By Lynn Venhaus
In the grand tradition of summer blockbusters, the action-packed sci-fi thriller “The Tomorrow War” arrives in the new world on the home screen – Amazon Prime, to be exact.
While these kinds of digital visual effects and high-octane combat sequences are best-suited for a large screen — remember “Independence Day” on the holiday weekend in 1996? – this ‘90s-throwback film will be a crowd-pleaser with the charming everyman Chris Pratt leading the way.
It’s Christmastime 2022, and during a televised world soccer game, a group of time travelers arrive from the year 2051 with an urgent message: Thirty years in the future mankind is losing a global war against deadly alien invaders. To save the human race, soldiers and civilians in present time are drafted to be transported to the future for seven-day duty.
Joining the fight are Pratt as family man and high school teacher Dan Forester, who teams up with a brilliant scientist from Romeo Command (Yvonne Strahovski) and other draftees to save the world and rewrite the fate of the past.
Pratt is naturally in his wheelhouse – a veteran soldier, now a loving husband and father and high school biology teacher, whose leadership skills bolster the impossible fight against these relentless “white spikes.”
The vicious teeth-and-tentacles enemies are swift beasts, designed like a multi-limbed puma/wild dog hybrid with reptile features, not unlike prehistoric creatures. Visually, they are disgusting, and when harmed, burst with icky goo oozing out. They aren’t all that original looking, and neither are the video-game effects.
Most of the ordinary humans are helpless against these hulking packs, who are everywhere. But not Pratt, the scientific military minds in the field – and his ragtag assortment of supporting characters.
The group he is attached to in training camp turns out to have interesting backstories and personalities to make their bond strong. Actors Sam Richardson, terrific as talkative Charlie, Edwin Hodge (Aldis’ brother) as tough but glum Dorian and sarcastic, anxious Norah (Mary Lynn Rajskub) become fierce fighters.
Ever-reliable Oscar winner J.K. Simmons, as Dan’s estranged father and a rogue techie, joins the group on a perilous mission – but that’s another subplot.
There are several plotlines going on – with significant twists – to keep the story humming, even if it resembles other sci-fi dystopian thrillers with similar villains. And despite the multiple threads, there is surprising emotional depth in a few characters.
Screenwriter Zach Dean, who wrote one of my favorite under-the-radar atypical thrillers called “Deadfall” in 2012, has mixed the explosions with a sturdier story, no matter how generic it looks.
However, it is still time travel, which always makes my head hurt, so it’s best not to think too hard about the back-and-forth jumping. When it gets too crazy in regular logic, just enjoy the performances.
Pratt, after starring in “Jurassic World” and “The Guardians of the Galaxy,” embodies both the brawny action hero dedicated to saving lives and the likable guy-next-door committed to his wife and daughter. He is more serious here than jaunty, but capable of shouldering the dilemmas.
Betty Gilpin portrays his wife with a furrowed brow, and the exceptional Ryan Kiera Armstrong, who played young Gloria Steinem in “The Glorias” and is in the new “Black Widow,” is impressive as daddy’s girl Muri, a whip-smart 8-year-old.
The women integral to the mission stand out — Yvonne Strahovski, Emmy nominee for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” is compelling as the brainy scientist racing against time, and Justine Matthews is forceful as officer-in-charge Lt. Hart.
Director Chris McKay, Emmy winner for “Robot Chicken” who helmed the delightful “The Lego Batman Movie,” confidently makes his live-action debut. He may seem an unlikely choice for such a big visual-effect extravaganza, but he has smoothly guided the action – and not at the sacrifice of story.
Composer Lorne Balfe, who has scored the recent “Mission Impossible” films and has specialized in tentpole action films, provides the requisite bombast.
While the film doesn’t stray from the usual archetype of doomsday adventures, there is a noticeable oomph that is unexpected. Sure, the movie checks all the boxes in the successful blockbuster formula but is unique enough to be worth a look during these pandemic times.
That certainly helps because it is a 2 hour and 20-minute commitment. But the cast is what elevates it beyond the same-old, same-old.
“The Tomorrow War” is an action sci-fi thriller directed by Chris McKay and stars Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, J.K. Simmons, Betty Gilpin, Sam Richardson, Jasmine Mathews, Edwin Hodge and Ryan Kiera Armstrong.
Rated: PG-13 for some suggestive references/action/language/intense sci-fi violence, the run time is 2 hours, 20 minutes. Streaming on Amazon Prime starting July 2. Lynn’s Grade: B-
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.