Chris McKay’s thrilling “The Tomorrow War” drops you right into its wartime hell, literally, with an opening sequence that shows Chris Pratt falling from a smoke-filled sky as if he were in an apocalyptic round of “Fortnite.” It’s only the first of many bold screenwriting choices that helps fuel this original Amazon blockbuster, which then jumps back a few decades later to before the death and destruction, at a Christmas party in 2022.
Pratt’s Iraq War veteran, Dan, is trying to get a job, answering calls while hosting family and friends. But that worry is topped when a team of soldiers suddenly transports onto the field during a televised soccer game, with an urgent message: they come from two decades in the future, where humans are nearly extinct from an alien attack. Immediately, an effort to fight the unseen scourge is launched, including a system that jumps people ahead in time for seven days. Dan signs up for the opportunity, leaving behind his wife, Emmy (Betty Gilpin), and daughter, Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong).
Written by Zach Dean and directed by Chris McKay of “The Lego Batman Movie,” “The Tomorrow War” owes a good deal to modern blockbuster constructs but it owes perhaps the most to Paul Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers.” Like that masterwork, the first act here focuses on explaining the war through Dan’s experience as a draftee, going from one disorienting bit of abbreviated “training” to the next, all without the alien menace not being seen until our soldier heroes witness it on the other side of a gun. “The Tomorrow War” is decidedly more apolitical than “Starship Troopers”—it’s a global conflict from the get-go—and in general proves to have a goofy edge, thanks to the likes of a scene-stealing Sam Richardson, whose friendly, anxious scientist-turned-soldier, Charlie, delivers comic relief that arrives often at just the right time.
It’s all about the seven days that a soldier is sent into a time-jump, as people of all ages and various wartime familiarity are sent two decades in the future to execute missions in which only 30% survive. As one of the few actually prepared people in his group, Pratt’s Dan tries to lead everyone through an apocalyptic Miami beach, from one uncertain checkpoint to the next. Some of “The Tomorrow War” is plotted like a video game, and the button-mashing chaos that quickly erupts between soldiers and vicious monsters creates that giddy air. The aliens too are especially freaky, with their tentacles that shoot long spikes (hence their name “white spikes”), their dagger teeth, their superspeed, and their imposing size. Oh, and they can fly, too.
Yvonne Strahovski plays an important part in the film as a key military leader in the future, one with her own connection to Dan. But it’s worth keeping a surprise, as it makes for one of the many twists that work. All to say that her emotional work adds another layer to this story that finds time to build emotional stakes using its different genre elements, while still telling the overall saga of war. It’s these types of human flourishes—along with brief scenes in which J.K. Simmons plays Pratt’s estranged dad—that give the movie an earned seriousness, in the face of an alien invasion. Edwin Hodge’s well-trained soldier character Darius also brings gravity to the emotional stakes, while entering his third tour in the time jump.
None of this would feel as effective without the captivating storytelling from Dean, whose original screenplay hits blockbuster bases but with surprising finesse. It’s confident with how it builds the story, starting with the experience of finding oneself in the middle of the war and expanding to the battle itself, tethering everything to the overall vital goal of survival. And while it takes on themes of service, fatherhood, and second chances with broad sentimentality, it does so in ways that are often earned, with pathways that have twists in them throughout. The third act especially is a wild, rewarding conclusion to all of the unpredictable big set-pieces that came before it, and it climaxes the movie in a way you similarly wouldn’t expect, even if you’re familiar with the handy screenwriting tool of foreshadowing.
With his biggest live-action movie yet, McKay pronounces an intriguing savviness with blockbuster scope. He has a touch here that’s a bit of Zack Snyder and a bit of Michael Bay (and he references both with two different slow-motion shots while collaborating with Snyder’s regular cinematographer, Larry Fong), but with an arguably bigger heart and more macho restraint than either. It’s also impressive how much McKay leans into the ruthless nature of the apocalypse at hand without getting too grim, although it gets awfully close in numerous sobering, chaotic sequences. Extra-wide shots of mass destruction, as the white spikes swarm and rip apart soldiers and helicopters and barriers and more, have the same sci-fi/horror shocks of moments that get the audience up close to the monster’s dagger teeth like a first-person shooter video game would, all of it creating an emphasis on how closely it plays this war to the chest. McKay continues the hyperactive quality of “The Lego Batman Movie,” in that he knows how to load a frame with minor, but in this case harrowing details.
From their introduction, the film presents the aliens in full and all of their creepy, menacing, overwhelming nature; it doesn’t hold back on providing information of where they came from. While the high-concept of time travel is used in some sharp, emotionally meaningful ways, Dean script makes no bones about the villains—this is the story of an alien invasion—and it’s a refreshing change from current movies so preoccupied with vagueness so that a bigger picture can be provided later in a sequel (with recent examples including “A Quiet Place Part II” and even “F9”). It’s a testament to how these aliens are designed, too, that when McKay shows them in full during an initial exciting battle sequence in a stairwell, that they don’t become any less creepy in later scenes. “The Tomorrow War” does not need shadows for its monsters, especially when McKay proves to have a gift for momentum with claustrophobic scenes that largely involve these CGI characters battling Dan and his fellow humans.
Also functioning as one of the film’s executive producers, Pratt finds a strong fit for himself with this role that allows him to lean more into his everyman qualities, while again yet again trying to fit into the classic suit of macho bravado. When the movie is about guiding his team of regular people through battle, Pratt proves to be an especially inspired lead. It’s more that serious stoicism continues to elude him—ever since tentpoles like “Jurassic World” have tried to sell him with a bit more classic machismo than “Parks and Recreation,” he’s been trying to own the steely glares, dead-serious hero statements that helped establish the star-studded intensity of Bruce Willis or Harrison Ford. Those serious passages from Pratt still come with a bit of emptiness—it’s the moments in which you most notice him acting, instead of just being—but he’s helped by the small bits of grounded ridiculousness that come in the story.
Blockbuster movies are often as loud and action-based as “The Tomorrow War,” but they’re rarely as diverse in tone or so delightfully wild when it comes to in-your-face entertainment. McKay’s film hits a sweet-spot in the current landscape, in that it has a tentpole budget (produced by Paramount, Skydance, and Amazon) but it also seems like it could have been a sci-fi novel that, in a different timeline, would have had an awesome cover and a total readership of only five people. There’s a lot to celebrate about the kitchen-sink storytelling of “The Tomorrow War,” including how its inspired creativity wins most of all. [B+]
“The Tomorrow War” arrives on Amazon Prime Video on July 2.