By John H. Foote
(***) Streaming on Amazon
I like Chris Pratt.
He gives off a Harrison Ford vibe, macho smart ass, though a lot more fun than Ford. Since his days on Everwood I have tracked his career because he had that bite-you-on-the-nose talent, that kind of “thing” the biggest stars have. I am not sure he is a great actor, but he is enormously watchable. I loved him in Guardians of the Galaxy Parts 1 and 2, and even admired him in The Magnificent Seven and Passengers. They are currently shooting a new Indiana Jones film with 80-year-old Harrison Ford as the bull-whip-cracking Indy. Why not cast Pratt as a young Indy and allow audiences to see Indy’s adventures when he was younger? I suspect he would wear both that fedora and bull whip easily and well.
The new science fiction film The Tomorrow War is an interesting premise. Soldiers from 30 years in the future arrive on a soccer pitch asking for the world’s help. They explain that in the future, a vicious alien race will attack and slaughter most of humanity. Mankind is dangerously close to extinction, and without our help, extinction is a certainty.
So Pratt’s character, Dan, a biology teacher and a veteran of two tours of duty in Afghanistan, is recruited by the government, not asked, but TOLD he is going. No free will in this future. He is pulled out of his job, taken to a mysterious building and outfitted with a strange looking bracelet, told the exact day he will die in the future (seven years from then) and expected to report for duty in 24 hours. Just like that.
His wife begs him not to go and he briefly considers dodging, but after a visit to his father, portrayed by the great, under-used J. K. Simmons, an anti-government warrior who is vehemently against the war with the aliens, Dan argues with the older man and decides to go despite his father’s and wife’s protests. We know he is going for his much loved and loving daughter. He cannot imagine disappointing her by not doing his duty when he has preached to her about doing her best.
The Spikes, as the creatures are called, are an alien race, incredibly fast, strong and lethal. There are millions of them in the future and their numbers are growing, as ours diminish. They specialize in the surprise attack, come hurtling out of the nooks and crannies of the ruins of the building where the soldiers look for them. They are also deadly in the open and seem unstoppable. No question, mankind is losing the war, and losing it quickly. Thrust into a position of leadership from the moment he touches down in the gritty, apocalyptic future, his job is to search and destroy the Spikes, something not unknown to him, having fought in the desert 15 years earlier. But the enemy was never like this. The creatures here, looking a little like the ones in A Quiet Place Part II, are all tentacles, lightning fast and teeth, viciously chewing their victims to death. They kind of look like raptors covered in flour, but there is nothing cute or funny about these beasts — they are here to wipe out all of humanity.
OK, let me be clear. This is a film like Starship Troopers (1997), which has become a cult classic but, is still just a big, gory, stupid movie. When starting both of these films, you must first remove your brain and put it in the fridge — just remember to put it back in when done. High testosterone, action driven, kill them before they kill us. Starship Troopers was interesting in that the enemy was an entire planet of bugs, mutated into huge insects capable of blasting earth from their planet. It was a marvel of brilliant visual effects, sound and cinematography. The director was realistic about the limitations of the movie and didn’t worry about character development. Someone should have told the director of The Tomorrow War, Chris MacKay, that the depth of characters did not matter, and frankly the screenplay was too thin to allow for that.
Pratt seems to understand and gives us the classic reluctant hero, which he does very well. He is distraught over leaving his daughter Muri behind, but is shocked to discover (you might discover it before he does) that the Commander of his group is none other than grown up Muri, portrayed by the underrated Yvonne Strahovski, so exceptional in Dexter’s finale seasons. The two recognize something in one another, but cannot piece it together. They work together to overcome the creatures, while watching those around them succumb to the nasty critters. When they figure out their connection, grown up Muri does not have time for a warm and fuzzy daddy-daughter reunion given the dire situation, thus is cold to the surprised Dad. Is this really the loving little girl he raised? Oh, and left behind? Has he not become his father?
Of course, much gets settled in the family issues, old wounds are erased or at least dealt with and recognized all while they continue to fight the creatures.
For the most part, the film breezes along, the action sequences are excellent, and the story moves briskly enough for the plot holes not to show too much. There is a middle section that is boring as hell as they seek out a chemical product that will eradicate the aliens, but that is really the only time the film slows down.
Aliens on earth movies are divided into two categories: in the first they are benign creatures, here peacefully like those in Steven Spielberg’s masterpieces Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982); in the others, the aliens are here to destroy us and take over our planet. This is a more popular type of alien invasion film and has been represented in the past by The War of the Worlds (1953), again in the Spielberg remake, War of the Worlds (2005), with its terrorism rumblings, Alien (1979) and its sequel Aliens (1986), and more recently Independence Day (1996). Filmmakers seem to prefer the hostile format as it allows them to find new and inventive looks for the creatures, and more difficult ways to kill them. The creatures in The Tomorrow War can be killed, but it takes at least a few machine gun shots to the head to do it, and you must hit them just right. If you get a rare opportunity to be close to them, you can decapitate them for added measure.
Pratt does everything he is asked as the hero, giving a solid, muscular performance. And yeah, he has that great ability to crack wise in the worst possible circumstances. He and Strahovski develop a nice chemistry eventually, and for the most part, carry the film. A few more scenes with the always great J.K. Simmons would have helped the film for me. Lots going on, a whole lot of action and style, but little substance. It is a fun time but a paint-by-numbers type of movie.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.