Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for The Tomorrow War.
Well this is a rarity for me – reviewing a film while it’s still new! I have to hold my hands up and confess that I was completely unaware of The Tomorrow War’s existence until about a week ago when previews started popping up on the Amazon homepage. But after watching the trailer it seemed like the kind of thing I might like, so almost as soon as it was available to watch I gave it a shot.
Though I like sci-fi in all of its forms, time travel stories have never been my favourites. They’re exceptionally difficult to get right, and when they go awry they can lead to narratives which are confusing or just plain annoying. With a title like The Tomorrow War, there was no way this film was going to be about anything other than time travel – and unfortunately it did contain one of the dumb time-loop story elements that I really don’t find enjoyable or satisfying. However, it managed to avoid many of the other pitfalls that time travel stories can succumb to, so it gets credit in that regard.
Chris Pratt is not a typical action hero, yet following his role in Guardians of the Galaxy he’s been tapped to take on a broader array of action-heavy roles. And as the film’s lead and main character he puts in a creditable performance. There were fewer moments of humour than in some of his other roles, and as an actor with great comedic timing that was a bit of a shame as one of his strongest suits was not put to use. But as an actor, taking on different roles is all part of the job, and Pratt did a solid job as the film’s protagonist. He was emotional at the right moments, strong and gung-ho at others, and fit the bill as The Tomorrow War’s action hero.
The rest of the cast likewise were competent in their roles and believable. We didn’t really get a broad cast of secondary characters; aside from Dan and Muri, everyone else played a comparatively minor role in the story, limited to a few scenes and generally one or two settings. JK Simmons, Sam Richardson, Edwin Hodge, and Betty Gilpin all played their parts well, with the caveat that their characters were limited by the script to bog-standard supporting roles.
Among these characters we have Dan’s father, the conspiracy theorist-veteran-mad scientist, whose seemingly unlimited set of skills allowed Dan and the crew to get to Russia at a key moment later in the film. Other than the personal drama between them, which was performed well, this character was a pretty basic plot device. Dan’s wife, whose name may have been mentioned but I can’t actually remember, was an absolutely run-of-the-mill character type, the spouse of the soldier-hero, and didn’t get much to do beyond tell him she wished he didn’t have to go and greet him when he returned.
Charlie and Dorian were perhaps the most interesting of the film’s secondary characters, and each brought something different to the table. Charlie was comic relief, but his moments of humour were well-used and injected some light-heartedness into a film that definitely needed it. His moment in the stairwell was hilarious, and went a long way to making the first on-screen introduction of the whitespikes – the film’s alien antagonists – much more memorable. Dorian, the other African-American character, was much more serious, and there’s something relatable in the story of a terminally ill man wanting to choose his own time and method of dying.
The very intense, loud musical score feels like typical action movie fare – until it comes to moments of near-silence, which are expertly used to create tension at key moments. The soundtrack made neat use of The Waitresses’ 1982 Christmas hit Christmas Wrapping right at the beginning, and I guess we could argue that The Tomorrow War’s Christmas-themed opening qualifies it – along with Die Hard – as a Christmas film! Speaking of the film’s opening moments, was that supposed to be Scotland playing in the World Cup Final?! Someone’s being incredibly optimistic if that’s the case… sorry, Scotland!
Any story about war is going to come with political themes, and The Tomorrow War is no different. In Dan’s draft, for example, we see criticisms of the way the United States handles its own military draft, and in the technology implanted in his arm we see fears about how technology and our personal data are used and tracked.
The film had one very strange tonal moment. After returning to the present day from his tour of duty, Dan – and by extension the film – treats what happened as a defeat. Despite the fact that he saved the toxin, which was his objective in his final hours in the future, everything in the minutes afterward is set up to feel as though he was too late, or that it didn’t matter with the jump-link being offline. But anyone who’s ever seen a time travel story can tell you that going back in time opens up new possibilities; even Muri knew this, as among her last words to Dan were to “make sure this war never happens.” The only way he could do that was by producing the toxin and using it in the present day (or else storing it in time for the invasion).
This sequence chips away at the film’s premise and exposes one of the major flaws in time travel narratives in general. I can believe, for the sake of the story, that the future scientists were only able to create one functioning wormhole, tethered to their present and our modern day. But it seems as though there were better ways to use it than recruiting everyday people to be footsoldiers – like giving the people of Earth advance warning so they could do everything in their power to prepare for or even prevent the invasion. This is what Dan and his team scramble to do at the film’s climax, but it really does begin to stretch credulity to think that they’re the first and only people to put the pretty basic pieces of this puzzle together and figure out what happened.
