Being a long-time science fiction fan, I wish I could have liked “The Tomorrow War” more.
But alas, like many other science fiction readers, I still find myself continually disappointed by most Hollywood treatments of the genre. “The Tomorrow War’s” failure to break that chain is just one of many ways in which it fails to surprise.
The movie doesn’t deserve some of the harsher criticism it received, as it works quite well as escapist entertainment. But it could have been, and should have been, much more.
It’s quite dismaying that it’s no longer considered necessary to be an avid reader of prose science fiction to be considered a “true” science fiction fan. One of the many negative consequences of this long-term trend is that some fans are unaware just how trite and hackneyed the premises and storylines for many supposedly “original” films in the genre.
“The Tomorrow War” is no exception.
The basic idea of a “time travel war,” recruiting infantry across the centuries, is nothing new. In fact, it was the main premise of one of the best time travel novels ever, Fritz Lieber’s “The Big Time.”
Even the film’s title is hackneyed, immediately reminding one of an even more classic novel, Joe Haldeman’s “The Forever War.” Long before Paul Verhoeven’s overrated “satire” of Robert A. Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers,” Haldeman provided a much better liberal-progressive critical response to Heinlein’s novel, one that Heinlein himself called the best future war novel he had ever read.
If you have read it as well, you’ll be unlikely to disagree.
Although Haldeman’s novel used time dilation rather than time travel as a major plot device, it’s employed in a similar manner to depict military personal separated from home and family in both time and space in a battle with an alien menace, an exaggeration of the reality experienced by many real-life military families.
The major difference is that it is used specifically by Haldeman to both depict the social and psychological alienation of the American soldier, especially as a metaphor for the American experience in Vietnam, but in “The Tomorrow War” it’s mostly just a means to get to the action.
The movie showed signs in its first half hour of addressing these important issues, but quickly drops them. This is just lazy scriptwriting, and it also displays a somewhat contemptuous view of its audience.
Science fiction fans are among the most intelligent and thoughtful audience members, yet some film and TV producers annoyingly persist in thinking they are exclusively interested in action scenes and special effects. The success of shows such as “The Expanse” demonstrate they’re equally interested in good storytelling. Movies such as “Interstellar” demonstrate that you can have elaborate special effects supporting a highly intelligent script.
“The Tomorrow War” is also a prime example of a most annoying trend in contemporary popular culture. It proudly wears its pro-science message on its sleeve, yet annoyingly dismisses scientific plausibility and glosses over potentially fascinating scientific details.
Believe it or not, most audience members are already interested in science, and they appreciate movies that respect this fact. Never mind that time travel is one of the few science-fiction devices destined to remain a permanent impossibility, why don’t they equip their time-travelling infantry with parachutes or other landing gear when they are suddenly dropped into the heat of battle?
Shouldn’t their technical advisors have reminded them of a not-so little thing called the law of conservation of momentum?
Of course, their science consultants probably did remind the filmmakers, they just chose to ignore them.
Other scientific illogicities abound in the screenplay. It would certainly make more sense to put Chris Pratt’s science teacher and Sam Richard’s PhD geophysicist at work on some futuristic Manhattan Project (the premise of the 1955 classic “This Island Earth,” where aliens recruit Earth scientists to serve on behalf of their own war effort) instead of sending them off to active combat.
We do get a scene where Pratt and his adult daughter (Yvonne Strahovksi) work together on developing a biochemical means of defeating the aliens, but instead of discussing the science involved, Pratt asks about the Miami Dolphins.
Talk about underestimating your audience’s intelligence!
This is also yet another movie where a precocious teenager is responsible for the crucial info that saves the day, when the film’s well-trained professionals should have been able to figure things out on their own. The only thing worse than a screenplay that underestimates the audience’s intelligence is one that underestimates the intelligence of its characters as well.
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A problem specific to this film is Pratt himself. He’s an immensely likeable actor, but it has become increasingly clear that his range is limited. He plays his part in this movie no differently than he does his characters in the Marvel and Jurassic World franchises, and his character winds up being as predictable as the movie itself.
He consistently gives performances that are quick-witted, sturdy, and competent, but no more than that, because that’s no more than what the roles demand. Pratt could potentially do better, but what I see in his work so far is timidity, an unwillingness to vary his approach or choice of roles.
He needs to start challenging himself right now if his career is to survive, in much the way Matthew McConaughey managed to do so. Otherwise, his career is destined to suffer the same fate as Chris O’Donnell’s.
Science fiction is at its best the most intellectually provocative of genres, encouraging us to think and challenging our prior preconceptions even as it entertains us. Unfortunately, “The Tomorrow War” left me thinking more about what classic science fiction novels should be adapted next instead of good money and talent being spent on underdeveloped scripts that wind up being frustrating retreads of earlier stories.
I’ve already mentioned Haldeman’s “The Forever War;” in the nearly 50 years since its original publication, its racial and sexual politics (depicting a future where homosexuality is the norm while heterosexuality is discouraged, and where the majority of the population is mixed-race) are no longer considered radical but perfectly acceptable, and it would no longer be a hard pitch to producers or a hard sell to audiences.
Are you interested, Hollywood? Then start reading…
A.A. Kidd is a freelance writer and sessional university instructor in Canada, where he proudly volunteers for the Windsor International Film Festival.