Explaining the popularity of ‘The Tomorrow War’
The Tomorrow War, the number-one streaming movie in the U.S. for more than a week now, is one of the most derivative sci-fi movies ever made. Even its title borrows from better sci-fi properties. The excellent ‘Edge of Tomorrow‘ stars Tom Cruise as a soldier who has infinite lives, just enough to figure out how to defeat bug-like alien invaders. ‘The Forever War,’ a classic sci-fi novel by Joe Haldeman, features a time-traveling soldier trying to defeat bug-like alien invaders. The Tomorrow War stars Chris Pratt as a time-traveling former soldier trying to defeat bug-like alien invaders. At least they didn’t call the movie “Edge of Forever.”
The bug-like alien invaders in The Tomorrow War resemble the bug-like alien invaders from Starship Troopers. They also resemble the xenomorphs in the ‘Alien’ movies. The time jumps in the movie are like the time jumps in ‘Jumper’ or ‘Looper’ or maybe the first ‘Terminator’ movie. The father-daughter-through-time dynamic is like a made-for-TV version of the one in ‘Interstellar.’ The mix of melodrama and quippiness has an ‘Independence Day’ feel to it. The aliens swarm the ramparts like the zombies in ‘World War Z’. And so on.
You can explain the popularity of The Tomorrow War for a number of reasons. It’s on TV. It’s free if you have Amazon Prime. There are guns and other things that go boom. Chris Pratt is a popular movie star and he appears shirtless at least once. Sam Richardson, Richard Splett from Veep, plays a fairly major role and is appealingly funny. A 30-minute set piece, involving a time jump and a harrowing rescue mission in Miami Beach, is a strong, tense short film in the midst of a bloated narrative mess.
The movie glorifies military violence as the solution to all the world’s problems, but it’s also weirdly pro-science. Pratt plays the world’s buffest high-school science teacher, frustrated that he can’t get his dream job in a research lab. His adorable nine-year-old daughter is also clearly a prodigal science genius. Pratt is also, conveniently, an ex-special forces Iraq veteran. So when word comes from the future that humanity needs middle-aged cannon fodder against the aliens, Pratt’s character is the movie version of a power-up.
From there, the movie degenerates into bang-bang and corny dialogue and unearned family sentimentality. And yet in the midst of all the machine-gun bursts and exploding heads, scientific research marches on, in the present and the future. Before I watched The Tomorrow War, I found myself wondering why conservative publications seem to like it so much, and now I know. Its heroes, both Pratt and J.K. Simmons as his Vietnam-veteran father, are brilliant scientists and gun-toting men of action who chafe against the powers that be. Every other character worth their salt is also a scientific genius or someone who loves them.
The Tomorrow War presents the world’s governments, and particularly the U.S. government, as indecisive and naive when it comes to matters of war and science. Deliberately or not, the movie rips that opinion straight out of the position papers of The Heritage Foundation. It’s not an original sentiment, particularly not for science fiction, that most edgelord-y of genres. But in an era where fantastical entertainment tries to be as politically anodyne as possible, that simple idea makes The Tomorrow War stand out. It may even explain why this dumb and only intermittently fun movie is so popular.