It’s easy to pinpoint where it went wrong for The Tomorrow War.
Selling the made-for-cinemas movie to Amazon Prime Video might have netted the producers a larger global audience and a reported $US200 million, but it also fated the Chris Pratt action blockbuster to a much smaller screen.
And The Tomorrow War is a movie that needed a surround sound, enormous screen experience – because its only value is in the spectacle. It features so many overblown action set-pieces full of bluster and fury that at least in a cinema you would be too overwhelmed by the 34 things going on at once to clock every single defect.
Take away that immersive experience and what you have is a poorly constructed, sentimentally written film that feels like three different movies.
That’s not just because it stretches for an overlong two hours and 18 minutes, but because it has three distinct parts that are tonally mismatched and vary wildly in watchability.
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Pratt plays Dan, a science teacher and family man. He lives in suburbia and has just been rejected for some fancy job. He’s watching the final moments of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 when swirls of purple light interrupt what could’ve been a triumphant goal.
Out of the swirl steps dozens of black-armoured soldiers carrying automatic weapons. They come with a message. They are from 2051 and Earth is overrun by alien invaders. Humans number 500,000 and are months away from extinction.
The future needs the present’s help, specifically, they need fighters. Among those eventually drafted is Dan whose background as an army veteran makes him a natural leader among his unit that also includes Charlie (Sam Richardson, both under- and mis-used), Dorian (Edwin Hodge), Cowan (Mike Mitchell) and Norah (Mary Lynn Rajskub).
The deployment is only for seven days and if you’re still alive when it hits the 168-hour mark, you’re automatically sent back to the present. It may be a short tour but survival rates are about 30 per cent and those who make it back are dogged by the literal and psychological scars of unprecedented horrors.
The Tomorrow War’s concept is intriguing and has promise, especially as an original story instead of the genre’s heavy reliance of franchise IP. It also doesn’t get too bogged down in the timey wimey of it all.
Directed by Chris McKay, whose two previous cinema efforts were The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie, it’s the execution where the movie falls over.
The first act takes too long to get going and then the second act is a video game masquerading as a movie. Once Dan falls into the future, he meets a Colonel (Yvonne Strahovski) who’s working on a toxin to kill the alien creatures, which looks like an albino cross between Disney’s Stitch and Pokemon’s Mew Too, with a dash of Game of Thrones’ zombie dragon thrown in.
There are some emotional beats that are mawkish at best, although Strahovski at least is doing the best she can with the material she’s been given.
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And despite how elaborate some of the action is – you have scenes where the troops are sprinting through a decimated urban wasteland chased by dozens of aliens which they’re trying to hit in a hail of bullets while also outrunning a blitzkrieg – the chaos is exhausting yet underwhelming on a small screen.
It doesn’t help that the whole future middle act is scripted and filmed as if it’s a video game. At one point, Strahovski’s character is atop a tank, firing off a machine gun and the camera moves to position itself behind her head as if it’s a first-person shooter game.
The aliens may as well have red targets drawn on them. If this was playing out in a cinema, the comparison wouldn’t have been as obvious as watching it on a TV screen with the PlayStation plugged in next to it.
It’s only in The Tomorrow War’s final section that the movie comes to life – and now with 500 per cent more J.K. Simmons. The climactic sequence has a better balance of wild action and surprising restraint, even if every story and character moment is telegraphed.
But by then, The Tomorrow War has exhausted most of its goodwill.
The Tomorrow War is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video
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Originally published as Blockbuster’s $200 million mistake