Review: Chris Pratt’s time-travel adventure The Tomorrow War is Starship Troopers for dummies

Chris Pratt stars in The Tomorrow War.

Frank Masi/Courtesy of Amazon Studios

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  • The Tomorrow War
  • Directed by Chris McKay
  • Written by Zach Dean
  • Starring Chris Pratt, Betty Gilpin and J.K. Simmons
  • Classification PG; 140 minutes

In Paul Verhoeven’s masterful 1997 satire Starship Troopers, a near-future fascist world government is at war with an unknowable alien force that everyone simply calls “bugs.” To quash this enemy, the United Citizen Federation sends wave upon wave of young soldiers into hostile outer-space environments to die ultragory heroes’ deaths. But it is all for the greater good: military service guarantees citizenship. And everyone is doing their part, as Verhoeven’s faux-propaganda interstitial videos tell us (”Would you like to know more?”)

Upon its release, when audiences were more primed for a rah-rah spectacle like Independence Day, Verhoeven’s deeply cynical, intentionally vulgar film was almost completely overlooked and undervalued by audiences and critics. But in the years since, the director’s vision – of both the state, and the state of blockbuster filmmaking – has proven distressingly prescient.

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Take, for instance, this week’s release of The Tomorrow War – a movie that plays like a straight-faced Starship Troopers, stripped of irony, self-awareness and worth.

The year is 2022, and a total absence of COVID talk isn’t the only thing that stamps this new film with instant sci-fi/not-of-our-world credibility – apparently, in this version of the near-future, Americans are really into watching soccer matches, too. That’s the evening’s big entertainment, at least, for the Forester family when they learn that their lives are about to change forever. As army veteran-slash-scientist Dan (Chris Pratt), mom-slash-no-career-path-provided Emmy (Betty Gilpin) and daughter-slash-moppet Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) watch a televised footie game, a battalion of soldiers from the future suddenly appear on the field. Turns out that 30 years from now, humankind is in the midst of a war against aliens. And we’re losing.

The only hope: Send people from the past to fight in the future, thus ensuring the survival of the present. Quickly, the entire population of Earth is subject to a military draft that would only make decent space-time-continuum sense to Doc Brown and a handful of cinema’s other great time-travelling mad men. Naturally, Dan is selected, and given a mission by a mysterious higher-up (Yvonne Strahovski) that may help save humanity. (But is it our timeline’s version of humanity, or another’s? Don’t think too hard about this; the screenplay sure doesn’t.)

The Tomorrow War is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video starting July 2.

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

While director Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie) injects trace amounts of visual wit where possible – soldiers are transported into the future through a floating purple force field, and sometimes they arrive in locales that don’t allow for safe landings – and Zach Dean’s script contains a semi-interesting late-film riff on The Thing, much of The Tomorrow War is uninspired. It even borders on offensive, given the film’s complete lack of ambition when faced with such a potentially promising conceit.

Early in the film, parts of the world riot over being conscripted to fight in a war that’s not yet here. On the flip side, there are those who despair that the present isn’t worth enjoying, given that the future seems doomed. But these moments that flick at concepts of fate, duty and enemy engagement (what do these leaderless, uncommunicative aliens want, anyway?) are loudly, rudely drowned out by scenes of familiar high-tech combat and explosive mayhem.

Does Pratt get to flex his muscles and quip like a parallel-universe version of his Guardians of the Galaxy hero? Does he get comic-relief from well-known comedy actors like J.K. Simmons, Sam Richardson and Mary Lynn Rajskub? Does the third-act twist, such as it is, make any kind of sense? Do the aliens look like rejects from A Quiet Place’s storyboards? Or, really, Starship Troopers’ own “bugs”? You won’t have to time-travel to the film’s final minutes to answer these questions.

It is a fool’s errand to imagine what someone like Verhoeven would have done with The Tomorrow War’s material – this is a movie made for the express purposes of delivering some lazy woo-hoo summer fun, not any kind of sneaky subversiveness. But if I had a time machine, I’d punt myself to the past just before The Tomorrow War went into production, and save everyone the trouble.

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The Tomorrow War is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video starting July 2

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.