Friday, July 30, 2021

Film Review: The Tomorrow War (Amazon Prime)


Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

This movie highlights why Chris Pratt is one of the few movie stars left.  Without him, this movie would not be nearly as enjoyable.

The Tomorrow War takes place in 2022.  Humans from the future inform us that an alien force is destroying humanity.  They need to conscript soldiers from the present to fight in that war.  Ex-soldier and high school science teacher Dan Forester (Chris Pratt) is conscripted in the waning days of the war with fewer and fewer soldiers returning to the present after their tour.  He does not want to leave his wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin) and daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong).  He goes to seek help from his survivalist father James (JK Simmons), but their relationship is too strained from the abandoment that occured when Dan was a child.  So he is sent into the future set up against terrifying violence where he gets the attention of a colonel (Yvonne Strahovski) and works with her on a last ditch effort to save humanity.

The biggest detriment to this movie is that the writing just isn't very good.  While it avoids the landmine of becoming a preachy mess, it isn't able to plot out a coherent enough story.  This is a shame because the concept is interesting and with a little tweaking this could be an amazing movie.  There are some super obvious tropes that play out.  Early on, they spend way too much screen time on one of Dan's students talking about volcanos.  Inwardly I was groaning, knowing that this kid and his obsession was going to somehow be important to the third act.

Aristotle said that plot is character and the problem is that the characters don't get fleshed out enough.  Again, this is a shame, because we have some interesting personalities set up.  We have Charlie (Sam Richardson) a doughy everyman who makes jokes to cover up his fear, Lt. Hart (Jasmine Matthews) a no-nonsense soldier who knows more than she reveals, Dorian (Edwin Hodge) a man dying of cancer who has done three tours in the hellish future, Norah (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and Cowan (Mike Mitchell) as two average people who are completely out of their element in the fight.  These characters make up the ingredients of a hearty cinematic experience if they are put together with the correct recipe.  But most of them are left as caricatures of what they could be.  Movies like this make you appreciate the writing of James Cameron in a movie like Aliens where you can feel a strong sense of character connections and personality.

Having said all of that, The Tomorrow War is actually a lot of fun to watch.  I heard a reviewer compare it Independence Day, where if you suspend your disbelief a bit more than normal then you are in for a fun ride.  I agree with that sentiment, though The Tomorrow War takes itself a bit more seriously than Independence Day.  

There are two things that hold the movie together.

The first is the charisma of Pratt and the other actors.  Pratt has charisma by the bucketload and he is extremely likeable.  He feels like the kind of guy you can hang out and have a beer with while playing board games and at the same time he is totally believable as a guy who will dive off of a helicopter and on to a savage alien in order to protect someone.  

The other performers also elevate the material.  Richardson is the standout.  On the page, his character could be completely cloying and annoying like Rob Schneider in Judge Dredd.  But instead, he is so incredibly likable that he lightens any scene he's in.  Simmons brings his amazing screen presence to this film and steals every scene.  He pulls off both the drama and the comedy with pitch-perfect timing in a way that makes his connection to Pratt seem completely believable.  The other actors also do a good job at getting us to care as much as possible for thinly written characters.

The second thing that makes this movie better than average is the action.  Director Chris McKay has a real knack for exciting action sequences.  Whenever I felt myself disconnecting from the story, he drew me back in by putting something incredibly interesting to watch onto the screen.  Action directing is a real and underrated art.  It isn't simply a mater of adding more explosions and spinning the camera.  McKay lays out his sequences to ratchet up the tension and throw twists that force our heroes to improvise, which gives a lot more excitement to the scenes.  And he knows how to set up a shot.  There was one towards the end of the second act that got burned into my memory.  I can still see it now as I write these words.

Underneath it all is a story about fathers and the future.  Thematically, fathers are all fighting a "tomorrow war," trying to secure a better future for their children.  But the mistakes made in the present can poison that future.  You see this clearly in the toxic relationship Dan has with his father at the beginning of the film and how the abandonment left a hole in his life.  But Dan has to confront this in himself as the story goes forward.  I say "fathers" because this movie doesn't give the mothers a lot to do.  Emmy Forester is given a bit of a side story as a counselor of veterans, but there isn't much more for her to do except wait for Dan to come home.  But this isn't necessarily a detriment to the story: it is actually refreshing to see a story that meditates on the unique and important role of fathers.  I just would have liked her, as all the other characters, more fleshed out.

The Tomorrow War is not the type of movie that will be ranked a classic.  And it is a shame because with just a little more time spent in the early stages of the story and character development, it could have been.  But in spite of this, it will be an entertaining couple of hours of your life with an exciting story and likable actors.  There are worse ways to spend an evening.

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