It takes Dan and his wife all of five minutes to figure out that “they were already here” – a theme present in alien invasion stories going all the way back to The War of the Worlds at the end of the 19th Century. You’d have thought that someone else might’ve come to that realisation sooner! The Tomorrow War gives this old premise a modern twist by involving climate change, and we could entertain the argument that the entire film is thus an analogy for the dangers in unchecked and unsolved anthropogenic climate change. In the film’s story, the aliens were buried in Siberian ice, and the melting ice set them free. Out here in the real world, the consequences of man-made climate change may not be quite so gory and extreme, but are nevertheless dangerous.
We can definitely expect to see more of these kinds of climate change stories in future, I think. A Song of Ice and Fire, upon which the television series Game of Thrones was based, is likewise a climate change analogy according to its author, and these kinds of stories can be powerful. I’ve spoken on a number of occasions about how the Star Trek franchise uses its sci-fi lens to look at real-world issues, and while climate change was not exactly front-and-centre in The Tomorrow War, it was present, and the film was better for the inclusion of this theme.
There were two twists in the narrative of The Tomorrow War, but both were rather pedestrian and easy enough to figure out ahead of time. The first is that the character who speaks to Dan on the radio immediately upon his arrival in the warzone was Muri, and the film didn’t succeed in any way at concealing that. Perhaps it didn’t want to, but the fact that it seemed obvious for much of the preceding twenty minutes made the ultimate reveal of Muri’s identity at the military base far less impactful; we as the audience knew well before Dan did.
The second twist came along like something out of Star Trek – the aliens never meant to invade Earth, and in fact the whitespikes aren’t even the “real” aliens; they’re animals being transported by whoever owned the spaceship. Their feral, animalistic behaviour and seeming lack of weapons, clothing, or a language, as well as their nesting behaviour all spoke to this, and though there was a moment aboard the wrecked alien ship where the team encountered a dead alien pilot that was well-executed, the twist itself seemed apparent well in advance of the characters making that discovery.
Some action films can go all-in on the guns-blazing killing, and it was a nice change of pace for The Tomorrow War to step back and present a semi-scientific solution to the characters’ alien invasion problem. To continue the climate change analogy from a moment ago, this is the film’s way of saying that science is the key to finding a solution. For a film largely about war, with the word “war” literally in its title, that’s a surprisingly anti-military message!
There were some solid visual effects in The Tomorrow War, and Paramount, Skydance, and Amazon made good use of the film’s $200 million budget in that regard. Any film involving monsters – or aliens, in this case – will fall flat on its face if the creatures are not sufficiently realistic and threatening, and the whitespikes, while not exactly groundbreakingly original in their design, managed to look fantastic on the screen.
So I think that’s about all I have to say about The Tomorrow War. It was solid, perfectly entertaining sci-fi fare. The plot was fairly standard-issue for a time travel film, complete with some of the problems that brings, at least from my point of view. But it was well put-together, featured some good performances by its leading duo of Chris Pratt and Yvonne Strahovski, and kept me entertained for a couple of hours.
Given the film’s unexpected Christmas-themed opening, it might be one I return to at that time of year in future! I didn’t really know what to expect, as The Tomorrow War wasn’t even on my radar until very recently, but I’m glad I gave it a shot. It’s a film with some ideas and themes buried beneath its alien invasion storyline, and those themes elevate it to something a little more than just a basic sci-fi action flick. Not every element works, and I would have liked to see better use of perhaps a slightly smaller secondary cast instead of a collection of underused characters who feel more like plot devices than fleshed-out people. But the pair of leads did well and carried the film, and in particular Dan’s motivation to save the world for his daughter’s sake transcended some of the sci-fi waffle and dragged the film’s worse elements over the finish line.
If you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber, The Tomorrow War is already in your library and you might as well give it a shot. Is it the one film that will overwhelm the hardened resistor and finally convince them that they need to sign up for Amazon Prime Video? No. It’s not worth it on its own merit. But it’s enjoyable enough for what it is, and I respect The Tomorrow War for at least trying to be something more than just a basic action sci-fi title, even if it doesn’t completely succeed.
The Tomorrow War is available to stream now on Amazon Prime Video. The Tomorrow War is the copyright of Amazon Studios and Paramount Pictures. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.