A supposedly $200 million dollar sci-fi spectacle about contemporary people being conscripted into a future war that pits the human race against some very hungry aliens, “The Tomorrow War” sure is a mighty huge thing to watch at home on a (comparatively) small screen. And yet, strange as it is that this summer’s biggest original blockbuster is skipping theaters altogether — a result of Paramount’s COVID-related decision to salvage its investment and sell the movie to Amazon — it can feel even stranger that something this anodyne and algorithmic wasn’t conceived by a streamer in the first place.
While the action only scales up and up and up as its world speeds towards its final battle, even the most IMAX-sized moments seem right at home on your TV, where “The Tomorrow War” is fated to be forever entombed on a little square that people will blithely scroll past as they search for Season 5 of “Bosch.”
Which isn’t to say that “The Tomorrow War” is bad — it boasts a clever premise, a killer supporting turn from Sam Richardson, and an uncommonly well-defined sense of place for such a murky CGI gloop-fest (credit to director Chris McKay, who knows his way around digital environments and has more than earned a taste of that sweet Bezos money after his brilliant work on “The LEGO Batman Movie”). But for all of those laudable attributes, this flavorless loss-leader of a film is neutered by its refusal to put audiences on their heels. It’s pretty wild when a movie about people getting sucked into the future against their will and repurposed as cannon fodder never once makes you think “well, there’s something I haven’t seen before,” but such is the grim reality of our present.
That problem is embodied by the film’s leading man, whose bland performance similarly feels like the sum total of 1,000 unmade choices. Chris Pratt should not and cannot play an everyman; his dead behind the eyes portrayal of frustrated high school biology teacher Dan Forester is another example of how readily he mistakes relatability for hollowness when the material isn’t sharp enough to lend him an edge.
Much like Pratt’s character in the “Jurassic World” movies (what are the odds you remember his name?), Dan is a sleepy husk of a man — he’s like Star Lord on barbiturates. In this case, that emptiness stems from a deep sense of professional dissatisfaction. “I am meant to do something special with my life,” he sulks to his luminous wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin) and neglected young daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) after being passed over for some fancy government job, but the only remotely special thing about him is that his chest seems wide enough for each of his pecs to exist in different timezones.
So when some ultra-serious future soldiers zap onto the pitch of a globally televised soccer match and tell the world about the war to come, some part of Dan senses an opportunity to make a difference. That doesn’t mean he’s excited when he’s summoned to the local recruitment center a few months later, as only 20 percent of draftees return from their week-long deployment to 2051, but he’d rather be swallowed alive by mysterious “white spikes” than ask his estranged father (a fittingly swole J.K. Simmons) for help removing his government tracking device. Besides, the recruiters tell Dan that he’s going to die in a few years anyway.
Screenwriter Zach Dean may have overestimated humanity’s willingness to band together in the fight against a common foe — even in a film that serves as an increasingly specific metaphor for the role people of today have in preventing the climate crises of tomorrow — but he nails our natural fascination with the paradoxes of time travel plots, and handles the ones in his script with simple grace.
“The Tomorrow War” is at its best when focusing on the fully understandable terror of being plucked out of the private sector and beamed straight into hell with nothing but a few hours of basic training and an assault rifle for protection. There’s a Hertzfeldian gallows humor to the budget-rate wormhole technology that sends Dan and his fellow soldiers into the future — epitomized by the morbidly hilarious scene where a glitch ejects the conscripts hundreds of feet above downtown Miami — while Richardson delivers some funny and unforced comic relief of his own as a widowed tech guy who clings to Dan like a life raft. His fear reflects a certain intrigue in the extraterrestrial menace, whose origins are a lot more compelling than their design (urgent note to Hollywood: a little variety among alien hordes would go a long way).
So is the way that “The Tomorrow War” uses them to rattle his heroes, as McKay stages a handful of gripping setpieces while the monsters are still in the shadows; nuance inevitably gives way to noise when the white spikes emerge en masse, and it’s hard to distinguish this movie from the rest of its eye-numbing digital ilk by the time it gets to an oil rig siege that unfolds like an overworked cross between “Aliens” and “Metal Gear Solid 2.”
There is another major component to this story — a thread that complicates Dan’s resentment towards his dad while simultaneously burying Yvonne Strahovski under a dull avalanche of military jargon and generic melodrama — but “The Tomorrow War” is far too paint-by-numbers to capture the messiness of family conflict. Cute as Dean’s central metaphor can be as an ecological call to action, the entire film buckles under the weight of its own creative fecklessness whenever these non-characters are tasked with bringing it home.
To that end, “The Tomorrow War” was lost from the moment that mega-blockbusters got so big they could only afford to have avatars instead of protagonists. Once we had characters, and now we have shell companies. A plug-and-play movie star in a market where basicness is more of a feature than a bug, Pratt has become a global box office phenom by combining a meaty physique with tofu flavor; there’s a residual hint of spice to his performance in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but studios mostly seem to think of him as a reliable animatronic for their cinematic theme park attractions. It’s enough to make you long for the days when blockbusters of this scale weren’t afraid to make strong choices, especially the ones about how we’re all going to die if we don’t.
“The Tomorrow War” will be available to stream on Amazon Prime starting Friday, July 2.