The Tomorrow War is a film of frustrating contrasts: Its intriguing sci-fi premise gets squandered in an overlong, meandering story that feels like a frantic dash to go nowhere special. To make matters worse, the filmmakers cast Chris Pratt, a fine comedic actor possessed with his own unique, freewheeling charm, only to hamstring him with a bland, undercooked character whose sole purpose is to look good on movie posters. What we’re left with is something that’s somehow ambitious and lazy, loud and boring, expensive and expendable. It’s the perfect recipe for total disappointment.
Set in the near-future, War‘s story centers on Dan Forester (Pratt), a combat vet and high school biology teacher. He lives in the ‘burbs with his wife (Betty Gilpin) and precocious daughter (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). Frustrated by his career plateau, Dan senses he is meant for some greater purpose, but doesn’t know when or if that will ever be made known. As luck would have it, Dan and his clan are watching the World Cup–this might be a spoiler, but soccer is still extremely boring in the future–when time-traveling soldiers open a portal at midfield and inform the world that humanity is living on borrowed time.
It turns out that around 2050, Earth will be assaulted by the Whitespikes, terrifying alien creatures who look like a cross between a Xenomorph and Tolkien’s Uruk-hai warriors. (Incidentally, the Whitespikes sound like a White Stripes cover band dressed in Gwar outfits.) The human race has been winnowed down to scattering of survivors, so they travel back to the nearly-now to raise new platoons of cannon fodder to fight the monstrous horde. Draftees spend seven days in Starship Troopers hell, before returning to the present as limbless, shellshocked veterans. As you might guess, it’s only a matter of time before Dan the Man gets called up to whoop some alien butt.
As I said before, War houses some badass potential: The idea of traveling through time to save humanity evokes everything from the Terminator films to Edge of Tomorrow. It could even incorporate the reality-bending fury of Total Recall and Minority Report. Alas, War is fairly vanilla and predictable. Savvy viewers will be able to spot every twist and bend it its plot.
Despite its forgone conclusion, the film also takes its sweet-ass time getting there. War clocks in at nearly 140 minutes, and the final act feels especially draggy and tacked-on. For a story built around so many action beats, this movie ends with a deep, dull thud.
The filmmakers actively try to combat these doldrums by shoveling heaps of money onto the screen. War reportedly carried a price tag of $200 million, and most of that gets frittered away in an orgy of CGI: We get lots of closeups of slimy, slobbering aliens, along with burning cityscapes, crashing helicopters, and exploding vehicles. Most of this audio-visual cacophony doesn’t add up to much, except to remind us that we’re watching something that’s both expensive and hollow.
Ordinarily, Chris Pratt was born and built to carry this kind of movie. Sure, he’s goofy and self-deprecating, but Pratt also hides his clever confidence and casual intelligence in plain sight. Like his character, Pratt seems destined to shift his career into a higher gear, and it’ll be gratifying when he does. Unfortunately, this material completely lets him down. Dan is a uninteresting protagonist, replete with banal dialogue and flimsy motivations. He doesn’t even get a chance to be funny. That goes ditto for J.K. Simmons as Dan’s deadbeat dad, a burly crackpot who once abandoned his family. Simmons is as good as any character actor working, but the script gives him very little to do. These two actors play off each other really well, and they do their damn best to elevate the film.
That pretty much sums up most of War: Everything this movie could’ve been gets overshadowed by everything it is. Instead of flyweight escapism, we get stuck with a movie so drab and joyless, it might as well be a part of Zack Snyder’s soot-stained DC Universe. It had a great resume and a lot of potential, but this War ends up being good for absolutely nothing.
138 minutes. PG-13. Amazon Prime.