04 August 2021

First Impressions: The Tomorrow War

I had been anticipating The Tomorrow War (2021) for a while now. At least January 2020. Doesn't that seem so damn long ago? So it's been in the back of my mind for some time and I was excited that it dropped on Amazon Prime. I am such a fan of the cinema experience but to be really honest the ease, immediacy, and no-time pressure access of streaming services is such a relief. I felt the same watching this as I did Black Widow (2021) in that during the film I was feeling pretty good, but when I reflected for a split second all the flaws rose to the surface. Are you ready to complain about this film!? Let's gooo! PSOILER-OOOO!!

First of all, we need to talk about some basic questions the premise creates. The controlling idea is that in the future aliens have invaded earth and since we're losing badly. As Earth runs out of soldiers in the future they turn to draft humans from the past. This is a great concept, but as I watched it, the natural implications became apparent, but unexplored. And I will say right now that I hate this kind of bad faith film criticism - we can't say a movie is bad because of what it could have been. We should always be evaluating the art from its own merits.

I am, however, going to ask you to indulge me on this one because I feel like some of these creative issues are baked into the screenplay and emblematic of some other issues currently problematic to modern blockbuster filmmaking. So, let's start with this - future war, needs a draft of past soldiers. Cool. My first thought is that they would collect a wide array of past soldiers. Mongolians, Samurai, Crusaders, Spartans, Maori, and more and throw some sci-fi guns on 'em and send 'em into battle. It'd be easy to avoid paradoxes, same as they sort of do in the actual movie, just zap 'em up right before they die in whatever battle they're in. This gets into a little Loki territory, but they were already ripping off a dozen other movie ideas, I don't think that's egregious.

Maybe that's the problem with time travel. All the constraints imposed in this film (past and future moving in real time, sending present folks to the future at set points for a week) are all things made up by the script. Time travel isn't actually real, we can do anything we want with it. But, once you open that container it gets rough. They could have time traveled all the ancient warriors to some isolated time and location (how about like...5th Century BCE New Zealand) and trained for years, shared language, brought everyone up to speed. Make the Dream Team Army. Then zap them right where they're supposed to go. That sounds like a more fun montage that fully explores the natural consequence of a wide open premise.

Because the natural consequences within the confines of this movie makes no damn sense. They zap up folks who are going to die soon, so as to not mess with the timeline too much, but this then naturally leads to an army full of old folks dying of cancer who have no training at all. They then wonder why they're losing, after drafting only sick and old people who have no boot camp or intel about their enemy. Why then do anything at all? Get Genghis Khan in this shit.

The draft has a lot of weird implications, as I said. For such a momentous occasion, the inciting incident feels incredibly weak. People arrive from the future, say that aliens have invaded and we're losing and they need to draft current citizens. But they can't say who they're fighting or offer any proof or information. It's downright bizarre that the US alone would participate, much less global cooperation. We see this start to break down by the end of the film, but we really should have seen some kind of descension or build-up instead of the flash-forward where we're apparently all okay with being drafted. We aren't even on board when being drafted to fight our own wars, much less some one else's. What's the natural consequence? Maybe recruiting a Civil War soldier who's about to die?! Would that work?! A movie exploring the global reaction to the draft would be more interesting than this movie, or at least it should have been this clear edict from the future established through technological superiority, which places all kinds of fun implications on authoritarian desperation and what we're fighting for. THERE'S A GOOD MOVIE IN HERE.

This film is stuffed to the brim with set-ups and pay-offs, but it's all plot-related. When that kid is talking about volcanoes, I knew it'd come back in the end (I was picturing a big volcano fight to defeat the aliens. How silly is that?!). We've got the plane operator who hates the government. It's literally like, when the end comes around everything is set up so well that it's all just dominoes. Don't get me wrong, this usually makes for a good screenplay - but it did the opposite here. Everything became so dang easy to solve.

Despite all this, there's hardly any set-up and payoff to the characters. Chris Pratt is apparently all about leaving his family? No he's not. It's not a big character growth thing when he solemnly decides to stay with his wife and kid at the end. Generally I've come to the conclusion that Pratt needs to keep playing doofy characters. When he's in this and Jurassic World (2015) being the most serious dude in the room it just doesn't work. He's got too much charisma to be wasted being boring. You're Chris Pratt, not Sam Worthington. Do something here instead of being generic.

See, the core issue is that this movie has no idea how fun its premise actually is. Everything is just played super straight and serious. What is it going to take for movies to shake themselves off and just own their wackiness?! The crucial thing is that this is exactly what movies like Chris Pratt's Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) did. Audiences are savvy and cynical, and it's hard to accept a movie played this straight that could have been so much more fun. Everything about it just feels very arbitrary, which is exasperated by how much this film is just a pastiche of every other alien film ever made.

