The Tomorrow War Review: Chris Pratt Goes on Cruise Control

The Tomorrow War, a Paramount movie shuffled to Amazon Prime due to COVID, is a stupidly written movie. Its pacing is terrible, it introduces major characters only to forget about them for the entire middle stretch of the story, its attempts at deeper themes play like machines trying to mimic emotions, and it features the most painfully obvious foreshadowing to come along in a long time. And yet…thanks to the charisma of Chris Pratt, some nifty creature design, and action set pieces that work despite being derivative, it manages to entertain. Had it opened in theaters as planned, a $20 ticket might feel like a ripoff. At home, it’s a star-fueled spectacle that’s moderately better than most direct-to-streaming films that try to do the same thing.

Pratt might just be the most adaptable of all the newest Marvel-created movie stars. His combination of a strong comedy background and military knowledge via his older veteran brother makes for the sort of unbeatable combo Bruce Willis used to have. He plugged into the Jurassic World franchise effectively, and similarly works here as an Iraq vet who also has a yen for science and a way with words. So the script feels like a hodge-podge of every sci-fi project Tom Cruise turned down in favor of risking death for the next crazy Mission: Impossible stunt. Pratt still sells the hell out of it. He can’t spin straw into gold like Rumpelstiltskin. But he can make you not mind straw.

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Beginning semi-optimistically in a post-pandemic 2022 where big house parties are the norm again, The Tomorrow War quickly darkens the mood. Soldiers from the future emerge from a time portal during the World Cup, and proceed to unite the world to their cause. That is, to bolster their ranks with recruits from the present for a future war against aliens that they’re losing. A global draft gets established, and nice suburban dad/veteran/science teacher Dan (Pratt) has to go. The timeline is super-protracted: one week of training, one week of service. No wonder only 20% of those sent come back alive.

One thing the movie and its publicity team have done really well is to hold off showing the aliens, dubbed “white spikes,” for as long as possible. No doubt inspired by A Quiet Place, they’re the movie’s biggest card to play, and suitably horrifying in design. They’re also way less of an obvious Resident Evil crib than A Quiet Place‘s not-Lickers. Quickly culling a large group of draftees down to the key characters, they’re a more-than-effective threat. And the humans left alive must face a mission that would be nigh-impossible for actual trained troops.

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Broad-enough strokes and superficially plausible explanations paper over most of the obvious questions. Audiences are here to see human-on-alien killing, and the filmmakers provide. Sure, the greenscreening can get rough, and an added haziness appears designed to hide CG seams. But Pratt, who has some experience acting opposite invisible things, takes it all in stride. For most of the future stuff, he interacts primarily with Yvonne Strahovski’s Romeo Command, as they strive to do science and kick ass simultaneously.

Other actors set up intriguing characters only to get mostly sidelined. Sam Richardson’s uber-nervous Charlie plays Bubba to Pratt’s Gump, while Edwin Hodges’ ruthless, experienced Dorian holds trauma tightly inside. Mary Lynn Rajskub makes for an amusingly unlikely draftee, while J.K. Simmons fully shows off his Justice League physique as Dan’s conspiracy-nut father. And the script, credited to Deadfall‘s Zach Dean, has no idea what to do with any of them when they’re not directly serving Dan’s arc. For director Chris McKay, this material feels like a significant comedown from his previous film, The LEGO Batman Movie. Some called that the best Batman movie ever made — few will call this one the best anything.

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Because this is also one of those movies where, just when you think it’s over, there’s an entire act to go. One which requires significant characters to act stupidly, albeit admittedly in a way one can imagine real people acting now. And then it starts more blatantly ripping off familiar things. The expertly staged action nonetheless keeps things moving and watchable, even as the influences become easy to spot. A good monster fight is a good monster fight. Also? Ham-handed use of parental estrangement as a theme is ham-handed. As is a shoehorned-in climate change warning.

Getting a movie that looks this epic in scale straight to streaming still feels like a novelty. And on Independence Day weekend, it’s a better dumb-fun, invasion-flick choice than the movie which bears the holiday’s name. Yet it’s also a given that nobody will ever quote it anywhere near as much in years to come.

The Tomorrow War debuts on Amazon Prime on July 2.

Grade: 2.5/5

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