"Why didn't you make this other movie I would have liked better, instead of the movie you did make?" is one of the shabbiest angles a film critic can ever play, and I do not deny that in my time I have played it, to my shame. But it's rare to find a film that just demands that kind of approach as hard as The Tomorrow War does: it has enough good ideas nestled inside of it that you can imaging assembling one hell of a pitch without telling a single lie about what happens during it, which is probably how Amazon ended up buying it off of Paramount for $200 million (history does not seem to record how much Paramount paid to make it), one of those figures that makes you realize that Amazon is a big enough corporation for money to literally not be real to them. Because as good as the pitch might have been, the execution is terrible, and presumably Amazon had access to the finished movie, not just the logline, when they decided to pick it up.

Which gets back to "why didn't you make this other movie?" I won't tell you what happens at the one-hour mark of The Tomorrow War, not exactly; that's not even the midway point of a movie that runs to a truly murderous 139 minutes, but it's far enough that I'm sure we're not supposed to spoil it, and the film sure does act like it's handed us a reveal at that point. And the thing is, the reveal gets us to where the plot always should have lived, with a much sturdier character conflict to play with than the almost petulant lack of clear stakes prior to that point, and even what little conflict can be wrenched out of the film is so divorced from our protagonist as anything other than a meat puppet, I don't know why the bother of introducing him and his acutely overclocked personality (just one of those super-hard combat veterans who retired to become a high school biology teacher and now resents the world for not giving him a job at a prestigious research facility, as you find in the world) and right around the same time of the reveal, the exposition shifts firmly over from "fuck you, it's time travel, that's why" to actually explaining some of the bullshit logic for why none of things that made any sense till now actually make perfect sense, or at least permit us to see that screenwriter Zach Dean had anticipated the bullshit we were all going to be smelling, and had some prepared excuses ready to go.

But this doesn't change the sheer ugly fact of that first hour, one of the dumbest stretches of sci-fi storytelling I have encountered in quite some time. In December, 2022, the World Cup is interrupted by the arrival of soldiers from thirty years in the future, to tell us all that humanity is losing a war with a race of man-eating aliens nicknamed Whitespikes. And it's going so badly for the future humans that they have decided to ask the people of the past to contribute their own military forces for the war effort. A year later, all of the militaries of 2023 have been slaughtered, so a draft is instituted, and among those drafted is our aforementioned Green Beret science guy, Dan Forester (Chris Pratt, who also serves as executive producer, and is terrible in the role - at some point, along with losing weight, he lost every ounce of his charm and charisma, and it has finally resulted in a total vacuum of screen presence where his dopey everyday-guy vibe used to be).

This is... nonsense. "Why didn't they just go back in time to when the aliens first showed up and stopped them?" is such an obvious objection that Dean does have to explain it, long after he should have, and the explanation is basically "because it would have been very difficult to have a plot otherwise". "Why do all the humans of 2023 just shrug and say 'okay' to a military draft that results in the death of tens of thousands of middle-aged people every single week, to fight a war in the distant future for which not a single piece of evidence has apparently been offered?" is, I think, just as obvious an objection, and this one Dean simply ignores altogether. So he and director Chris McKay - making his first live-action film, after having done so extremely well with The Lego Batman Movie - just look the other way and muscle through an opening hour that has really, just like nothing pleasurable to offer: some nicely shiny CGI for the time-travel effects, and I do love the hell out of the design of the Whitespikes, if not how they are used, and Betty Gilpin is terrific in her, like, three minutes of screentime as Dan's wife. But that adds up to very little in the face of a barbarically-edited mishmash (and it announces it bright and early, during a scene set at a Christmas party - the film was originally to open on 25 December, 2020 - where there's a cutaway to a sad-looking novelty tuna salad that is so profoundly divorced from anything else in the editing rhythm or spacial relationships of the scene that it feels like more like an experimental film than a costly popcorn movie), where the action is loud and seemingly very scary without being easy to follow, where the characters are introduced as a grand total of one trait and one easy-to-predict character arc, and assigned to actors too good for them, and where, as mentioned the filmmakers are pursuing this asinine strategy of making things opaque and confusing on purpose, as though anyone has ever walked into a film with the thought, "boy, I sure hope this turns out to be unsatisfying and hard to follow until literally the third act".

And here's the thing: it's a good third act. Or, at least, we'd see that it's an act with a lot of potential, if I decided just to spoil things and tell- oh fuck it, SPOILERS, whatever, it's a shit movie, it turns out that Dan has been deliberately pulled up from the past by his grown-up daughter (Yvonne Strahovski), when we last saw her in '23, for reasons related to something very fucking horrible that's going to befall the Forester family at some point before 2030. As is its wont, the film is showy about not telling us what thing that is, and it has very little reason for doing so, but the idea, the idea is solid. "A man must make amends for fuckups he hasn't committed yet to repair his relationship with his daughter, which for him hasn't gone wrong yet", that kind of pleasingly convoluted quandary is what we have sci-fi stories for in the first place. And setting that against the tale of a hopeless alien war, and having both the man and the daughter be biologists racing to create an anti-alien poison is a perfectly good way to turn that into an action movie, all the more perfect since the aliens are as cool-looking as the Whitespikes. But they could just, like tell that story: they didn't need the bizarre daisy chain of fake-outs that constitutes the entire first hour, they didn't need to make it so impossible to buy-in to the film's time travel rules by delaying any reasonable explanation of them until the 70-minute mark, they didn't need to seed plot elements suggesting a conspiracy by the future military against the present-day humans which are so far away from ever blooming that I wonder if Dean and McKay literally didn't even realise they were doing it. Dan could go to the future all by himself, we get exactly the same third act, only now it's a second and third act, and it has more room to turn into something compelling and engaging.

But that would require The Tomorrow War to be less than an abject failure of storytelling. And if it starts badly, it ends even worse: the film literally ends at about 100 minutes in, and then has to generate an entirely new story to carry it through a fourth act, one of the most inept things you could imagine. For one thing, all of the patches that Dean has welded onto his scenario to answer some of the most obvious objections to the basic concept of the film are ripped off in a massive explosion of "wait, couldn't they have just done that the whole time?" For another, a film based on creating a bioweapon against the aliens ends when the heroes successfully punch the aliens to death. That's another spoiler, I guess. Anyway, the film is not very good without playing the "anyway, none of that mattered" card so deep into its indulgent running time; to have done so transforms an unpleasant experience into an actively revolting one.