How The Tomorrow War Became The ‘It’s A Wonderful Life of Sci-Fi Action Movies’

Director Chris McKay and star J.K. Simmons talk about creating the next sci-fi time travel epic, The Tomorrow War, and the need to consider roads best left untaken.

Chris Pratt in The Tomorrow War
Photo: Amazon Prime

Earth’s future looks bleak in The Tomorrow War. Dropping on Amazon Prime this week, the film finds the planet under siege by alien conquerors in 2051. Mankind’s only hope of survival lies with time travelers coming back to present day in order to draft civilians and soldiers: they’ll be desperately needed cannon fodder in the ongoing war.

Guardians of the Galaxy’s Chris Pratt stars as Dan Forester, a military veteran turned family man and high school teacher, and one of the recruits. Thrown into the fight of his life, Dan must team up with a scientist from the future (Yvonne Strahovski) and his estranged father Slade (J.K. Simmons) to alter the course of the future and save the world. 

“I love big action, sci-fi horror movies, whether it’s Aliens, Terminator, Blade Runner, E.T. or Poltergeist,” director Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie) tells us. “These are the movies that I grew up on. But I also loved, as I got older, Cassavetes movies. Pick your emotional, storytelling filmmaker, who wears their heart on their sleeve. To have a movie that married those two things together and used the sci-fi premise not just for the scope and spectacle but also for the scope and spectacle of your heart, that to me was important and why I liked the script and why I wanted to join the team.”

That heart revolves around the father-son relationship of Dan and Slade. Ironically, in the recent animated series Invincible, Simmons voiced the part of Omni-Man, a superhero experiencing a strained relationship with his own son, Mark. Now his Tomorrow War character also finds himself at odds with his offspring.

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Simmons reports he doesn’t necessarily gravitate towards these types of roles or enjoy exploring the dysfunctional dynamic. “Maybe you should ask my kids this question,” he quips. But he says the “complexity and raw emotion appeals to me… It’s a very fractured relationship when we first meet Slade. That’s really been the way Dan prefers it and wants it to be. What appealed to me from the get-go, even as I made my first read through the script, was there are so many places to go from where we start in this relationship. It’s a very compelling journey that we take.”

The time travel trope is nothing new to science fiction. Back to the Future, Terminator, Edge of Tomorrow, 12 Monkeys, and even Simmons’ 2020 comedy Palm Springs all used the storytelling device to great success. McKay agrees the time travel element “is fun, but can be a total pain in the ass,” depending on the project. 

“In this case, with what I saw Zach Dean had done with the script and what the producers had presented to me, I thought that there was an opportunity for something like It’s A Wonderful Life,” McKay says. “You get a chance to see how your world turns out in the future and you could get maybe a second chance to look at your life again.”

That element is also what makes it standout as unique for Simmons.

“The sci-fi, time travel-ness of it is a device that obviously has been used before, and it’s been used brilliantly before, and used much less brilliantly before,” offers Simmons in a separate conversation. “Sometimes it’s just kind of like, ‘What are we going to do?’ It’s such a fundamental element of this story and our script. ‘What world are we leaving for our children?’ This is a beautiful allegory, if you want to look at it on that level, a story of parents and children, and the planet and the human race. At the same time, it’s a fun, action adventure. It checked all the boxes for me.”

The Tomorrow War’s teaser trailer promises plenty of epic action and explosions. Audiences, however, intentionally didn’t even get a glimpse of the space invaders decimating the planet. Referencing the Xenomorph in Aliens and the titular creature in Predator, McKay notes it was extremely difficult to concoct a menacing extraterrestrial species that felt fresh, new, and scary.

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“I wanted the aliens to feel ancient, so that had to do with texture,” explains McKay. “That had to do with flakiness and nicks and marks, just details in their flesh. I wanted them to feel hungry, so I wanted them to maybe have hollowed-out stomachs and sinewy arms. I wanted them to feel like they had an insatiable appetite. And I wanted them to have a feral intelligence. I wanted them to feel like they could communicate with each other, that they understood what they were saying to each other, that they would run plays in the way that coyotes and wolves could communicate with each other over distances and run in packs, and work together as teams to hunt down prey. When we set out to design them, those were some of the things I threw out to the artist.” 

He continues, “On a side note, I wanted them to have some sort of offensive weapon, at some point,” he continues. “If they are going to take over the world, they are not going to take over the world necessarily just by biting or scratching people. And the fact that they multiply so fast, if they had a ritual that they did to multiply their kind… Those are the things that went into the design process, to come up with something that may never hit the bar of those amazing designs from Giger and Stan Winston, but I think that what we did, at the very least, make something you are going to truly look at as a character in this movie.”

McKay praises the cast and crew for bringing their A-game to set, each and ever day, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any obstacles. Production not only took place in Georgia, Atlanta, but on the frozen and dangerous terrains of Iceland. To begin with, getting a crane and equipment up a glacier can obviously be a practical nightmare.

“It takes you an hour and a half at minimum to get to your location,” McKay says. “At times, there’s the wind and you are fighting daylight. We shot in November, so you have six hours of daylight. You’ve got wind from one direction and then, suddenly, another direction. Ice is getting in everyone’s faces. It’s cold. Then, also, you have to be very careful where you walk because there are crevasses. If you step on one of those, you are gone. You disappear and you will never be seen ever again.

“Those things are challenging, but the fact that we had a great crew in Iceland, True North, made that thing possible,” he concludes. “We got a crane up a glacier that nobody had ever shot on before, so that was kind of amazing.”  

The Tomorrow War premieres on Amazon Prime on Friday, July 2.

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