The Tomorrow War portends a better future. Not for humanity. Humanity circa 2050 is totally screwed, embroiled in a war with ravenous alien creatures so devastating that time-travel technology has been invented just to stem the losses, drafting present-day citizens into an unwinnable conflict. But this global disaster does apparently spring from a future Hollywood that has grown tired of franchising every pre-existing movie with sequels, prequels, reboots, and remakes, and has instead returned to the lost art of the rip-off. Hence a poor man’s Edge Of Tomorrow, which also contains elements of A Quiet Place, Interstellar, Alien, Aliens, Alien: Resurrection, Alien vs. Predator, Prometheus, and a variety of faith-based entertainment. The movie accumulates much from its betters before it starts to rot from the inside. Eventually, it becomes a distended corpse of a big-ticket blockbuster, washed up on streaming.
For an hour and change, there’s some entertainment value in simply attempting to identify the body. And for sci-fi fans, The Tomorrow War’s fake-movie-within-another-movie mockbuster expediency will generate some intrigue with some crazier details that don’t come directly from other works. For one thing, most of the contemporary recruits conscripted into this future war are over 40. Despite a lengthy adjustment period for present-day humanity, that commonality goes unnoticed (or at least unspoken) by anyone but Dan Forester (Chris Pratt), a former soldier and current high school biology teacher. Prior to the revelation about the impending apocalypse and his mandatory service, Dan is dealing with the deferment of his science-lab dreams, supported by his loving wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin) and their precocious nine-year-old daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong).
Dan’s mission is only supposed to separate him from his beloved family for one week. Future-jumped soldiers are automatically zapped back to their own time after that period is up—so long as they’re still alive. The majority don’t make it, though that doesn’t dissuade the military from its Zapp Brannigan-ish strategy of sending wave after wave of barely-trained citizens into the fray. Dan also intuits that the older-than-average soldiers are selected largely based on their futures: The government is attempting to employ those who, thanks to time travel, they know have already died of other causes some time before 2050 rolls around.
The idea of needing to paradox-proof military service is a fascinating one, though this movie is more fascinated by what this means for Dan personally rather than the world at large. After a rushed jump into the future and several skirmishes with the unstoppable alien foes, Dan pries some more information about his future/past from a no-nonsense commander (Yvonne Strahovski), whose strategy of withholding said information seems to be dictated by a screenplay rather than any official military regulations.
That’s where The Tomorrow War’s whiff of Christian-movie piety comes in: The filmmakers are careful to characterize Dan as a good husband, attentive and loving father, tough soldier, capable leader, and near-genius scientist, leaving any personal failings as abstract, offscreen concepts that can only be explained, never dramatized, before they’re heroically overcome. Pratt gets in a few of his trademark regular-guy semi-witticisms, but mostly the movie extends the option on Hollywood’s baffling collective decision to employ him as an all-American can-do adventurer rather than an underachieving goofball. Director Chris McKay can’t claim ignorance; this is his first live-action feature after working on several Lego movies, some of which show much greater understanding of Pratt’s actual charms.
Don’t think, though, that McKay’s earlier films fully escape the movie’s larcenous streak. The Tomorrow War’s smashy, explosion-y action sequences feel a little like hyperactive Lego Movie chases reincarnated with military hardware and sci-fi gore. Its gnarly, snow-white aliens, which up close resemble xenomorphs that could have burst forth from General Grievous, certainly make cool-looking action figures, complete with poison-dart-shooting tail action. Alas, this 140-minute movie has more on its mind than a genre workout—though its reluctance to disclose what exactly those thoughts might be forces the audience to rely on tediously obvious breadcrumbs for third-act plot points. (Hint: Don’t assume minor characters and their quirky obsessions are being introduced simply for colorful background in a movie that generally favors the drab and the murky.)
Ultimately, it’s the movie’s approach to its emotional material that feels most mercenary. Potentially deep wells of poignancy and regret are introduced with screenwriterly deliberateness, only to go untapped in favor of acquiring even more bits and pieces from better spectacles: accents of red smoke nicked from the 2014 Godzilla, a ticks-and-rumbles score sampled from Christopher Nolan, MCU-style self-referential laugh lines (which only ever land when delivered by Sam Richardson, as Dan’s nervous sidekick). None of this crap is boring, though it does come close to making the case that maybe crowd-pleasing franchise continuations aren’t so deadly after all. Still, there’s optimism at the heart of The Tomorrow War: This movie has already been made, does not set up a sequel, and will probably not be made again in the future.