, including a rescue operation and a mission to secure genetic material from a lab. Such micro-missions are explained well in the context of humanity’s macro-strategy for defeating the voracious aliens.
By the way, don’t count on an empathetic portrayal of the extra-terrestrials, whose destructive and violent nature never lets up (“They are hungry, and we are food,” comments the lead scientist played by Yvonne Strahovski). Director McKay and team push the bounds of PG-13 with the alien gore, as the tentacled, dragon-like aliens explode in yellow-green goo and blood. It’s not full-on “Starship Troopers,” but it gets close.
Another setup that pays off effectively comes with longtime star J.K. Simmons (“Whiplash,” “Oz”), portraying Pratt’s dad. He’s a Vietnam vet channeling his past regrets into an anti-government operation to get draftees off the global radar. A five-minute early sequence dripping with antagonism between Simmons and Pratt amplifies the film’s personal stakes. Sure, it’s popcorn-movie sci-fi, but these actors turn in some best-of-career scenes.
The script subtly shows how Pratt’s character, advancing thirty years forward in time, can observe his own assumption of his dad’s post-combat malaise. From his family’s standpoint, he realizes it would be better if he had not returned from the alien war. This foreknowledge makes him determined to break the cycle.
By the film’s third act, tattooed Simmons plays a pivotal part as father and son reteam for a critical mission. The finale isn’t quite as schlocky as when the crazy, abducted old man in “Independence Day” gets to fly a nuclear bomb into an alien starship, but the fisticuff heroics from Pratt’s small “A Team”-like squad nonetheless bring that to mind.
If you think about it too much, “The Tomorrow War” has several plot holes. But the summer blockbuster is meant to be enjoyed, not overthought. One core theme is worth cheering: family is worth fighting for. “My best future, it turns out, was always right in front of me,” Pratt says in a closing voice-over.
If you enjoy “The Tomorrow War,” watch for further wide-appeal blockbusters from its key talent in years to come. Director Chris McKay has big-budget films “Johnny Quest” and “Nightwing” on tap, while Chris Pratt has karate comedy “The Black Belt” in development along with several more appearances as “Star-Lord” coming in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, and some suggestive references, “The Tomorrow War” is available now on Amazon Prime Video.