The Matrix Resurrections – film review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for all four films in The Matrix series.

It had been a while since I watched The Matrix and its sequels. The 1999 original has become somewhat of a sci-fi classic, with several themes and rhetorical devices entering popular culture and our shared lexicon – albeit not always in the ways the filmmakers intended! Phrases like “a glitch in the Matrix” to refer to déjà vu (or anything else that looks or feels odd), and of course the famous blue and red pills as metaphors for comfortable ignorance versus unpleasant truths have taken on lives of their own far beyond The Matrix and its sequels.

Coming almost two decades after The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, there were questions facing The Matrix Resurrections. Could it live up to its predecessors? Could it recapture the magic of “bullet time” and the blend of metaphor and philosophical themes with sci-fi action? With the story seemingly concluded and several main characters dead, what else was there to explore in this fictional universe? From my point of view as someone who’s been exploring my own gender identity and identifying with The Matrix’s core concept of living a false life, I was very interested to see what the film would have to say about trans and non-binary issues as well.

Are you ready to re-enter the Matrix?

From the points of view of visual effects and cinematography, The Matrix Resurrections delivered pretty much everything I could have wanted or expected – but it didn’t really go beyond that. The original film was groundbreaking in 1999 with its incredibly dense yet beautifully-choreographed action sequences and, of course, the pioneering use of the aforementioned “bullet time.” Resurrections brought those same elements back to the table, and I thoroughly enjoyed them all over again. It didn’t feel pioneering or new any more, and perhaps in that sense some of the magic of the original film was missing. But asking every film to do something completely brand-new – especially the fourth film in a series – is probably too much.

Many films – probably most – don’t pioneer brand-new ways of filmmaking or never-before-seen visual styles, and we still enjoy them! So I don’t want to be too harsh on The Matrix Resurrections: it does its action sequences, its “bullet time,” and the rest of its visuals and special effects exceptionally well, far better than many titles released over the past two decades. Lana Wachowski has lost none of her edge as a filmmaker and director, and the way she frames some of the densely-packed action set-pieces, combined with the series’ use of its signature “bullet time” works just as well in Resurrections as it ever did.

Visual effects were great in The Matrix Resurrections.

I don’t know what the reasons are behind the re-casting of characters Agent Smith and Morpheus, so I don’t want to speak out of turn or criticise individual actors, the director, or anyone else involved in the casting. Looking at the way these characters are used in Resurrections itself, though, I can’t shake the feeling that bringing back the original actors would have had far more of an impact. One big part of what makes Resurrections work so well is the on-screen chemistry between Keanu Reeves’ Neo and Carrie-Ann Moss’ Trinity. Morpheus and Agent Smith were big parts of that story too, and the recasting is, at the very least, noticeable. At worst, it feels out-of-place and even detracts, at points, from our big return to this fictional universe.

This isn’t a criticism of either Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who has taken over the role of Morpheus, nor of Jonathan Groff, who took over as Agent Smith. Both characters are different iterations of the characters we met in the original films, and both actors do a wonderful job. It just feels that, in a story that’s partly about the past, breaking away from the past, and how past events in one’s life can cast a shadow, recasting these two key characters took away something valuable.

The re-casting of key characters was noticeable.

Setting aside the story for a moment, let’s talk about The Matrix Resurrections in terms of theme, metaphor, and the film’s philosophy. It was only on re-watching the original films having heard other people talking about its transgender allegory that I really came to understand how well it works. The conclusion of The Matrix Revolutions saw Neo (as The One) bring the Matrix itself to a screeching halt, shattering the false world and liberating himself and those around him. To continue the transgender metaphor, this can be argued to represent a closeted trans person breaking out of either their self-imposed or societally-imposed shell, liberating their true self and being able to live openly as the person they are – and always needed to be.

Resurrections, if it were to continue that allegory, had to find a way around what is a fairly typical issue that many sequels face. I’ve called this the “Disney problem” on more than one occasion, as many Disney films struggle to find a way to make a successful sequel, and it’s summarised thus: what comes after “happily ever after,” and how do you tell that story without tearing down the successes and emotional high points of the original work? The Matrix Revolutions didn’t really leave an opening for a sequel, at least not one featuring Neo and Trinity, so Resurrections had to find a way around this. Both narratively and thematically, the film absolutely nailed it.

