The Tomorrow War

★★★★½

Chris Pratt is an actor I’ve generally always enjoyed.

I think I first saw him during a recurring guest stint on “The O.C.” (Shut up, the first season is legitimately good!) and was struck by just how funny and weird the dude came across. I followed Pratt through appearances on screens both big (“Wanted,” “Jennifer’s Body,” “Moneyball,” “The Five-Year Engagement,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Her”) and small (“Parks and Recreation”).

The cat’s career was shot into the stratosphere back in 2014 with the one-two punch of “The Lego Movie” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” He followed these successes up with “Jurassic World” and “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” (products where Pratt is more engaging than the movies themselves), Antoine Fuqua’s “The Magnificent Seven” remake (where he was one of the least interesting members of the ensemble cast), the misguided sci-fi gaslighting exercise “Passengers,” less entertaining sequels “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (Why did writer/director James Gunn turn Peter Quill/Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon into such jerks in the second installment? They were easily the best characters in the first one!) and “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part,” “Avengers: Infinity War” (where Quill single-handedly screwed all of humanity) and doing voice work for “Onward” (Pixar’s best 2020 picture … come at me, dawg!).

I don’t know if general audiences have tired of Pratt or if it’s just me. I still like the dude … just not as much as I once did. I’ll fully admit I prefer Pratt doughy and droll as opposed to studly and stolid. It also seems as though he’s come under fire from critics and industry types (among them Elliot Page) for his Christianity (he’s a member of the controversial Zoe Church) and purported conservatism.

This brings us to Pratt’s latest project “The Tomorrow War,” which will be available to stream on Amazon Prime beginning Friday, July 2. “The Tomorrow War” is the first film of Pratt’s that he’s executive produced. I suspect he had an active hand in the artistic direction the picture took. The movie is earnest and extols the virtues of family and service to one’s country as well as the world at large. Its set pieces involving guns, knives and snowmobiles have the fingerprints of a good ol’ boy such as Pratt all over ‘em.

I’m happy to report that the final product plays like gangbusters. This is easily Pratt’s best starring vehicle and performance since the first “Guardians.” He and the movie itself are both great. Strangely, this is a sci-fi/action flick with serious “It’s a Wonderful Life” vibes and it all lands. I laughed. I cried. I was entertained.

Pratt stars as Dan Forester, a soldier-turned-high school science teacher longing for a private sector research gig that he’s continually passed over for in favor of others with more industry experience. Dan’s dissatisfied with his life despite having the love of his wonderful wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin, doing a lot with a little) and doting daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong).

Dan’s licking his wounds from the latest rejection while watching a televised soccer match at a holiday party. His priorities certainly shift when the game’s interrupted by time-travelling soldiers from 30 years in the future advising of humanity’s impending extinction at the tentacles of the White Spikes, an invading alien force that’s using Earth as an all you can eat buffet.

Dan’s quickly conscripted into service alongside scaredy-cat scientist Charlie (Sam Richardson, even more fun here than he was in last week’s “Werewolves Within”), seasoned veteran Dorian (Edwin Hodge, doing a variation on the stoic black dude shtick he displayed in “The Purge” pictures) and a slew of other average folks (some of whom are entertainingly embodied by sketch comedians Mary Lynn Rajskub and Mike Mitchell). Emmy wants Dan to draft dodge through the assistance of his estranged, government-disdaining father James (J.K. Simmons, looking far more ripped than he did in the DC Snyderverse), but Dan’s unwilling to do so.

Dan, Charlie, Dorian and the rest are sent 30 years into the future for a one-week tour of duty in which they’ll engage in combat with the White Spikes and attempt to retrieve vials that are vital to humankind’s survival. While there they report to the tough, smart and determined Romeo Command (Yvonne Strahovski). If they survive the entire week they’ll be beamed back to the present.

My expectations coming into “The Tomorrow War” were fairly low and they were exceeded at almost every turn. Director Chris McKay (“The Lego Batman Movie”) appears to be one of those filmmakers like Tim Burton, Brad Bird, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, Mike Judge and Travis Knight who successfully made the transition from animation to live action. This is great blockbuster entertainment with a thoughtful script by Zach Dean (writer of the Eric Bana/Olivia Wilde/Charlie Hunnam-starrer “Deadfall”) and moving performances from Pratt and Strahovski. I’d be happy to see action buddy comedies starring Pratt and Richardson in perpetuity – they have real deal chemistry here. The White Spikes are simultaneously familiar and wholly original – most importantly they’re scary as shit. (Serious props to the talented technicians at Weta Digital and Luma Pictures.) My only gripe with “The Tomorrow War” is that I’m unable to see it on the BIG screen with an amped audience. Eat your heart out, “Independence Day.”

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