Review: Chris Pratt lacks the charismatic star power to carry ‘The Tomorrow War’
“The Tomorrow War” begins with a flash of grim horror set in the year 2051. Dan Forester (Chris Pratt) is freefalling through a fiery red sky, plummeting past the crumbling, post-apocalyptic landscape of Miami Beach. He lands in a murky pool, emerging from his near-watery grave to discover a cacophony of screams, men and women scrambling to safety where it appears there’s none to be had.
By the next scene, set in the past around, Christmas 2022, Forester is happily married to Emmy (Betty Gilpin), raising their precocious daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). On this holiday night, Forester, an Army veteran of two tours in Iraq, now a teacher applying for a research grant, is turned down for funding. Forester tries to hide the disappointment from Muri, vowing that he’ll one day accomplish something special. That opportunity comes when a purple magnetic electrical storm cloud appears at a World Cup match seen on the Forester’s TV: futuristic soldiers emerge to explain about an oncoming war, pleading for conscripts to time travel with them to the hellish future to battle killer aliens.
Directed on an intense, epic scale by Chris McKay (best known for the lampoonish animated humor of “The Lego Batman Movie”) “The Tomorrow War” adds to his penchant for decadent action sequences melded with sharp world building. It’s reminiscent of the anti-fascist “Starship Troopers,” the father-daughter centered “Interstellar,” and the punch-the-air alien conflict driving “Independence Day.” But the film lacks a lead as charismatic as Matthew McConaughey or Will Smith to carry the day.
Much of the narrative, one teeming with deeper emotional beats than one might expect, flows through the close relationship shared by Forester and Muri. His science-obsessed daughter looks up to her father. And when the government institutes a worldwide draft to send soldiers of different stripes to the future, with only 30% of them returning home alive, Forester desperately tries to avoid leaving his family. His number does eventually come, causing him to leave for a seven-day tour. If he completes the deployment alive, he’ll automatically be returned home to his daughter. To make sure Forester doesn’t flee, the government bolts an obnoxiously larger tracker to his arm (making his costume a combination of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Jurassic World”).
The highly trained Forester is thrown in with a hodgepodge of other recruits. Some, like the veteran Dorian (Edwin Hodge), are on their third tour. Others, like the hilarious scientist Charlie (Sam Richardson), are frightened neophytes in the art of war. None know what the aliens look like. The government has purposefully hidden such details so as to not depress recruitment numbers. Ever since “A Quiet Place” graced the screen, sonically, monsters have begun to sound the same. They all carry that click, click noise that tells you to leave, now. The aliens (known as white spikes) at the heart of “The Tomorrow War” are no different. Even their creature design — fast moving, albino beasts with elongated heads and tentacles that shoot deadly spikes with blood-lusting precision — is somewhat disappointing in its familiarity.
McKay tries to balance big-screen action with intimate heartbreak to varying degrees of success. Forester’s first mission in the future is to recover vials of medical research needed for biochemical weapons from a facility overrun by white spikes. A well-humming fluidity drives these action sequences. Mostly because the killer spikes provide whiplash-like kills, and the gory bloodshed bathes the frame in feverish potency. Guiding Forester through the narrow halls of the facility, a maze of death, really, is the voice of Col. Muri Forester (Yvonne Strahovski). You would think the eventual reunion of father and daughter would elicit happiness. But events of the past, still unknown to Forester, haunt the now-adult Muri.
A good movie exists within the mega futuristic world building of “The Tomorrow War,” but Chris Pratt is incapable of delivering the multifaceted character scaffolding required for the action flick’s deeper emotional beats. He has to play a father figure working to repair a relationship he never knew was broken, while still rising to leading man heroics. It’s a performance requiring heaps of interiority, especially when we learn of his fractured bond with his domineering father James (J.K. Simmons, whose spirited performance is buried under his lesser screen partner). Likewise, the film struggles to pick up the empathic slack whereby screenwriter Zach Dean makes a halfhearted attempt to psychologically pick apart PTSD. Even so, Forester will need both his daughter and father to defeat these creatures, who have pushed humanity to the brink of extinction.
Depending on who’s watching its third act, “The Tomorrow War” either flies completely off the rails or becomes the big dumb “Spaceship Troopers” romp one would crave from this kind of movie. The setting shifts back to 2022, in the Russian tundra, turning the film into an odd combo of “Independence Day” and the “Alien” franchise. A snow-covered freakout involves big explosions, ski jets being thrown, pickaxes being flung, and Pratt fistfighting an alien. I couldn’t help but laugh at the excessive melee, the finger snap that awakened McKay to the overwhelming reality of this “high-concept” movie: None of this should be taken seriously. It made me wish he had realized it sooner and understood the limitations of his leading man before dragging this jaunt to a 140-minute crawl.
“The Tomorrow War” tries its hand at throwback ‘90s action glory, back when cinematic adventures could be everything for everybody. Instead, this post-apocalyptic combat flick lacks the intensity to reach the 1.21 gigawatts worth of power needed to emblazon our screens in escapist flair.
'The Tomorrow War'
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language and some suggestive references
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Playing: Available July 2 on Amazon Prime Video
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