Figuring out why Neo was back in the Matrix, and how he’d survived, were hurdles that Resurrections easily overcame.

Yes, there’s sci-fi fun going on. The Machines quite literally resurrected Neo and Trinity, putting them back in their shells and using them to power an new and improved version of the Matrix, one which was better and more efficient at keeping people trapped. But beyond that, there’s also the continuation of this important and inspirational trans journey.

And some people, judging by some incredibly offensive and provocative comments online, have reacted very poorly to that. The usual arguments about “wokeness” have emerged – seemingly directed at the fact that the film has a trans director, even though the film itself contains practically no overt mentions or depictions of any LGBT+ characters. What’s present is there at a thematic level, partly because companies like Warner Bros. want to make stripped-down films that they can sell in markets where homophobia and transphobia are rife. In fact, that was one of the things that I was surprised and perhaps a tad disappointed about with The Matrix Resurrections: although it’s a film with a transgender director and two gay main cast members, there was practically no open mention of LGBT+ issues nor any significant depictions of LGBT+ characters. Despite that, some so-called “critics” seem to only have this to say about The Matrix Resurrections when attacking it online:

(Yes, that’s an actual line from Family Guy…)

The Matrix Resurrections is, if you look at it on the surface, somewhat regressive. It takes Neo back to his closeted status, undoing three films’ worth of progress and a “coming out” analogy that many trans people found to be powerful. But as a standalone piece, the depiction of Neo’s life inside the Matrix at the beginning of Resurrections is so much more powerful and meaningful than it was in any of the original films – or indeed in all three combined.

I can barely find words to express how much the depiction of Neo at the beginning of the film resonated with me. Both from the point of view of mental health and as someone who has only recently began to make cracks in my own “shell” as a non-binary person, the way Neo was written and the way he comes across is so much more impactful in Resurrections. His struggles, his dependence on medication, his therapy sessions and questioning who he is and where he fits in this world are all incredibly powerful moments. At several points I had to pause Resurrections to catch my breath or wipe away tears. Seeing Neo in this way felt real – it felt like seeing a reflection of myself through Keanu Reeves’ incredible performance and Lana Wachowski’s beautiful writing and directing.

The blue pills are a returning rhetorical device.

The Matrix in 1999 either didn’t intend to depict this aspect of living a lie in such detail, or else brushed it under the carpet to get to the action. But Resurrections builds up to the action slowly, deliberately spending more time with a trapped Neo, someone who realises something is wrong but who seems desperate to push those feelings down – taking inordinate amounts of blue pills as medication to help with that. One of the early sequences with Neo and his therapist – played in a wonderfully nuanced performance by Neil Patrick Harris – truly embodied the struggle that many gender-nonconforming people go through. Seeing such a powerful depiction of something that I can relate to – because I’ve felt that way too – has been an incredible experience.

I didn’t come to The Matrix Resurrections for mindless action. In one of its more meta, self-aware sequences, the film itself pointed out that mind-numbing action isn’t “on brand” for the series. I’d argue that any adult who’s shown up for Resurrections expecting nothing but sci-fi and action has kind of missed the point: The Matrix as a series has always had a strong philosophical bent to it, one that can be interpreted in as many different ways as there are viewers. For transgender and non-binary people, these aspects of the story come to the fore. For other viewers, though, the film’s messages can be read through a lens of mental health, of escaping an unsatisfying or boring life, of finding a second life through online interaction, anti-capitalism, and many more besides.

I found the film’s depiction of Neo to be very relatable.

An unexpected inclusion in Resurrections was the coming together of liberated humans and machines – now known as synthients. The idea that the conflict between humans and machines wasn’t totally black-and-white, and that some machines could become friends and allies to humans was an interesting one – but one that Resurrections perhaps didn’t take as far as it could’ve. There’s a great kernel of an idea, but in a film that had a lot of other narratives to cram into its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, this rebel machine angle didn’t go as deep as some of the others. The reasons why some machines rebelled, and why those rebels sought out humans as allies, were never fully addressed. Perhaps that’s something a future sequel could pick up, as I feel there’s potential in a storyline about overcoming conflict and learning to let go of hate.

