The Tomorrow War, which comes from director Chris McKay and writer Zach Dean, clearly, desperately, wants to be Independence Day for the 21st century, but it so fundamentally misunderstands the assignment that it’s missed the science fair altogether. The film opens with one of those five-second YouTube trailer teasers as Dan (Chris Pratt) plummets from the sky into a pool as many CG-people fall to their deaths around him. The action then cuts to December 2022, where Dan is arriving late to a Christmas party at his house. Dan is a veteran turned high school science teacher who is, we learn, denied a more official science job because he lacks private sector experience. This is just the first of many coded political moments in the movie, some of which are more subtle than others but all of which reveal a confused political outlook. Mostly, Tomorrow angles for the “brews, guns, and God” crowd of happy rednecks of which Chris Pratt is patron saint, but at times it veers into more conspiracy-flavored, right-wing territory (that makes people side-eye Chris Pratt in real life). The politics of The Tomorrow War are important because this is where the movie veers off course and fails.
But first, it actually gets a lot about the Independence Day formula right. There are aliens, called “white spikes”, and in the future, they have nearly driven the human race to extinction. In an extremely goofy premise, the future people have come to the present-past to gather new bodies to hurl at the aliens in the future. The twist is that they’re only taking people meant to die within ten years, to avoid sending anyone still living into the future. Time travel rules are, as always, fast and loose, but we’re playing by grandfather paradox rules, I guess. Dan, due to die in ten years, is drafted. His wife, Emmy (Betty Gilpin, deserving more and better), wants to run, but Dan is committed to go, not being the kind of guy who could run and hide. He is also motivated by his young daughter, Muri (played as a child by Ryan Kiera Armstrong), who is doomed to live in the nightmare alien future.
Joining Dan on this mission are bumbling fellow scientist Charlie (Sam Richardson), future-survivor Dorian (Edwin Hodge), A Woman (Mary Lynn Rajskub, also deserving more and better), and Hapless Guy (Mike Mitchell). There is a version of Tomorrow that is an action-comedy in which Sam Richardson is, if not the star, then a co-lead with Pratt. Glimpses of this other movie pop up just enough to make me wonder what previous drafts of the script looked like, especially with Chris McKay, veteran of comedies like Robot Chicken and the LEGO Movie franchise, calling the shots. It feels like Tomorrow got mashed down from that other, lighter movie to the Go Troops model we got. Yet for all the pro-military posturing, Tomorrow takes a weird stance in which the military just gives up when the initial plan falls apart, like there’s only ONE idea in the world. If you want to honor the military with a movie, maybe don’t imply they’re a bunch of quitters? Food for thought.
Independence Day is a dumb movie that succeeds on the charm of Will Smith and the strength of its ensemble cast. The Tomorrow War is a dumb movie, but Pratt isn’t nearly as charming as Smith, and this isn’t really an ensemble cast, as no one is centered beyond Dan. Independence Day follows multiple characters involved in multiple plot threads that unite in the end, Tomorrow is just about Dan and his family issues (JK Simmons pops up as his estranged father, and Yvonne Strahovski plays a future-person with an entirely predictable connection to Dan). And that would be fine! If the other stuff was working, a movie about a guy struggling with a legacy of estrangement amidst an alien invasion could work. But the other stuff ISN’T working, so the threads about Dan and fatherhood and legacy all fall flat. Tomorrow is at its best when Sam Richardson is doing literally anything on screen, or whenever JK Simmons appears, because he makes everything classier.
What Tomorrow misses about Independence Day that is most critical, though, is the thematic messaging of the story. Yes, Independence Day is a silly ass movie, but it is, at heart, about a group of disparate people coming together to solve a problem. We f-cking LOVE movies about groups of disparate people coming together to solve problems. Humans share an impulse toward community, and we instinctively respond to stories about communities that form for the common good. Independence Day understands that and shows us a group that ranges from the president to an exotic dancer coming together to stave off an alien invasion. President Whitmore doesn’t say, “F-ck all y’all, I’ll do this myself.” He says, “We can’t be consumed by our petty differences, we will be united in our common interests.” The oldest stories we tell are about people uniting under common interests to defeat a threat.
In Tomorrow, Dan has a group formed from the random draftees that join him on his mission to the future. But notably, the finale does not feature every faction pulling together to accomplish a goal, it’s just Dan leading an unsanctioned mission. We’re explicitly told that NATO has disbanded, that the US military won’t help, and no one wants to involve the UN because all they would do is talk about taking action. I’m not here to defend these bodies in the real world, but a movie that plays directly into real world political tensions and dissatisfaction is inherently displeasing. Give us everyone pulling together to take down the alien ships as one and people will stand and cheer, but a movie in which the good guys scoff at the very notion of teamwork feels unnecessarily grim, especially given how f-cking dumb the plot is. Tomorrow is not a political thriller set in the hellscape of our highly partisan world. It’s a dumb movie about aliens that come from the future. It’s the perfect vehicle for a crowd-pleasing fantasy about a disparate group of people coming together to solve a problem. Instead, we’re told it’s impossible for that to happen and our only hope is that Chris Pratt is butch enough to shoulder the fate of humanity himself. The result isn’t just a bad movie, it’s an unpleasant one.
The Tomorrow War is now streaming on Amazon Prime.