Let's go through this. The first major inspiration is clearly Edge of Tomorrow (2014). There are a LOT of similarities. The hopeless, humanity-spanning conflict, the global draft, and obviously the time trial element, although used drastically different. But not only that, the monster design is evocative of the style used here. The "White Spikes" are fast, spindly, seeming without consciousness or weapons, and have separate castes for smaller and bigger versions. That's all Edge of Tomorrow. There's also the incredibly tired bit of finding one alien to kill all the other ones. I'm so done with this.

Now, Tomorrow War isn't totally like this. Technically they go back in time, ask a High Schooler about volcanoes, and then zap a smaller group with toxin while they're sleeping in the ice. I would, however, like ONE movie where one thing doesn't kill all the aliens and we actually used tactics. To be fair, this trope affects great movies like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones and The Avengers (2012). Even Endgame (2019) falls into this a little bit. Independence Day (1996) is the classic example, and maybe the trope originator. And you're going to plotz, but the only film in history that actually uses creative tactics to defeat an established alien invading force based on tactics is fucking Battleship (2012).

The aliens in Tomorrow War are not only like Edge, but visually similar to the white scrawny Clover in Cloverfield (2008), although obviously smaller. There is a heavy lift of Alien movies, from a small covert team searching drippy tunnels like Aliens (1986) to a surprising lift of Prometheus (2012) of all things when it's revealed that the White Spikes aren't a spacefaring civilization, but rather a weapon to be deployed on a planet to wipe it out. It's exactly like the Black Goo from the Engineers that lead to the xenomorphs. Oh, and the wintery battle against a queen is like, uh, Alien vs. Predator (2004)!? They didn't think we'd remember. 

To talk more about these aliens, I had a tough time believing they would overrun the world so quickly and unstoppably. Sure, they are fast and armoured, but they're far from impossible to kill. Bombs seem to work. It's clear in Edge of Tomorrow that although the aliens ARE tough to kill, the reason they're winning is because they keep resetting time until they win each battle. It's tough to believe that they would rout humanity so quickly despite being just animals. There was maybe a little implication that the queen could see and reason, but we didn't develop any advanced weapons or higher caliber rifles to counter them? It just feels like another stretch.

This idea that they're an ancient crash landing that then rose up from under our feet is also straight out of the most recent War of the Worlds (2005), which didn't quite work there and doesn't work now. Okay, to be fair, it works better here than the pilots riding lightning down to their ships, which doesn't make sense on any level. Who was the hack director who came up with that?! No, this is more like Transformers (2007) where Megatron lost control of his ship and crashed in the ice, to be frozen for years until thawed out.

All this points towards the least subtle climate change analogy of all time. I mean, they're literally flashing monitors on the background while the younger generation talk about how their future is doomed. Then they zip down to MIAMI in 2051. MIAMI, people. Was this set in Miami? Everyone seems to be Dolphins fans. Nah, that means it can't be in Miami. The entire ending bit is also the fact that the Russian Glaciers will melt and release these bastards in the first place. I don't disagree with any of it, but subtly is an art that this movie is not trying to avoid at all. There is virtually no other reading possible

Like I said, this isn't totally a bad thing. But instead of a clever nod it's a sledgehammer. There are other things that aren't completely awful. It is surprisingly good looking, and has both great sets, great green screen, and some notably impressive shots from first-time live action director Chris McKay. I also generally don't understand how the dude behind The LEGO Batman Movie (2017) couldn't find the humor or irony here. I'm going to chaulk that up to studio fudgery. JK Simmons as a right wing conspiracy nut is solid, they present him as a quack while avoiding the kinds of easy liberal criticism that would have made him a cartoon character. And I really liked how the final queen was killed via three generations of Forester, the science of the daughter, the skills of the father, and the guts of Chris Pratt. It's cool.

I just spent 1700 words whining about this, but despite all the core problems, the actual movie we got isn't that bad on its own. It's as if we had two branching possibilities, and this great interesting, fully realized possibility is on one branch, and the safe, repetitive, yet competent film is on the branch that we got. Events happen sequentially, and characters grow and rebound. I liked when the weird fat draftees find some courage and sacrifice themselves. It's certainly too long, but doesn't super feel like it, and although the beginning is rushed and can't answer its own questions fast enough, it gets better as it goes along and I'm relatively satisfied with the conclusion, although again it avoids any kind of twist or creativity with its time travel premise.

What did you think? Am I right? Is it too much to ask for more basic fun and creativity out of our movies?

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