Speaking of sequels and The Matrix as a franchise, the film had some incredibly meta moments of self-reflection. Some of these were played almost for laughs, but others had a distinctly unsettling feel, as if the film was getting inside my head and blurring the lines between reality and fiction – itself a theme present in the film’s opening act. I wasn’t expecting this meta commentary on the nature of sequels, franchises, and the state of the entertainment landscape in 2021 – nor was I expecting a self-referential comment about Warner Bros., the company behind the film. Maybe this is a comparison that no one else will get, but I felt it was the second time this year that I’ve seen this kind of self-referential meta commentary from a Warner Bros. picture; the company did something similar in, of all titles, Space Jam: A New Legacy.

There was a lot of meta commentary about filmmaking and sequels.

One really interesting visual metaphor that the film made use of was the mirror. Mirrors cropped up many times, serving as portals within the Matrix. Again, speaking as someone who is non-binary, I haven’t always liked the reflection in the mirror. The clever use of visual effects to show Neo in particular looking in the mirror and not recognising himself, or seeing flashes of someone else that he didn’t recognise, is something that spoke to me in a way I was not expecting.

When I’ve looked in the mirror, the person looking back hasn’t been the person I want to be; it isn’t a reflection of my true self, the version of me that I want to be. Many people can relate to that in various ways, I have no doubt about that; we all have features or imperfections we’d like to change if we could. Just like with many other themes present in Resurrections and the entire Matrix series, this can be read differently by different viewers. Trans and non-binary viewers, I would suggest from my own experience, will relate very strongly to the way mirrors are used, though. A mirror is supposed to be a totally accurate reflection of oneself – but speaking from experience, a mirror can also be something to be avoided; a harsh reflection of someone we don’t identify with or wish was fundamentally different.

Mirrors became an important visual metaphor throughout the film’s opening act.

Let’s conclude by talking about the film’s actual narrative and story. The reason for Neo and Trinity being back in the Matrix – and the Matrix itself being bigger and more powerful – was kind of technobabbley, but I didn’t hate it. It was a gateway to something significant, and without it the film itself wouldn’t have been possible. I think as a narrative point it does work, but the film was definitely better for not spending too much time trying to over-explain how Neo and Trinity came to be trapped again and what the Analyst’s plans were.

The new character of Bugs was fun; a clever riff on a character concept from previous entries in the series who felt distinct, yet familiar. There was a bit of forced drama in the conflict between Bugs and Niobe – the latter now in command of the new human-synthient settlement of Io. That particular story beat didn’t really go anywhere; Niobe was concerned about the safety of the settlement, yet it never really felt as though it were under threat nor in any danger, despite the plan Bugs, Neo, and Morpheus came up with to rescue Trinity.

I didn’t feel this conflict was the film’s strongest narrative choice.

I liked seeing Agent Smith as a character outside of his usual role. He was definitely still an antagonist, but the addition of the Analyst as the program in control of the Matrix had untethered Smith. His desire to remain free from outside control was understandable at first – but was subsequently traded away for a redux of the Neo-versus-Smith battles from earlier films. It was still neat to see an unexpected team-up, however brief, between Neo and Smith – though I come back to what I said earlier: this would’ve worked a lot better if the original actor had been able to reprise the role.

The Analyst was a wonderfully nuanced character, and Neil Patrick Harris put in a great performance. The Analyst had taken over the Matrix, rebuilding it around Neo and Trinity and using their emotional connection to manipulate people and thus make the Matrix even more efficient. This gave the story the necessary explanation to function, and served as a decent motivation for the Analyst’s character.

The Analyst made for a great antagonist.

The synthient Sati – played by Priyanka Chopra Jonas – gave us a lot more information about the synthients, and was the best and most interesting machine portrayal in the film. She also had a connection to the original films, having briefly met Neo years earlier. Her motivation to rebel and to seek to see the Matrix shut down was easily understood: having seen her parents killed, she essentially wanted revenge.

None of these characters – or the other secondary characters – felt flat or uninteresting; I was genuinely curious to learn more about them and the places they occupied in this dystopian world. Each felt distinct, each had a purpose, and they were all written sympathetically. The story was complicated in places, and I think casual viewers or those not up to speed on the events of the original films will struggle in places to follow some of the denser moments which rely on lore and backstory to make sense. But The Matrix Resurrections is a sequel – part four in a series. Even though it’s coming almost two decades later, you can’t expect it to spend all of its runtime re-explaining events from the past!

The film relies on earlier entries in the series to make sense of its storylines.

