The Tomorrow War is an intriguing film. [Major spoilers below.] It is something of an amalgamation of World War Z and Edge of Tomorrow, but it is also a fun and dynamic alien invasion movie in its own right. It has also crystallised something for me that I’ve felt for years but never quite known how to articulate…
When I was growing up, my grandpa loved old war movies. Mostly “prisoner of war” stuff, like Colditz and The Great Escape. I liked them too. They were often great family viewing. (At least in Britain, but let’s not go there…)
As I grew older, I remember being quite surprised about his love of such films. He fought in World War II, after all, and served as a navigator for the RAF. But he never talked about it. I don’t think he was under any illusion that war was something to enjoy or remember fondly. And yet, there was something about seeing this kind of romantic vision of wartime that was cathartic or calming for him, I think. It allowed him to relive what must have been one of the most affecting times of his life, but with a certain amount of distance and through a certain kind of soft-focus filter. He was just one man in a nation of men who, after the war, needed to tell themselves a certain kind of story.
In more recent years, it is interesting to see how that kind of film has developed with a new kind of veteran in mind. Ever since American Sniper came out in 2014, after a generation of veterans were starting to settle back into civilian life post-9/11 and the war on terror, there have been periodic film releases that insert a Chris Pratt or a Bradley Cooper into the mix — basically any young white contemporary American everyman — in order to tell a story (whether explicitly or implicitly) about duty and responsibility and, perhaps most importantly, the emotional toil of coming home. These films aren’t dramatizing what happened over there — this isn’t Jarhead or Black Hawk Down or a film from that generation of war movie — but what happens when it’s (supposed to be) all over. They are essentially PTSD films, told largely through flashbacks.
I have no problem with that kind of narrative. I find American militarism pretty nauseating, truth be told, but I do have a soft spot for films that explore its complexities. (I’ve seen American Sniper more times than I’d care to admit, actually — the result of a hangover from a childhood obsession with Clint Eastwood and his particular brand of reactionary anti-hero, I think.) As films, they can actually be quite charming, even if they are clearly made with a certain kind of ideological standpoint in mind. But what is telling, in consuming this sort of movie, is watching how that standpoint changes over time.
The Tomorrow War is fascinating in this regard, mainly because, through its time-travel drama, it facilitates a major subplot that explores the impact of intergenerational PTSD quite specifically.
Chris Pratt is a veteran of the Iraq War trying to kickstart a new life and make something of himself after the military. But it’s not going very well for him and he’s getting very sad and angry about it. When we meet him, he’s just walked into a house party he’s supposedly hosting, but he doesn’t interact with anyone there. He’s like a ghost, almost, with no time for anyone but his wife and daughter and, most significantly, some people on the end of a phoneline who might be offering him his dream job. But he doesn’t get it. And he takes the rejection surprisingly badly. The world fades out around him, as if this setback in his career is nonetheless taking him back somewhere much darker. There’s a dark sadness within him that is rising.
Alongside Pratt’s clearly undiagnosed PTSD, we learn about how he’s also deeply resentful of his father, played by JK Simmons. When he arrives home, he’s given an unopened Christmas card from the man, which he throws in the bin. (Though the narrative suggests Pratt goes dark over his failed job interview, this minor detail looms ever larger as the story progresses, as if the Christmas card is the real trigger for him.) Simmons, we later learn, came back from ‘Nam a broken man and wasn’t really present when Pratt needed him most. They’re estranged and not really on speaking terms, largely because Pratt refuses to engage with him.
Then the aliens arrive. Pratt goes into the future to fight a war, and whilst he’s there he meets his daughter, fully grown and now a Colonel fighting off the invaders — and she resents him. She keeps him at a distance and later tells him some home truths (albeit related to a life he hasn’t lived yet). She tells a story about how, when she got older, he and her mother separated and he was a bit of a mess. In the end, just seven years later, she watched him die following a car crash, after they’d been estranged for years. It is a case of “like father like son”, as it turns out. Whatever was eating Pratt when we first met him, devoured him whole a few years later. This disturbs Pratt greatly.
But something also clicks for him. Suddenly, you see this intergenerational picture being painted. Post-‘Nam dad is followed by post-Iraq son, and tomorrow war daughter isn’t really having any of it. Later, when Pratt is unceremoniously sent back to the past, having watched his future daughter die, he sets out on a redemption mission to destroy the aliens — frozen in ice on the Russian tundra, as it turns out — in order to make sure the war never happens and his daughter never has to die. But in the process, he ropes in his Dad, and together they’re two shaken veterans — one of them maybe an alcoholic — doing what they unfortunately do best and trying to save the world.
The psychological picture painted here is fascinating. None of this really takes precedence. It is all back story; little details that paint a big picture, which is nonetheless a familial backdrop to a big spectacular alien invasion movie. But these little details change the film in quite a profound way, I think.
Despite how it might sound, this isn’t quite the gung-ho American militarism we’ve come to expect. It doesn’t have much ideological pomp about American exceptionalism, filling its role as the world’s police force. Pratt is sent on a suicide mission into a war that America (but also the world) is definitely losing. It’s Vietnam, yeah, but it’s also the Middle East. But then, the aliens are not the Viet Cong or the Taliban. This isn’t a fantasy do-over, winning the war that was previously lost. This is a film about a band of troubled veterans who truly want to redeem themselves, haunted by the things they’ve done or the world they might have created through their actions. This is a band of veterans turning the tables. A Vietnam war vet and an Iraq war vet fighting off an invading species. This isn’t Predator, with a tank-like Schwarzenegger fighting off the single alien guerrilla, getting his own back on the enemy and securing the cathartic victory otherwise denied him (although the aliens in The Tomorrow World do look like the monstrous lovechildren of a xenomorph and a Predator). This is a film about vets redeeming themselves by fighting off a hoard of (notably white) invaders, rather than being one of them. It’s a film about war vets getting the sharp and sour taste of their own medicine, and wanting to use the time they have left to fight off an invading force. It’s a film about war vets stopping a war from ever taking place.
The Tomorrow World feels like a film for anti-war war vets, in this regard, dressed up as an overblown alien invasion movie. This feels like burnt-out American militarism creating a narrative where it gets to save the world from itself.