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Don’t bet your bottom dollar on ‘The Tomorrow War’

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Creating compelling science fiction isn’t easy. At its heart, it’s a genre of ideas – the best sci-fi is that which finds ways to explore those ideas through the building of interesting worlds and populating those worlds with engaging characters. That’s when sci-fi is most successful.

However, it can be very easy to get caught up in the trappings of the genre; too many filmmakers choose to repurpose that which has already been successful, assuming that these pieces can be reassembled into something new.

And often, when they do that, the end result is something like “The Tomorrow War,” a film that is new, yes, but feels all too familiar.

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, the film – directed by Chris McKay from a script by Zach Dean – wraps itself in all-too-familiar tropes, feeling at times almost like a pastiche of influences from other, better sci-fi movies. Every piece of it is something that you’ve seen somewhere else before, and while sci-fi is a genre driven by seminal works of the past, you still need to bring something new to the table … and this movie doesn’t.

That’s not to say that the movie has nothing to offer – there are certainly moments – but ultimately, it’s kind of a tonal mess, one that unevenly stitches together its disparate inspirations while also largely squandering a decidedly talented cast.

It’s the year 2022. Dan Forester (Chris Pratt, “Onward”) is a former Green Beret and current high school biology teacher with generally-thwarted ambitions to get into research science. He’s got a wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin, “The Hunt”) who loves him and a young daughter named Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong, “The Glorias”) on whom he dotes, but he has a yearning for something more.

Their world – and everyone’s – changes when, in the midst of a World Cup match, a wormhole opens and deposits a group of soldiers in the middle of the pitch. These soldiers come from the year 2051, seeking help against an unrelenting alien force – known as the Whitespikes – that is on the verge of utterly annihilating humanity. Initially, the world sends military forces, but when a mere one-in-five return alive, a worldwide draft is implemented; the conscripted are deployed for one week and then brought back … assuming they survive.

Most don’t.

Eventually, Dan’s number comes up and he’s called for evaluation. He passes and is given an armband that will monitor him and allow him to make the time jump; he has 24 hours to get his affairs in order. Emmy pushes Dan to contact his estranged father James (J.K. Simmons, TV’s “Invincible”), a black-market engineer who may be able to disconnect Dan’s armband, but ultimately, Dan chooses to go.

After too-brief training where he meets some of the other draftees – chief among them a PhD earth scientist named Charlie (Sam Richardson, “Werewolves Within”) and a glowering enigma named Dorian (Edwin Hodge, TV’s “Mayans M.C.”) on his third hitch – Dan and the rest of his draft class are sent into the wormhole.

What they find is a world on fire, one overrun by the terrifying relentlessness of the Whitespikes. A disoriented Dan rallies who he can at the behest of the mission’s commander (Yvonne Strahovski, TV’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”), but their initial efforts are disastrous due to the overwhelming nature and murderous efficiency of the enemy.

From there, Dan finds himself thrust into the midst of the deteriorating situation. Despite humanity’s best efforts, there are just half-a-million people left alive in the future; the remaining holdouts are left to try for a desperate Hail Mary solution – a solution both aided and complicated by Dan’s unexpected connections to both timelines. And as it turns out, he’s humanity’s last hope.

“The Tomorrow War” is a perfect example of a movie being less than the sum of its parts. The filmmakers have liberally cribbed from a number of sources, resulting in a movie that feels both piecemeal and formulaic. You’ve seen it all before – and what you saw before was probably better.

Among the film’s biggest issues is its tonal inconsistency. For instance, I’m all for the use of comic relief in these sorts of stories – it allows the movie to not take itself completely seriously – but the manner in which said relief is distributed feels haphazard and scattershot here. For whatever reason, the moments of levity are in conflict with the rest of the story, resulting in a disconnect that undermines significant swaths of the narrative. Meanwhile, we’re also subjected to stretches of deadly self-seriousness that never quite gibes either.

And if we’re honest, the Whitespikes are … not great. There’s a CGI smoothness to the aliens that renders them separate from the action; granted, all CGI suffers that separation to an extent, but here, the monsters come off as pasted on. Whether we’re up close and personal or watching a swarm from a distance, the aliens never quite click.

(Oh, and if you have time travel questions, well … let’s just say it’s probably better if you don’t ask them.)

There are plenty of things that Chris Pratt is good at, but he’s a bad fit here. Dour action-hero dramatics are not his forte; we get occasional snippets of his wiseguy charisma, but too often, he’s mouth agape or teeth gritted, with little of his real charm at play. Simmons is his usual solid self, albeit underutilized. Ditto Gilpin, who is far too talented to have this little to do. The aforementioned comic relief comes primarily by way of Richardson, who kind of seems like he’s in a different movie. Out of everyone, Strahovski probably handles her business the best, managing to lend some gravity to the standard-issue sci-fi expository gibberish that she’s given for dialogue.

For all that, “The Tomorrow War” isn’t a bad watch. It’s got some action and some jokes and some decent performances. What it doesn’t have is that underlying originality, that expression of ideas that makes the best science fiction work so well. And unfortunately, audiences will distinctly feel that lack.

[2.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 06 July 2021 22:15

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