Sci-fi combat adventure “The Tomorrow War” is too convoluted and inflexible to be the rousing, high-toned military recruiting tool that its creators obviously want it to be. There are large swathes of this movie where characters obsessively describe rather than illustrate the dangers of the White Spikes, an alien menace that, in 28 years’ time, will wipe out the human population on Earth.
This general focus on talk rather than action continues even after a coalition of human soldiers from the future return to the present day of 2022, and recruit anybody who, according to their future technology, will die sometime between now and the year 2050, when the aliens will kill every one of us.
Draftees like affable biology teacher Dan Forester (Chris Pratt) are then thrown head-long into a dystopian future, armed only with their survival skills and, oh yeah, some guns. But even in the future, these disposable grunts mostly deliver joyless expository dialogue and generic pump-up-the-audience speeches whenever they’re not racing around in chaotically staged and frantically over-edited action scenes. A few decent supporting actors, like Sam Richardson and J.K. Simmons, almost jump-start the movie’s otherwise pokey, pompous feel-good narrative, but even their Herculean efforts aren’t enough to save “The Tomorrow War.”
To be clear: “The Tomorrow War” isn’t just a dud because of its pseudo-apolitical ideas about both domestic and military service. More immediately, it’s a dud because of its more-covered-than-directed set pieces and a lot of silly-but-deadly-serious dialogue. There are also a few moments where you can see why they cast Pratt, playing to type as another super-adaptable everyman, as the movie’s lead. Forester takes inspiration not only from the reluctant (and initially terrified) men he serves with, but also from his family members, particularly his wide-eyed young daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong, “American Horror Story”) and his equally impressionable fellow draftee Charlie (Richardson). Pratt also smolders well enough, in a Harrison Ford kind of way, that you can easily believe that Dan really is paying attention and thinking seriously about how he can better relate with his hard-assed fellow soldier Dorian (Edwin Hodge) and his estranged father James (Simmons).
What really sinks “The Tomorrow War” is how simultaneously impersonal and demanding the movie often feels. This is especially deadly given that most viewers will be watching the 140-minute Paramount studio pic at home through Prime Video. There are a few intriguing and even provocative plot points scattered throughout the consistently belabored setup, like how only 20% of the conscripted future-oriented soldiers return alive to the year 2022. There’s also a surprisingly chilling sequence early on where, after Dan and his fellow draftees are transported to the battlefield of 2050, they immediately realize that they are literally dropping into a city-set war zone. Many extras die painfully while crash-landing from the sky onto abandoned street corners or the edge of a skyscraper.
Unfortunately, that emotionally arresting sequence is soon undermined in a number of scenes that serve only to reassure viewers that they’re watching an action-adventure movie that also happens to be a war picture. For starters: the movie’s heavy reliance on computer animation, as in most scenes with the White Spikes, wouldn’t be so bad if these aliens, or the nightmarish future world that they dominate, weren’t so bland-looking.
There’s also an unfocused quality to the movie’s focus on humanity’s prevailing can-do, science-and-family-first spirit, which makes the White Spikes, and the attendant horrors of some kind of war, seem like so much setup for an equally meager payoff. There are a few rushed scenes where the movie’s creators pay lip service to the importance of scientific research and its crucial role in winning whatever future real-life war the White Spikes are meant to anticipate.
There’s also a lot of corny dialogue between Dan and people whom he’s either trying to cheer up or take inspiration from, and all of them are defined by the same tin-eared and flat-footed finality of dialogue like, “I’m asking you to do what no one else is willing to do” and “You and me, we’re gonna save the world together.” There’s no real conflict in “The Tomorrow War,” just a lot of free-floating dread and a vague dedication to characters and groups who have only flashes of personality. They can win the day, because they must.
At the same time, there’s enough conceptual chutzpah and modest charm sprinkled throughout “The Tomorrow War” to make the rest of this soupy slog more disappointing than offensive. The peripheral omnipresence of character actors like Richardson and Simmons remind us that there’s a human pulse in the movie’s otherwise lifeless drama, even if their roles are consistently clipped so as to remind viewers of what’s never-not obvious — all roads lead back to Chris Pratt explaining why he will save humanity, with a little help from his friends. And while “The Tomorrow War” isn’t exactly good, it is often promising enough to convince you that at some point, it will reward your time and patience.
“The Tomorrow War” premieres globally on Prime Video July 2.