Extract certain elements of the “Terminator” franchise, borrow some pieces of “Independence Day” and “Alien,” sprinkle in some existential elements from “Interstellar,” but get the ingredients mostly wrong, and you’d have “The Tomorrow War.” This is one of the most confounding and ridiculous movies of the year, with a terrific cast sinking under the weight of a convoluted plot and medium-grade CGI special effects.
Director Chris McKay has done his best work in animation, with the “Robot Chicken” TV series, and “The Lego Movie” and “The Lego Batman Movie,” but, unfortunately, the action scenes in the live-action “The Tomorrow War” don’t seem of an authentic world and feel, well, cartoonish. With all of these big-time sci-fi action thrillers, a part of us is always aware the actors are often in front of green screens and are firing their weapons at entities made up mostly of special effects. In “The Tomorrow War” the CGI is painfully obvious and feels almost flat.
The setup of “The Tomorrow War” is actually quite promising in a whiz-bang “Twilight Zone” kind of way. In present day, Chris Pratt is good-guy family man Dan Forester, a high school teacher who was once a Delta Force operator, and, hmmm, wonder if that item on Dan’s résumé is going to come into play. Dan is happily married to his loving and supporting wife, Emmy (Betty Gilpin), and they have a terrific young daughter named Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), a nice home and wonderful friends. It’s a shame Dan is estranged from his father, James (J.K. Simmons), who abandoned the family when Dan was just a boy and, despite Emmy’s urgings, Dan refuses to talk to the old man, who’s become something of a survivalist/recluse with a big ol’ survivalist/recluse beard.
In the movie’s best sequence, the world is shaken to its core when it appears an army from another planet has dropped from outer space and invaded Earth, but it turns out they’re humans – humans from THE FUTURE. Thirty years ahead, to be exact. These are the grown children and grandchildren of the present-day population and they explain that, in the year 2051, humankind is losing the war against alien invaders. The only hope is … wait for it … for soldiers and civilians from 2021 to make the “time jump” to the future to join the battle. Cue the introduction of a colorful, ragtag group of soldiers, most with zero weapons or combat experience. Sam Richardson (“Veep”) and Mary Lynn Rajskub (half the TV shows in America since 1995) are the likable Charlie and Norah, respectively, who just might perform some unlikely heroics before it’s all over, while Edwin Hodge is Dorian, who’s been to the future wars before and is a skilled combatant, but seems to have some kind of death wish.
Once we’re catapulted to 2051 Miami, “The Tomorrow War” becomes a standard-issue humans-versus-aliens action film, with a lot of shooting and strategizing, and shooting and strategizing. (And explosions. So many explosions.) Dan also learns some deeply troubling news about how his own life played out over the years, in a plot device that feels completely contrived just so we can have a certain domestic conflict in 2051.
By the time Dan is zapped back to present day, it appears all is lost – unless there’s something that can be done in 2021 to prevent the war of 2051 from ever happening. Where’s John Connor when you need him! Dan’s gonna need the help of his crusty old pops to carry out a long-shot mission to a remote and frozen locale, and he also recruits one of his high school students to help out, which makes no sense, but I guess the filmmakers figured it would add a little comic relief.
With the “Jurassic” and “Guardians” movies, Chris Pratt has long since made the transition from the doughy and goofy Andy on “Parks and Recreation” to big-movie action star, and he’s solid here in a role he could do in his sleep. Credit J.K. Simmons for keeping a straight face and playing his role seriously amidst all the wackiness. “The Tomorrow War” is an earnest effort to bring something new to the time-travel action genre, but this movie is a 2021 vehicle made of parts from the 2010s and the 1990s and 1980s.