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Non-Review Review: The Tomorrow War

The Tomorrow War is a mess of a movie.

Rumour has it that Amazon paid $200m to acquire the movie from Paramount Pictures, which has taken the pandemic as an excuse to offload films like The Lovebirds, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Coming 2 America. Blockbuster cinema is still something of a siren call for streaming services, with Paramount famously able to entice Netflix into buying The Cloverfield Paradox as a big post-Superbowl release. However, it’s notable that most major studios would be reluctant to part with a surefire financial hit.

“We need to have grown up conversation about how many deaths are acceptable in an alien invasion.”

The Tomorrow War feels very much like a streaming era blockbuster, something to fire up on television rather than to enjoy in cinemas, something that might be justified as a perk that comes with all the free shipping rather than a movie that is worth the audience’s time and attention (and the price of a ticket) on its own merits. The Tomorrow War is a clumsy misfire of a movie, essentially three different movies awkwardly stitched together with a bloated runtime and no internal coherence.

This would be a problem if any of the individual three movies were good. It’s somehow worse for the fact that all three are awful and are worse in combination.


The Tomorrow War is a high concept science-fiction film. The movie’s framing device unfolds in the near future of December 2022, unfolding just as the world is sitting down to watch the early rounds of the Qatar World Cup. It’s a very interesting cultural marker for the film to use, given the controversies around the event and rumours of a potential boycott. Any movie predicting any future event, including near and scheduled ones, runs the risk of feeling dated as those events approach, but The Tomorrow War‘s presentation of a perfectly mundane Qatar World Cup seems curiously quaint and optimistic.

In the near future of The Tomorrow War, the Qatar World Cup is interrupted when a strange portal opens up on the pitch. A group of soldiers emerge into the stadium, dressed for combat and carrying heavy weaponry. The crowd and footballers react to this strange site with considerable restraint, allowing the mysterious arrivals to introduce themselves. These soldiers have arrived from the distant future of 2050. Mankind is locked in a horrific war with an alien species known as “the White Spikes” and the species’ only hope rests with conscripting an army from the past to fight the monsters in the future.

There is a lot to unpack here. The premise is interesting, but it also is presented in a way that makes little or no sense. The film never really addresses why the human survivors from the future wouldn’t simply retreat into the past and prepare to fight the alien menace there, particularly using the advanced technology that they have developed in the intervening two-decades-and-change. After all, the presence of a stable time loop between 2022 and 2050 would allow for an iterative campaign across time. Twenty-two years for mankind to try a new approach, then send back intelligence and technology if it doesn’t work.

Of course, time travel movies often rely on somewhat hazy or abstract logic. There’s a reason that the fading photograph in Back to the Future endures as one of the great narrative devices for explaining the mechanics of the film’s time travel, because it’s at once simple and elegant. Audiences can get on board with this logic. Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me basically worked by asking its audience not to think too hard about the internal logic driving the film. Avengers: Endgame basically shrugged off any existential questions raised by time travel.

No time like the future.

If a movie is fun and interesting, its internal mechanics don’t really matter. The problem with The Tomorrow War is that the film repeatedly asks its audience to take it seriously. The film’s opening act is a very solemn and very serious forty-minute chunk of narrative and thematic exposition in which the film seems to position its central conflict as a weird metaphor for both climate change and possibly the “forever wars” that have waged across the twenty-first century.

In its best moments, The Tomorrow War hits on a solid thematic and emotional arc that mirrors that of TENET. After all, this is also the story about the future communicating the past, and unpacking what this generation’s children might have to say to their parents. The first and last acts of The Tomorrow War lean heavily on the metaphor of climate change, the idea that the current generation will leave their children to inherit a world that is dead or dying and that the present owes the future a debt that it is unwilling or unable to pay.

Bracelet yourself.

The Tomorrow War layers all of this on pretty heavily. The film finds the current generation confronted by their children, imploring them to save the future. “We need you to fight beside us if we stand a chance of winning this war,” the first ambassador declares. Talking to the latest batch of conscripts being sent into the future, the Secretary of Defense tells them, “You answered a call. It was a cry for help across time. It was the voice of your children.” He assures them, “The sacrifice that you make now is for them.”

To underscore this theme, The Tomorrow War spends a significant stretch of its opening act obliquely discussing climate change. The film’s lead character is Dan Forester, a veteran of foreign conflicts and a high school science teacher. He soothes his daughter by quizzing her on respiration. The film sits on a class about photosynthesis, with Dan appealing to his students, “If you think about it, the stuff we breathe out, a tree breaths in.” A climate change video playing the background of his class warns about the dangers posed by “loss of habitat.”

Plan for the future.

The film’s third act then circles back to the point, making a fairly overt connection between the dangers facing mankind in the future and the damage that climate change is causing in the future. However, The Tomorrow War struggles to make its central metaphor work. Across the film’s runtime, the metaphorical and literal dangers of climate change are never presented as a systemic problem that requires large-scale action to fight in the present. Instead, The Tomorrow War often comes down to a story about how gun-totting bad asses can kill any potential problem.

This is the central thematic problem with The Tomorrow War. The film gestures clumsily at a big science-fiction metaphor for the challenges facing mankind, but it never actually zeroes in on how best to deal with those. Most of the movie’s opening forty minutes takes place after the most interesting aspects of the  premise have been resolved. The audience has been informed that a lot has happened off-screen: that all of mankind came together and sent all of their armies into the future based on nothing but the words of some people in a football stadium and that there has been a global draft for replacements.

