Review: The Tomorrow War wears its metaphor on its sleeve

THE TOMORROW WAR (Chris McKay). 138 minutes. Available to stream Friday (July 2) on Amazon Prime Video Canada. Rating: NNNN

Well, we can add The Tomorrow War to the list of movies I wish I’d been able to see in a theatre.

Chris McKay’s time-jumping alien-invasion action movie – which plays like a telepod fusion of Edge Of Tomorrow and A Quiet Place, and I mean that as a compliment – was meant to be Paramount’s big Thanksgiving release last November, and now it’s Amazon Prime Video’s big summer release. See it on the biggest screen you’ve got, I guess.

The Tomorrow War has a properly epic sensibility, telling its gargantuan story through a very personal lens. It’s a little hinky on its temporal mechanics, and the pacing is a little off, but it’s engaging and even thrilling from moment to moment.

The premise is basically a reverse Terminator: in late 2022, a military force arrives from the year 2050 to inform the world that the human race is falling to hordes of alien chomp monsters, and that the only chance the future has is in recruiting support from the present. Our hero is Dan Forester (Chris Pratt), an Iraq veteran turned high-school science teacher and family man who finds himself fired into 2051 with a research platoon. If they survive a seven-day tour, they’ll be yanked back home. The odds of that happening are around 30 per cent.

Zach Dean’s screenplay doesn’t rush us through the opening movement. The future war is a global concern, but the movie limits us to Dan’s perspective; there are no scenes in war rooms or presidential advisors sweating the details. The larger story plays out in the background while Dan tries to keep himself and his untested civilian comrades alive from one moment to the next. And that’s tricky, because those voracious aliens gobbling us up in the future? They’re big, they’re fast and they are fairly clever about how they kill you.

That’s when The Tomorrow War is at its best, swinging from brawny action film to situational horror movie. Dean nods in the direction of several sci-fi classics in building the world, but once the storyline is laid out he feels entirely free to muck things up, throwing in sudden surges of action, left-field plot complications and character beats that shore up the more obvious narrative conceits. In fact, one of the key moments in the film comes when Dan immediately figures out something that most other movies would withhold for most of their running time: don’t underestimate this guy, he can even see through clichéd writing.

You can say the same for director McKay, an animation veteran whose credits include The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie, and who brings unpredictability along with him. He stuffs the picture with comic players like Sam Richardson, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Mike Mitchell and Betty Gilpin, every one of whom humanizes the film with a glance or a tossed-off line reading that helps sell the frankly preposterous world through which they’re all moving. J.K. Simmons turns up as Dan’s long-estranged father, his signature pissy integrity a fine contrast to Pratt’s wounded-puppy energy. And in the 2051 scenes, Yvonne Strahovski finds the reluctant humanity of a character who’s spent years closing herself off to be more clinical and efficient.

I mentioned the hinky mechanics, the result of the movie never quite explaining how time travel from the future affects the present; one line of dialogue at the right time would have taken care of everything, though I suppose I also understand why that information is withheld from us. What’s more important is the way The Tomorrow War hides its real message in plain sight, with humanity learning of an extinction-level event a few decades in their future and… just going on with our lives, mostly. Its arrival, at the end of a week of unprecedented heat events, just feels like a hat on a hat.

It’s a pretty obvious metaphor – what are you willing to sacrifice to ensure your child can have a healthy future? – and indeed the subtext becomes text in the film’s last half-hour, which some will find frustrating but which I admired for having the nerve to add an entire fourth act to the story, hang the fate of all human life on Dan’s shoulders and somehow make us uncertain about how everything’s going to work out. It takes real skill to pull that off these days, but The Tomorrow War does it. You’ll see.


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