The Tomorrow War is the best alien invasion movie since Edge of Tomorrow. Everything you could ask for in a summer blockbuster is present: action, suspense, terrific special effects, relatable characters, universal themes devoid of wokeness or agenda, and a plot that makes sense and builds naturally, carrying you along like a kid on a roller coaster. And maybe most essentially of all, it has the perfect lead in Chris Pratt, as charming and likable as movie stars come. That it isn’t getting a theatrical release is a crime rivaling the Lindbergh kidnapping because this one was meant to be seen at the movies, with the smell of popcorn and a cheering crowd to complement the thrills.
One Christmas Eve, a portal opens in the middle of a soccer game, and a team of soldiers announces that they are from the future and have come to recruit people to fight in a war against aliens that won’t happen for another generation. Mankind is losing, and badly, and they need bodies that can hold guns and shoot monsters. Eventually, Dan Forester (Chris Pratt), a former Army Special Forces operative who now works as a high school science teacher, is drafted to fight. But with a heavy death toll for the time travelers and little hope of stopping the invasion, will he ever make it back home to his family?
The main reason The Tomorrow War works so well is that it’s rooted in character. The battles, the aliens, the time warps, are all in service of Dan Forester, his family, and his teammates. Each of them is a fully-realized human being; they have arcs, flaws, fears, and they all get moments to be heroic. Dan is a decent guy who never gets the break he needs to be happy, but he shoulders the pain as best he can to be a good husband and father. He comes from a damaged family and is determined not to let his own go through the hellish childhood he had. But when his number comes up for the war draft, he has difficult decisions to make, things he never thought he’d have to consider, in service of his family. I’m dancing around a lot here because I don’t want to ruin anything, but the war he enters, all the action and set pieces, help him on this journey, and that’s how to make a big, entertaining movie something people will want to revisit.
It helps that Dan is played by Chris Pratt. The Tomorrow War should have been Pratt’s breakout movie, even more so than Guardians of the Galaxy, because it shows what a fun, human actor he can be without the baggage of a massive franchise tied to it. He’s sensational here, and I struggle to come up with another star to compare him to because he doesn’t feel like anyone else. He’s a rarity, a unique presence that makes everything he does feel like no one else could do it. And he does it while coming off as your best friend, your neighbor, your co-worker. Chris Pratt is a legit everyman, and even when he’s fighting aliens or rattling off scientific jargon, he feels like one of us. The rest of the cast comes off that way too, and while Pratt is very much the lead, they’ve all got important roles to play. Yvonne Strahovski, JK Simmons, Sam Richardson, and Edmund Hodge are standouts, but there are smaller, subtler performances from Betty Gilpin, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and Mike Mitchell that make every aspect of The Tomorrow War feel human.
The plot and structure of The Tomorrow War are also perfectly constructed. A good half hour or so at the beginning is devoted to world-building, showing what becomes of society when we find out there’s an apocalyptic war in our future and we’ve got to send people there now. The draft is reinstated, and the power of government is chillingly demonstrated in a few disturbing scenes. There are small details, too, like the fear and nihilism growing in the youth that’s now staring down the barrel of an interplanetary gun or support groups for veterans that come back wounded. And once the narrative shifts to the future, we get a sense of what a war fought by draftees looks like. The Tomorrow War has obvious influences, like Independence Day, Aliens, and Starship Troopers, but the most surprising one is Saving Private Ryan. Like that film, this one places regular folks into harrowing combat, and they’re completely lost. This is a war fought by just as many teachers and truck drivers as it is by soldiers, and that makes it doubly scary. What if the warriors all died out, and you and I had to save the world from monsters? How doomed would we all feel? Again, it’s that human element that elevates The Tomorrow War over a simple summer movie spectacle.
However, it does have that spectacle. The special effects in The Tomorrow War are fantastic, so grandiose you’ll curse the way it was released because these would have killed in a theater. Vast landscapes of destruction evoke simultaneous awe and terror, with beautiful hellfire raining down from the darkening skies. The aliens take a while to show up, and the suspense builds masterfully, but when they do arrive, they live up to the foreboding. They’re demonic creatures that seem to wear death on their faces, and they always feel like they’re two seconds away from ripping apart whoever’s on the screen, even if it’s Pratt. Aiding in that are some sensational action sequences that are doled out at just the right pace. Not only are they filmed exceedingly well – no shaky cam, no quick cuts, just lots of old-fashioned, comprehensible mayhem – but every single one is different from the others, so it never gets repetitive and boring. The initial contact with the aliens is a nail-biter, with the reveal delayed and delayed as the fear rises in all the characters, but The Tomorrow War is smart enough to know it can’t do that again, so it moves on next time, and the time after that, till the harrowing and emotionally-charged climax. The score could’ve been a bit better – it’s fine and relatively effective, but it’s nothing special, and I doubt anyone will remember any of it – but the rest of the filmmaking is so good, it hardly matters. This is how they used to make ‘em, and it’s exhilarating to have an old-fashioned epic blockbuster again. Director Chris McKay has only done animation before this (The Lego Batman Movie, Robot Chicken), but dear God, give this guy a big action flick once a year!
The Tomorrow War is a fantastic sci-fi action movie that should have been the summer’s biggest blockbuster. It’s a shame we all have to watch it on the small screen, but the phenomenal special effects and action scenes still work, and the human drama is the real power behind the computer-generated throne. Chris Pratt is a full-blown movie star, and Chris McKay should have a long, exciting career ahead of him, thanks to this. I recommend watching it on Amazon Prime this weekend, if you’re able; you won’t be sorry.