Resurrections included a fair amount of footage from the original Matrix films, some of which were very brief clips that were only on screen for a second or two. This abrupt editing was a risky choice – it could have felt cheap or even lazy; a direct appeal to fans of the original films. However, I don’t believe this is how it comes across. It continues that feeling of being unsettled, of feeling that there’s another life that one could or should be living. In Neo and Trinity’s cases, these came in the form of memory and flashback – which is where the very literal use of clips from the original films come in. In the case of trans and non-binary people, to continue that theme, these clips could represent the true self that exists outside of the shell, bubble, or closet in which one is trapped.

I found The Matrix Resurrections to be a deeply emotional experience – and a film I’m incredibly grateful to have been able to see. As I continue my own gender identity journey as a non-binary person, films like Resurrections are important and helpful. Seeing moments that I could relate to depicted as visual metaphors in a film laced with analogy and allegory was powerful, but also absolutely fascinating.

Fans of the original films will find something to like – if they’re prepared to give Resurrections a fair shake on its own merits and not get bogged down in arguments about “wokeness” and the like. Though there were things I felt missed the mark, overall I have to say that Resurrections is one of the most complex, raw, and brutally honest films I’ve seen all year. It retains all of the signature elements from the original films, and for people who aren’t interested in a metaphorical or philosophical reading it’s possible to enjoy Resurrections as a work of action-sci-fi. For me, though, the powerful themes resonated with me, and made The Matrix Resurrections a film that was both an entertaining watch and, at times, a deeply emotional and cathartic experience.

The Matrix Resurrections is out now in cinemas and is available to stream on HBO Max. The Matrix Resurrections is the copyright of Village Roadshow Pictures and/or Warner Bros. Pictures. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Jungle Cruise – film review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Jungle Cruise.

Any review of Jungle Cruise on Disney+ needs to take into account the film’s price tag. Right now Jungle Cruise costs £20 in the UK or $30 in the United States to “unlock,” and thus the film’s value will vary from viewer to viewer. For my two cents, unless you’re a huge fan of the original Jungle Cruise ride at the Disney theme parks or a particular fan of either Dwayne Johnson or Emily Blunt, this is probably a film to wait for. In a matter of months, and certainly by Christmas, the film will be added to the regular Disney+ lineup, and though I had a decent enough time with Jungle Cruise, I’m not sure that I necessarily got £20 worth of enjoyment from it. If you’re on the fence, trying to decide whether to pay up or wait, I think this is one you can safely wait for.

That being said, Jungle Cruise was enjoyable. I’ve said this before, but in 2002-03 when Disney was talking about adapting Pirates of the Caribbean into a film, I thought it sounded like an atrocious idea! How could a theme park ride possibly translate to the screen, I wondered? I was wrong about Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl then, and if I had similar doubts about Jungle Cruise eighteen years later then I was wrong again! The film was decent, and paid homage to a classic ride which has been part of Disneyland since the very beginning.

Jungle Cruise poster.

If you’re fortunate enough to have ridden Jungle Cruise, you’ll recall that there is a “story” of sorts to the ride itself. Obviously the film takes liberties with this, chopping and changing things to make the story more suited to the screen rather than a semi-interactive theme park attraction. But I was surprised at just how well Jungle Cruise captured the feel of the original ride, with Dwayne Johnson’s character of Frank taking the role of the Disneyland boat captain from the attraction.

There were nods to other aspects of the ride as well, particularly in the film’s opening act with Frank’s literal jungle cruise entertaining the tourists with the same mixture of dad jokes and props as the ride itself. As the story went on, the film naturally stepped away from being true to the ride to focus on a story that was not dissimilar to the aforementioned Pirates of the Caribbean film, complete with cursed undead sailors, a magical macguffin, and lashings of aquatic adventure.

Quila hits the rapids!

There were several surprisingly poignant and emotional moments in Jungle Cruise which I wasn’t expecting. Aside from the typical Disney happily ever after ending (complete with a fake-out sad ending which preceded it) the tastefully handled moment where Jack Whitehall’s character of MacGregor came out to Frank was a very sweet inclusion. Not only did it add personality and dimension to both characters – MacGregor gained a backstory of rejection and further reason to follow Lily, and Frank came across as accepting and kind – but it was a huge step for representation and inclusion. Seeing MacGregor experience rejection yet find acceptance in the most unlikely of places is a powerful message, and the mere act of LGBT+ representation in a blockbuster film is always fantastic to see. Such a message is especially important for younger viewers.

