‘The Tomorrow War’
Starring: Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, J.K. Simmons, Sam Richardson, Edwin Hodge, Jasmine Matthews, Betty Gilpin, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Mike Mitchell
Rating: PG-13, for relentless sci-fi action and violence, and brief profanity
Available via: Amazon Prime
Engaging characters fuel this supercharged time travel saga
This certainly is the best argument I’ve heard, for accelerating our finding a way to reverse the effects of climate change.
Director Chris McKay’s slam-bang sci-fi epic is a suspenseful blend of 1996’s “Independence Day” and 1997’s “Starship Troopers,” with a cool time travel element added. Zach Dean’s original script balances edge-of-the-seat battle thrills with a well-cast roster of appealing characters who — in between breathtaking skirmishes — enjoy welcome opportunities for emotional development.
The plot chugs along in a series of distinct acts, each ramping up the tension while cleverly leading to the next. The entertaining result is thoroughly satisfying in a way that eluded soulless, world-shattering misfires such as “Godzilla vs. Kong,” “Terminator: Dark Fate” and “Pacific Rim: Uprising.”
Dan Forester (Chris Pratt), his wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin) and their adorable young daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) are hosting a World Cup soccer party, when the televised game is abruptly interrupted — in impressively dramatic fashion — by a squad of time-traveling soldiers who appear on the field. Taking advantage of the international viewing audience, they announce that they’re from the year 2051, when the entire human race is losing a global war against a terrifying alien species.
Our only hope lies with a most unusual conscription: transporting thousands of citizens from the present, forward in time, to join the battle. United in spirit against this common enemy, all the nations of the world participate.
But as months pass, and the horrific attrition rate gets progressively worse, international cooperation evaporates amid a grinding sense of helpless resignation. (Dean definitely has a bead on the uglier, selfish side of human nature.)
Forester, meanwhile, has his own long-simmering problems. He’s a reluctant high school science teacher dismayed by his inability to secure a more prestigious job; an Army Special Operations Command veteran with lingering traces of PTSD; and is burdened by serious rage issues involving his long-estranged father, James (J.K. Simmons). All of this has strained his marriage, which Muri morosely senses.
The family anxiety worsens when Dan’s draft number comes up.
Training is minimal, the situation report even more fleeting. Deployment lasts only seven days — 168 hours — after which the temporal device attached to one arm will return its wearer (if alive) back to the present.
We meet other key recruits at this point:
• Dorian (Edwin Hodge), tough as nails, and a veteran of two previous deployments;
• Charlie (Sam Richardson), an average guy, overwhelmed and terrified, who employs humor to calm himself;
• Norah (Mary Lynn Rajskub), equally nervous, but determined to put on a brave front; and
• Cowan (Mike Mitchell), a lumbering fellow with the air of a weekend hunter.
Marching orders are given by 2051 soldiers Lt. Hart (Jasmine Matthews), Sgt. Diaz (Seychelle Gabriel) and Lt. Ikemba (Chibuikem Uche).
Dan and these newest recruits are far from prepared when they’re yanked to the drop zone, in the apocalyptic remains of Miami Beach. They’re on a search-and-rescue mission, guided via radio by Romeo Command (Yvonne Strahovski). She desperately wants to save the scientists working in an upper-floor lab in one of the shattered buildings.
McKay and Dean then tease us — much the way Steven Spielberg famously did, during the first act of “Jaws” — as Dan and his team slowly navigate the rubble of Miami’s streets. We see hints of brutality and carnage, along with plenty of nasty-looking white spikes — which have given the invaders their nickname — but no sign of the creatures. The tension builds to the screaming point, as minutes pass and our heroes maneuver ever closer to the correct building, and then upstairs…
Production designer Peter Wenham — along with concept illustrators Ken Barthelmey and Carlos Huante, and the massive visual effects team headed by James E. Price — did an impressive job. The white spikes are instinctively, revoltingly terrifying on a level we’ve not seen since H.R. Giger’s work in 1979’s “Alien.”
They’re also shockingly swift and agile, and brutally lethal. And, it quickly becomes apparent, they’ve obviously bred like rabbits. Merely fighting them seems hopeless; defeating them is inconceivable.
But that’s what makes action thrillers of this sort so suspenseful, right?
As he has capably demonstrated in the “Jurassic Park” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchises, Pratt makes a solid action hero. He’s got the necessary build and air of authority; he also possesses comic timing for the occasional mordant one-liner. Dan exudes resourcefulness, compassion and intelligence: no surprise, then, that Romeo Command quickly makes him the squad’s de facto leader.
On a sidebar note — Pratt adding some subtlety to his performance — Dan regains purpose, even in this hellish environment. Perhaps because of it.
His occasional quips notwithstanding, Pratt isn’t this saga’s comic relief; that role falls to Richardson. He makes poor Charlie’s terror palpable, and his nervous, stream-of-consciousness chatter is genuinely amusing … even as it annoys the hell out of Dorian. Hodge makes him persuasively tough: a warrior with more than a little contempt for amateurs such as Charlie, Norah and Cowan.
But that’s the point, of course: Rajskub and Mitchell make the latter two totally ordinary, gamely trying to do their best under nightmarish circumstances.
Strahovski — a key player in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and still fondly remembered as the sexy, tough-as-hell Sarah Walker, in network TV’s “Chuck” — exudes discipline and administrative savvy, as Romeo Command. But that’s the woman’s public face; behind the scenes, and during quieter moments with Dan — later, in this saga’s second act — her gaze betrays doubt, perhaps even hopelessness.
Simmons, engaging as always, brings bitterness and repressed fury to his performance as James Forester. He’s a recluse, accustomed to living off the grid, and sees no reason to suffer anybody at all, let alone gladly. James’ brief reunion with Dan, early on, goes quite badly; their mutual contempt is palpable, and quite believable.
McKay and editors Roger Barton and Garret Elkins move things along at an exciting clip, deftly balancing furious action sequences with calmer, what-do-we-try-next pauses for breath. The resulting film earns its 140-minute length, and never feels strained. I’m totally impressed; this is an accomplished feature-length thriller from a director whose only previous big-screen efforts were the two “Lego Batman” movies.
Dean also is clever with seemingly trivial bits of business. Pay attention to the know-it-all who always raises his hand in Dan’s science class.
(One nagging quibble, though … their leaping, hyper-athletic abilities notwithstanding, the white spikes are ground-based creatures; they don’t fly. So why couldn’t three-decades-tougher fighter aircraft and weaponized drones have eradicated them, long before they overwhelmed the entire planet?)
While I also give Dean credit for trying to avoid obvious time travel paradoxes — notably with respect to one key criterion involved with this mass civilian recruitment — he really can’t work his way out of the temporal consequences of the story’s denouement. That’s okay; he still spins a good yarn.
The film’s sole sour note — literally — is Lorne Balfe’s shrieking, thunderous, so-called score: nothing but droning, deafening synth junk that does nothing to enhance the action. The audio mix also is poor; you’ll be dialing the volume up and down, in order to hear essential dialogue while not being deafened, in the next moment, by Balfe’s efforts and John Marquis and Nancy Nugent Title’s equally ear-splitting sound design.
That aside, this is one heckuva thrill ride.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com.