It seems almost impossible to get an original science fiction blockbuster off the ground with any sort of real budget, because Hollywood execs tend to be all about the IP and the sure things these days. Sure, there have been some great lower budget efforts like Synchronic, Freaks and Code 8, but the fact that a filmmaker like Dennis Villaneuve can get a movie like Arrival made, and it can be a bona fide hit, even up for Oscars, is pretty amazing in the 21st century. Despite his originality as a filmmaker, Villaneuve going from Arrival to things like the sequel, Blade Runner 2049, and the upcoming remake of Dune says a lot about how far studios will go when it comes to spending money on science-fiction.
The irony will be lost on few that The Tomorrow War is being released on the 25th Anniversary of Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, which made a huge star out of Will Smith, but instead of being released in theaters, it only can be watched streaming on Amazon Prime Video. It’s truly a shame that a studio like Paramount Pictures, who once might take a chance on an Arrival or an Annihilation or a Cloverfield, Super 8, and yes, A Quiet Place, now feels it’s safer to sell off a mega-budget sci-fi film like The Tomorrow War. Unlike the recent Infinite, which it dropped on its own Paramount+ streamer, the bigwigs at Paramount knew they actually had a good movie on their hands with The Tomorrow War, and they also knew they were more likely to make back the (presumed) $200 million budget by selling it to someone willing to shell out big money rather than take their chances at the still-unreliable cinema.
Directed by Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie), The Tomorrow War stars one of the biggest action heroes on the planet, Chris Pratt, as Dan Forester, a mild-mannered high school science teacher and family man, who is recruited into a war in the future to stave off an alien menace that’s in danger of wiping out humanity. That’s the admittedly simplistic version of a plot that takes its DNA from the Aliens and Terminator movies with time travel, aliens, and all the things sci-fi movie enthusiasts love and finds a way to create an entertaining popcorn flick without skimping on the science. Believe me, no one was more surprised by how much I enjoyed The Tomorrow War as I, but it was just as much about the story and the emotions as it was the many scenes of military types fighting off thousands of vicious tentacled beasties.
The premise of there being a war in the future so devastating to the human race that they have to go back in time thirty years to recruit anyone who could hold a gun to take up the fight is partially what makes The Tomorrow War far more compelling than something like Battle: Los Angeles or any of the other weak Independence Day rip-offs that have attempted to “save science fiction.”
While a lot of the movie can be credited to Pratt’s star power, and the way he’s able to fit into this sort of outlandish scenario as an everyman, but a lot of what makes the movie so entertaining is the cast around him. Fresh off his starring role in Werewolves Within, comedian Sam Richardson continues his own journey into becoming quite a distinctive action hero, offering suitable comic relief that prevents what could have been a grim and serious movie from going too far down its own navel. I actually may have enjoyed Richardson in this movie more than Pratt, at times. Also great is Yvonne Strahovski as the commander of the science division, who has a connection to Dan’s past, as well as a seriously swole J.K. Simmons as Dan’s father, who disappears for a good portion of the film but then returns to get in on the movie’s massive third act. Unfortunately, Betty Gilpin is wasted in a fairly nothing role as Dan’s wife.
On the other hand, McCay has quite a fantastic team for his big-budget live-action debut, and having such experienced pros comes in handy. Science fiction has always been a great playground for Production Design, and The Tomorrow War is no exception, as the futuristic setting allows Peter Wenham to create everything from science labs to enormous bases, ice-covered caves, and more, working heavily with the CG team to presumably create many of these areas from scratch. Cinematographer Larry Fong is used to filming these big movies from the likes of 300 and Watchmen, and one of his biggest challenges must have to make sure that the practical stuff filmed on sound stages integrates well with the clearly CG sequences.
The Tomorrow War is very much an action movie and without its formidable stunt team, and the editing of Roger Barrett and Garrett Elkins, McCay wouldn’t have been able to keep plowing forward at such a brisk pace it’s hard to catch your breath. Even though the movie might seem long at over two hours, very little time is wasted on exposition that isn’t necessary to set up the world and its science-based rules. The creature design for the aliens makes them look absolutely voracious and brutal. While there are obvious nods to some of the greats, it’s a truly unique design that makes you feel a similar horror as the soldiers facing them. (And like the best CG creatures, these have a solid, physical presence on screen as much as the human actors.)
All the money spent to make the movie is clearly present on screen with some of the most amazing set pieces involving thousands and thousands of the creatures, and having scenes that continuously show the brilliance of Weta Digital when taking on a CG-heavy film like this.
When you enhance and embellish all the above with a bombastic (in a good way*) score by Composer Lorne Balfe — who also created the equally epic score for Marvel Studios’ Black Widow — you have a film that sounds great and is driven at such a fantastic pace by that music. (*I will freely admit that I’m always a sucker for this type of score even just to listen to separate from the film.)
In some ways, The Tomorrow War reminded me of Zack Snyder’s recent Army of the Dead, because McKay has made a film equally as epic in its ability to entertain and enthrall in even the quieter moments. Sure, there are a few sillier moments as typified by Independence Day and other big-budget, big-screen sci-fi, particularly in the writing, but it never dwells long enough on that sort of thing to detract from one’s potential enjoyment.
In many ways, The Tomorrow War is an absolutely perfect summer popcorn movie for those who REALLY don’t want to go outside. But those who do make the effort to watch it on the biggest screen available to them won’t be disappointed either.
The Tomorrow War is now playing on Amazon Prime Video.
All photos courtesy Amazon Studios.