There are any number of interesting questions to explore in that set-up. Do national governments still exist, if there is some political entity that can draft soldiers from across the world? If national armies are depleted by sending troops into the far future, what about national defense and border policies? What are the internal politics of this situation? How does knowing the future change mankind’s outlook, whether culturally or individually? Has nobody returning from the future attempted to exploit the experience for personal gain? How come nobody tries to solve the problem in the present?

After all, the efficiency with which The Tomorrow War reaches its starting premise completely undercuts any weight that it might have as a metaphor for climate change. After all, the entire premise of the movie is that mankind united in the face of an abstract future threat and committed to resolve it – to sacrifice its present to save its future. This is precisely the problem in fighting climate change; governments are unwilling to think on that kind of scale. The Tomorrow War imagines a metaphor for climate change, and then implements the solution to that problem before the opening credits roll.

“Bring Your Dad to Work Day” was going swimmingly…

Of course, The Tomorrow War presents this as a weird dystopian nightmare. The draft is presented as arbitrary and unfair, the laws governing it are presented as sadistic and draconian, and there’s a recurring sense that this whole system is fundamentally broken. All of this is fair. The conscription model presented in The Tomorrow War is incredibly stupid and inefficient as a solution to the problem presented, in large part because the large-scale societal change necessary to fight climate change won’t involved rounding up groups of untrained civilians, separating them from their families, and sending them to fight alien bugs.

The problem is compounded by the movie’s third act, which feels like it was heavily reworked and possibly reshot in postproduction. When Forester returns from the future with a viable solution to the problem, that entire infrastructure collapses at the one point in the plot where it might actually be useful. So, naturally, The Tomorrow War presents its climate change metaphor as a problem that can only be resolved by a group of gung-ho guys with guns willing to act unilaterally get the job done by shooting it in the face until it is dead.

Squad goals.

This is the larger thematic issue with The Tomorrow War, one that extends beyond the awkward reading of the film as a metaphor for how climate change can be solved by rugged individualism. The movie is never entirely sure which direction Dan Forester should be looking. The basic premise of the movie suggests that the emotional heart of the story should be Dan’s relationship with his daughter Muri, who lives long enough to reunite with him during his tour of duty in the future. The emotional pivot of the film should by Muri reuniting with her lost father, and Dan acknowledging what he owes her as a father.

Unfortunately, The Tomorrow War doesn’t trust that as a viable emotional arc. So the film’s opening and closing acts focus on Dan’s relationship with his ornery conspiracy theorist father, James. The relationship between Dan and James has all the feeling of a thread bulked up – or even entirely constructed – in postproduction. J.K. Simmons only appears in a handful of scenes in The Tomorrow War, mostly with Chris Pratt. Simmons is present at the climax, but largely isolated from other actors, apart from a big chase sequence with Pratt that looks like it could easily have been shot on green screen.

Daddy’s home.

It’s this choice that really dooms The Tomorrow War. James simply isn’t a strong enough character to carry the emotional arc that ties together both extremes of the movie. More than that, the whole point of The Tomorrow War is that Dan should be in conversation with his future rather than his past. The key relationship should be Dan and Muri. The big problem with the second act of the film is that it relies so heavily on that dynamic, but the climax completely abandons Muri to focus on James, making it all feel disjointed and uneven.

Again, this sits at odds with the central themes of the movie. The Tomorrow War should be a movie about the current generation trying to figure out what they owe to their children, the sacrifices that they are willing to make and the growth that they are willing to undergo in order to leave their children a better future. It should be a movie about introspection and reflection. Instead, it plays as a weird triumphant victory lap for Dan. This is not a movie about Dan using his agency to protect his family, it is about consistently celebrating Dan as the pivot point around which the world turns.

The Tomorrow War should be a movie about parents grappling with the very real and very existential fears about the world that they are leaving to their children. Instead, The Tomorrow War plays as a fantasy about how kids these days just need their parents’ strength of will and ingenuity to fix the world’s problems. Muri needs to spend time with her father to figure out a solution to the alien invasion, and Dan can bring that solution back to the present with him. Dan needs to learn that maybe his paranoid conspiracy theories gun-nut father does have the right attitude to fix these problems. It’s curiously backwards-looking.

Built on this thematically inconsistent foundation, The Tomorrow War was unlikely to ever be a good film. However, it is shockingly poorly constructed on a simple scene-to-scene basis. The script is populated by wry comic relief characters who constantly spout one-liners that clumsily undermine any sense of dramatic stakes, with Dan getting drafted into a squad that includes characters played by both Sam Richardson and Mary Lynn Rajskub.

(Comic) Relief has arrived.

The pacing is horrific. The Tomorrow War opens with an in media res action shot from forty minutes into the film, a tacit acknowledgement that the movie’s opening act is dull and lifeless. The film’s opening act spends too long over-explaining a premise that it has no interest in exploring, and even that exposition is so clumsy that the second act also has reams of its out exposition to get through. When Dan arrives in the future, The Tomorrow War shifts into a mode best described as “unironic Starship Troopers.” Then the third act becomes a different sort of men-on-a-mission adventure.

The Tomorrow War marks the live action directorial debut of Chris McKay, who directed The LEGO Batman Movie. Many animation directors turn out to be good action directors, particularly in the era of computer generated imagery. Animation typically requires an understanding of how objects move and a kinetic eye. However, McKay feels lost. The Tomorrow War is a mess of noisy computer-generated imagery and laboured slow motion, incoherent action with minimal stakes.

The Tomorrow War is a mess. It looks like it was already lost before anybody started filming.

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