Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Movie Review: ‘The Tomorrow War’ Sees Fun, Struggles Being a New ‘Independence Day’

Director: Chris McKay
Writer: Zach Dean
Stars: Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, Betty Gilpin, Sam Richardson, Edwin Hodge, Keith Powers, J.K. Simmons

Synopsis: A family man is drafted to fight in a future war where the fate of humanity relies on his ability to confront the past.


Sci-fi allows us to believe what the imagination has made — if more often dystopian than utopian. But it’s only the latter, only like landing on a cushion and downing the finest boba tea when The Tomorrow War shows, in December 2022, people are partying indoors, carefree and mask-free in a suburb all prepped for Christmas. A tear was almost shed. At this point in our current timeline, after waves and waves of misery and loneliness, it’s no drunken stupor or jesting behavior to think of a gathering as fantastic.

What does it say about The Tomorrow War, however, when a text overlay is more memorable than everything that comes after? Bombast, tear-jerking, heroism, and gags are plentiful in the live-action debut of The Lego Batman Movie’s Chris McKay, and the feature exec-producing debut of Chris Pratt and the third Paramount Pictures feature this year to be rescued by Amazon Studios (after Coming 2 America and Without Remorse), but fine-tuning them to see if they are truly contributive seems to have been an optional process. The final product, at 140 minutes, warps back and forth between being a throwback with fancier effects and a fresh breeze with thrown-back irritants. Any chance it’s a new title on the horizon? “Back Forth Repeat?”

Our lead, Dan Forester (Pratt), is not all that different from Capt. Steven Hiller, in the sense, that he is someone scripted as such a paragon everyone around him is inferior to varying degrees. Pre-battle, and it’s a battle writer Zach Dean has framed as going so badly for us every living civilian in the present 2022 is a viable draftee, Dan embraces the silhouette of a model American man: a science teacher, a veteran, an electric-car driver, a husband to Emmy (Betty Gilpin) and a dad to young Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). During battle, and this is where close encounters with the ferocious alien species called White Spikes are held, Dan would either be unfazed in the face of danger or see his instantaneous competence heightened through his squadmates: Charlie who talks fast when scared (Sam Richardson), Dorian who talks tough (Edwin Hodge), Norah who looks confused (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and Cowan who’s equally confused (Mike Mitchell). Look, Pratt is genuinely charismatic and more expressive than the general leading man, but when he and his stardom are so pronounced it clashes with everything and everyone else The Tomorrow War’s artistic merits become questionable. 

And this is not a completely artless enterprise, to be clear. Even if the scope will always outshine the tension and staging, and sometimes there’s the dip into overstretched territory, for the action or effects-heavy numbers director McKay shows no fear when facing a markedly different medium. A wormhole interrupting the final of the World Cup in Qatar (now this is sci-fi, Americans watching actual football instead of the Deflategate-prone football) that d.p. Larry Fong frames with assured credibility. A stairwell of doom sequence debuting the jolting speed and marksmanship creature designer Ken Barthelmey have fused into the White Spikes. Despite her scripted purpose to communicate info about the desperate future — in sequences with hazy emphasis due to music or montage-esque editing —  the Colonel (Yvonne Strahovski) who has a close connection with Dan turns out to be a poignant emotional anchor. Unfortunately, the plot would diminish her effect by upscaling Dan’s recluse-but-ripped father James (J.K. Simmons) to jackhammer home the undercurrents of adequate fathering, destructive soldiering, and second chances. They all are better on paper. See how greedy The Tomorrow War can be, holding onto everything it has as if it is convinced it won’t see, well, tomorrow?

But at least it’s a more complete experience than Infinite. The film’s transformed lead here also doesn’t have this “Up yours!” attitude when schooling villains with different ideals as well.

Grade: C


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