Time travel lost its novelty as a movie storytelling device a long time ago. Yet, while sci-fi action-adventure romp The Tomorrow War doesn’t exactly wield the trope in any way that feels new, it does use time travel as an effective way to metaphorically magnify the familial drama at the heart of the story.
Chris Pratt anchors the movie as Dan Forester, a military vet who’s settled into a quaint, somewhat unfulfilling suburban life with his wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin) and young daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). His job as a high school science teacher isn’t exactly stimulating, particularly for an ex-soldier, but after an extraordinary event in which a technologically advanced army from 2051 enlists the help of present-day soldiers and civilians alike to combat an extraterrestrial threat, everything changes.
A worldwide draft is instated, with each draftee being deployed to the future for seven days. The survival rates are grim to say the least, and the sense of impending doom has sapped all hope from those who remain. When Dan is drafted to travel to the future and help fight off the hordes of aliens, he’s tested both physically and psychologically, uncovering troubling truths about his life’s trajectory. With the tentacled invaders having all but won the war on future Earth, Dan and a fearless colonel/scientist (Yvonne Strahovski) lead a last-ditch mission to exterminate the alien scourge before the fall of mankind is set in stone.
Like any good summer blockbuster, The Tomorrow War has a good sense of locomotion to it—it’s rarely boring, mostly thanks to the cast, who are charismatic enough to make even the most eye-rolling expositional dialogue tolerable at the very least. The scenes alternate between explosive action and tense hearts to hearts between the characters. While the movie isn’t particularly good at either, it at least keeps a good pace and doesn’t linger on any one moment for too long.
As movie monstrosities go, The Tomorrow War’s look great. They’re sinewy bastards with snow-white skin who leap and lunge with alarming speed and shoot deadly spikes out of the ends of their tentacles. The visual effects team did a good job of making them look fully embedded in the environments, which is to say, they don’t look like hokey, weightless CG creations. And the way they rip and tear through the soldiers looks convincing, too, but the level of violence feels tamped down to the point where the stakes feel a bit lower, particularly because we don’t really see any of the heroes die all that horrifically.
The character work is done well, though, and helps to inform the more suspenseful moments of peril. On the battlefield, Dan is flanked by nervous tech scientist Charlie (Sam Richardson) and scrappy war hero Dorian (Edwin Hodge), who lend a decent amount of comedic relief and gravity to the film, respectively. Dan’s estranged, mercenary father is played by J.K. Simmons, who is completely engaging as always but doesn’t hit any notes we haven’t seen him hit before. He’s grizzled and grumpy and annoyingly alpha, and perpetually threatens to steal Pratt’s onscreen thunder.
Time travel is more often than not used to demonstrate in one way or another how precious quality time with loved ones is, and The Tomorrow War is no exception. The message itself is no less profound here than it ever is in these kinds of movies, but the way it’s delivered here sort of falls flat in the end. Director Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie) focuses on Dan grappling with regret and forgiveness, and the generational theme rings loud and clear. But other movies, like Interstellar and the recently released Boss Level, come at the subject matter from more interesting angles.
Ironically, The Tomorrow War doesn’t feel forward-thinking at all—it’s pretty traditional sci-fi fare. But if the goal was to make a blistering action movie with more of an emphasis on emotional substance, mission accomplished. Pratt is a likable protagonist (almost to a fault—his outbursts of anger aren’t nearly as convincing as his clever quips), and does a good job of selling the main thrust of the story, which is Dan reevaluating his relationship to his family. The action is reasonably exciting as well but, like every other aspect of the movie, it doesn’t offer anything wholly new or unique to the genre.
The Tomorrow War is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.