While we’re discussing some of Jungle Cruise’s deeper themes, the film took a dim view of wealth, aristocracy, and closed societies – despite practically all of its main characters being drawn from the upper classes of their day. MacGregor’s unease at having to experience life away from his home comforts was initially played for laughs – though he did become more comfortable with it as the film reached its end. The villain of the piece being a German aristocrat was also a continuation of this theme, as was the initial depiction of Frank as the last independent river boat captain – and the poorest.

Dwayne Johnson as Frank, the riverboat captain.

Having seen a number of films with British villains over the last few years, the decision to make the German Prince Joachim the main adversary to Frank and Lily was actually a bit of a change. There was a time a few years ago where villains in cinema were often German – or of German extraction. But enough time has passed and enough other villains have come and gone that the return to a German villain didn’t feel like stereotyping or a trope in the way it might’ve done had Jungle Cruise been made in the recent past.

The story itself took a couple of unexpected twists. The revelation that Frank wasn’t who he seemed to be definitely came as a shock – but in a good way! Sometimes twists of this nature can feel rushed or like they jolt the story in an unwanted direction, but learning Frank’s true origin managed to avoid that pitfall. It made his character feel more rounded and gave him motivation. We learn why he wanted to take Lily upriver – and why he was so convinced she wouldn’t succeed in her quest to find the Tears of the Moon.

Lily was seeking the Tears of the Moon.

Frank’s “betrayal” of Lily and MacGregor – which he apparently set up off-screen with Trader Sam and her tribe – was perhaps the weakest moment in the story. It did nothing to endear us to Frank, and while it was arguably in character for him it robbed what was initially set up as a tense moment of practically all of its drama. Though the threat and peril were restored after a brief respite, the way the film handled this moment was poor overall.

Representation of native peoples and their relationship to colonists has come a long way in recent years, and when looking back at past Disney depictions of indigenous peoples – such as in Peter Pan or even the original incarnation of the Jungle Cruise attraction – the way the “headhunter” tribe was presented was an improvement. Considering the tribe played a relatively minor role in the film, what we saw worked well. The depiction retained some of the mystery that westerners have of indigenous peoples – something that the original ride drew on for part of its threat – yet at the same time made at least one key character relatable.

The tribal chief.

Jungle Cruise also didn’t shy away from depicting the brutality of colonisation, showing Conquistadors savagely attacking a tribe of native people even after being offered shelter, food, and medicine. However, the film then immediately strayed into once again mystifying the tribespeople by giving them magical powers seemingly connected to the Tree of Life. Overall, the way Jungle Cruise handled its characters’ interactions with indigenous people was better than in some Disney titles, particularly older ones, but arguably imperfect and verging into some of the tropes commonly associated with such tribes in fiction.

Aside from the opening act, which was set in London, and a few other scenes near the beginning of the piece, Jungle Cruise broadly stayed true to its premise as a film about a voyage on a riverboat. The boat itself had character, being old and beaten-up, and was memorable for the way it looked while again retaining some of the charm of the original Disneyland attraction. Quila (Frank’s boat) was not only the characters’ home and method of transportation, but also played a key role toward the end of the story by blocking the river water and saving Lily and MacGregor. Giving the boat more to do in the story than simply be an ever-present stage for the characters made a huge difference to the film, and made its setting feel meaningful.

Quila – the boat – was almost like an extra character in the film.

Though the Conquistadors wanted to kill Frank – and later Prince Joachim – they seem to have had similar objectives when it comes to acquiring and using the Tears of the Moon, and as a result some of the moments toward the film’s climax felt rather forced. Obviously Lily and MacGregor had an incentive to stop the Prince and his gang of German submariners, as they clearly had nefarious intentions for the magical macguffin. But the Conquistadors had basically the same objective as Frank – to lift their curse – and it felt like there could have been a moment near the end of the film where they had all realised that they didn’t need to fight. In fact I initially wondered if Prince Joachim’s betrayal of the Conquistadors was going to set up precisely that kind of storyline. It feels like a miss that it didn’t, as the film basically ended with the heroes defeating two parties of villains.

There’s always room in fiction for that kind of narrative; not every story has to depict an emotional coming together and teaming up to defeat a worse villain. But the disturbing implication to the way Frank’s story ended is that he simply left the Conquistadors to endure endless torture; they’re unable to die and it didn’t seem as though he took action to lift their curse. Perhaps this is Disney leaving the door open to a sequel?

