The name given to the fanged, tentacled, projectile-throwing alien monstrosities of “The Tomorrow War” is Whitespike, and every time it was uttered I couldn’t help but think it sounds more convincingly like the name of an energy drink than an extraterrestrial threat. That’s oddly fitting for director Chris McKay’s dull and diluted sci-fi sandbox, which is all hyped up on the obvious influences of Nolan and Cameron with not much of a clue how to navigate its massive tonal chasms. After 140 (!!!) minutes of chugging this movie’s genre-spiked sugar rush, you just want to lie down, exhausted but unfulfilled, for a long nap.
If there’s any doubt McKay was trying his damndest to tap into the diminishing star-power returns of Chris Pratt for this would-be blockbuster, they’re dashed in the opening frames. The actor’s grizzled face fills up the screen while he hurtles through time toward conflict, “The Tomorrow War” echoing the time-looped acrobatics of “Tenet” without a hint of the sophistication in its own design. It’s a bleak state of affairs: Average Joes and Janes like Pratt’s Dan Forester are being conscripted in 2023 for week-long deployments 30 years into the future, where humanity is on its last legs against an alien invasion.
The kids of the past are for once justified in their cynical worldviews – why worry about that exam when the world won’t last much longer? – and Dan’s family is already splintered enough that wormhole-zipping to oblivion will give him the newfound sense of purpose we can spot long before we hear the chitters and roars of Whitespikes lurking in overrun Miami. Despite the fact Pratt’s been best deployed as a quip-loaded machine of irreverent taste in the past, screenwriter Zach Dean here leaves the unfunny humor to a supporting cast approaching the material with a wink instead of a terrified stare. The problem with making Pratt the main lead (as opposed to the team-ups in “Guardians of the Galaxy” and recent “Jurassic Park” sequels) is he simply isn’t convincing as the straight-faced virtuous underdog forced to bear the weight of a doomed future on his shoulders. But, hey! At least this decimated metropolis looks nice enough to wish we were watching on a big screen and not our living room TVs (the movie is now available on Amazon Prime).
“The Tomorrow War” takes distractingly broad turns for the melodramatic and self-parodying in its later sequences, where backfiring attempts at emotional acceleration and assaults from more vicious Whitespikes await amid last-ditch efforts for science to save the day. It will, of course, there isn’t much of a pulse-quickening doubt as to that, and if you’re hoping the film might explore its themes of bureaucratic ineptitude and predestination in interesting ways, well...there’s better science fiction you may revisit in place of this. Instead, what McKay and Dean leave us wondering about beyond the 80-minute mark is how much more there possibly is to see when every other set piece has all the gusto and sensory overload of a final mission.
In that regard, you at least have to admire the sheer will flexed by “The Tomorrow War” to stop and take in the view on every rung of the sci-fi-action ladder, from the personal to the governmental to the militaristic to the suspenseful and, finally, cataclysmic. Environments range from fallen cities to falling bases and icy caverns, and the juxtaposition is disorienting when it should be engaging. The movie doesn’t do much to justify itself, and perhaps it shouldn’t when it may be operating as homage to all the more specific, more successful, more entertaining cinematic wells it’s drawing from. But seeing as McKay took self-referentialism to delightfully zany places with “The Lego Batman Movie” in 2017, it’s mighty disappointing to see “The Tomorrow War” failing to say anything of note about the alien-invasion movies of the past, let alone the genre offerings of today.
"The Tomorrow War" is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language and some suggestive references. It's streaming on Amazon Prime now.
Starring: Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, J.K. Simmons, Betty Gilpin
Directed by Chris McKay
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