Review: ‘The Tomorrow War’ (2021)

Okay not a review but more like notes, although I hope they add up to one or a few semi-coherent points – which shouldn’t be hard considering you know I like to focus on the science-adjacent stuff.

  1. The Tomorrow War finally used a new analogy to explain jumping back and forth in time (although there’s still some trickery in there). For many years, scientists in films would draw two circles on a sheet of paper and fold it such that their circumferences overlapped, and say, “That’s a wormhole.” In The Tomorrow War, time is a “river” and events on the spacetime continuum are “rafts” moving on it.
  2. How come we only ever seem to encounter highly intelligent, super-strong ‘aliens’? Where are the squishier, less intelligent ones that managed to escape a fairly ‘easy’ planet now completely stripped off its resources, wandered about in space for a bit and eventually landed on a hazy blue dot – only to get drubbed?
  3. How come we so often meet alien species that are able to use cartilaginous membranes to shield themselves from metallic projectiles travelling at hundreds of kilometres an hour and at the same time are less-dense and flexible enough to support gliding?
  4. Is it really a universal truth that wherever arthropods take root, the female is the larger, stronger and more powerful individual than the male? Also, why just male and female?
  5. The Tomorrow War seems to be one of a small number of movies that doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on how they’re going to explain its time-travel choices in excruciating detail. You can just pick them up and understand them, based on the little details sprinkled through the narrative. People’s science literacy is iffy but their – our – science-movie literacy seems pretty good.
  6. This is a question a lot of us have been asking for a long time but how come the showdown’s always in the US? If it’s in Eastern Europe or Africa, it’s usually the epilogue of a rescue mission gone awry… But imagine aliens having to fight their way through the jungles of the DRC, a cyclone-beset Sundarbans, across the mountains of Tibet, the Pantanal of South America, the blistering heat around the Dead Sea or going from Mayur Vihar to Rajiv Chowk on the blue line at 8 am.
  7. A more fundamental form of the same question (and possibly ignorant): Was The War of the Worlds the last widely-consumed piece of fiction that allowed our planet’s formidable panoply of microbes to defeat aliens? Humans call Earth their home and one species of one virus has knocked us sideways in less than a year. Put another way, is it hubristic to make humans the principal antagonists in the eyes (or other sensory organs) of the ‘alien’ species, just like it’s hubristic to believe only Americans always constitute the last holdout for humanity?
  8. This said, there is one reasonable possibility: the US has the highest defence spending and supposedly the better weapons, which then allows Hollywood to be creative about the latter as well. Designers can dream up guns that can fire a billion bullets before a single refill or a ‘biometrification’ machine that allows the government to track you anywhere on Earth using your pulse – and I’m sure it’d be ridiculous to claim the institution that dreamed them up also produced a drug like 2-DG. But the overall hubris still stands.
  9. You could chalk all of this up (or down) to just another Hollywood film created by and for an American audience and say I’m reading too much into it. I know I am – but I also think pop culture can be a useful entry point, whether or not the creators of a movie or a book itself like that – to think about stuff. 🙂
  10. This film gives a damn about the science. I’m not sure if it makes sense, but it gives a damn. Godzilla vs. Kong was horrible largely because it didn’t give a damn (and I’m using it to compare here because I watched and reviewed it yesterday).
  11. I’m yet to watch a big-budget Hollywood film in which scientists have failed. Why don’t the scientists fail? How come their experiments and theories always come right? I specifically mean someone conducting some experiments in a moment of desperation, and the whole thing going SUSFU.
  12. Why do we employ bullets against a species that can swarm, or at least congregate in large numbers? Is it that their skin is impervious to fluorine and sulphuric acid as well as being able to block bullets? Even vicious contact explosives like chlorine azide? Also, if the creatures in the film can “smell blood from a mile away” (not a spoiler), it’s odd that the army isn’t spraying any volatile substances in the air. Of course, the film obviates most of these questions by emphasising the rapturous speed of The Invasion at the start, so let’s hope future invasions don’t bank on just one Death-Star-esque failsafe.
  13. These are questions anyone could ask whenever they encounter an alien species on the big screen and can at the same time recall high-school science. But setting that aside, I’m wondering if script-writers imagine these creatures the way they do so that they’re also killable.
  14. There’s an allegory in The Tomorrow War about fighting in a war, getting out of it, coming home and finding yourself in the past – and that the past is a different country. There’s also something to be said about climate change.
  15. When otherworldly lifeforms show up on Planet Earth, there’s people “rioting and looting” on the streets. Why? These in-film ‘news items’ seldom add anything to the core narrative, nor do they care to specify why people are rioting and looting. And I also find it faintly disquieting that scientific endeavours and socio-political actions (like rioting and looting) are presented in opposition: the latter is disorder, the former restores order. (Also: “Every time we get governments involved, it turns into a nightmare.” Of course it does. You’ve governed yourself into a future where only science experiments aren’t nightmares.)
  16. Only Dorian gets it.
  17. Deus ex machina should die, especially when it’s used for trivial things.
  18. “You want me to use taxpayer money to fund a special covert mission into XXXX led by YYYY?” Apparently this is where they draw the line – not going from the status quo to total war or forced conscription in eleven months.
  19. One twist is classy. Two or three are good, too, but also require deft. A film with four twists or more is destined for disaster mostly because the audience is likely to stop trusting the traditional narrative cues that encourage or discourage viewers to believe something happening on screen. They just begin to suspect, or entirely disbelieve, everything. The Tomorrow War ends with a flurry of small, mostly tolerable twists, but two in particular are interesting. They’re not opposites of each other: if one twists one way, the other doesn’t untwist it. Yet after they’ve both happened, you’re exactly where you were before the first twist. It’s more like a Möbius strip: you need to go around the surface twice to get to the starting point. It’s amazing geometry but wasteful storytelling.
  20. In tone, style and verve, The Tomorrow War is very similar to Edge of Tomorrow; the latter is grittier though.

About Me

I’m a science editor and writer in India, interested in high-energy and condensed-matter physics, research misconduct, pseudoscience, science’s relationship with society, epic fantasy, open source/access/knowledge systems, H.R. Giger’s art, Goundamani’s comedy, Factorio, and most things that require a lot of time to get the hang of.