Did Frank and Lily condemn the Conquistadors to eternal torture?

Speaking of the way the film ended, with Frank and Lily only able to pluck a single petal from the tree, all Lily really got to do was write up her adventure and land herself a job. In the male-dominated world that the film depicted that is unquestionably a victory for her – but her original ambition had been to use the Tears of the Moon to “revolutionise medicine” and save countless lives, not least in the ongoing First World War. It seems as though this ambition was thwarted, yet the film skips over this point.

Jack Whitehall is not someone I would have expected to see in a film like Jungle Cruise, but he put in a creditable performance as MacGregor. His stand-up act often draws on his self-styled “posh” image, and his character felt like an exaggerated version of that in some respects. Emily Blunt was outstanding in the role of Lily, bringing real personality to the character and crafting a heroine that we as the audience wanted to get behind. Dwayne Johnson seemed at first to be playing a fairly typical “Dwayne Johnson” role, but the addition of an unexpected backstory for his character of Frank took the character to a different place and forced him to step out of his comfort zone and play things differently as the film passed the two-thirds mark. Though perhaps it wasn’t an Oscar-worthy performance, I found Frank to be a believable protagonist and someone I wanted to see succeed.

MacGregor and Frank shared a genuinely touching moment in Jungle Cruise that I wasn’t expecting.

Jungle Cruise relied heavily on CGI almost throughout, and not all of the animation work was as realistic as it could’ve been. Recent productions, even on television, have seen some truly outstanding CGI work, and while nothing in Jungle Cruise was awful or even immersion-breaking, there were quite a few elements that didn’t look quite right. At a number of points I felt that some of the CGI had that “too shiny,” plastic look that plagued CGI a few years ago, and I really thought that animation – especially cinematic animation – had begun to move past that particular issue.

I would’ve liked to have seen more physical props and practical effects, and the fact that a large portion of Jungle Cruise was filmed with green screens and other modern tricks wasn’t as well-concealed as it might’ve been. And perhaps this final point on visuals is a bit of a nitpick, but the fact that a number of the so-called “jungle” sequences were filmed not in South America but in Hawai’i was apparent to anyone who knows their flora! Different biomes do look different from one another, and a few scenes in particular which supposedly took place on the banks of the Amazon were very clearly filmed elsewhere. I know that’s a minor point that won’t have bugged many people, but I found it worth noting.

Happily ever after for the main characters!

So that’s about all I have to say, I think. Jungle Cruise certainly compares to the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean and other fantasy-adventure titles. It was fun, emotional at points, and set up its trio of main characters for a story that was easy enough to follow for kids while still having plenty to offer for adults as well. It stands up well against many adventure films, including classics of the genre like Indiana Jones – which Jungle Cruise was clearly channelling at points!

I had an enjoyable time with Jungle Cruise, and it was a fun way to spend a couple of hours. Whether it will be worth the cost of admission on Disney+ is something everyone will have to decide for themselves, but I think it’ll still be an enjoyable watch in a couple of months’ time. Jungle Cruise presented a fun story that drew inspiration from the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean, yet stayed true to its origins as a theme park attraction. It was a fun ride down the river with Frank, Lily, and MacGregor, and I’m sure I’ll have fun watching the film for a second and third time in the future; it’s definitely one to return to when I’m in the mood for adventure!

Jungle Cruise is available to stream now on Disney+ Premier Access (for a fee). Jungle Cruise is the copyright of Walt Disney Pictures and The Walt Disney Company. Some promotional images courtesy of The Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The Tomorrow War – film review

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.

Publicity image for The Tomorrow War.

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.

Yvonne Strahovski and Chris Pratt were The Tomorrow War’s leading pair.

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.

Sam Richardson’s character of Charlie provided The Tomorrow War with just about the right amount of comic relief.

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 dire warnings about Dan’s arm implant/bracer could be taken as a critique of the way data is used today.

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.

A handful of untrained people manage to figure out how to stop the aliens in less than a day when the rest of the world couldn’t in several years? Hmm.

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.

The team inside a glacier.

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.

I quite enjoyed the reveal that the alien invaders never meant to come to Earth and were essentially just animals – even if it wasn’t exactly well-hidden earlier in the film.

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.

One of the whitespikes – the invading aliens.

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.