In 1902’s Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling famously explained how the leopard got his spots in what would today be deemed an…
Scary monsters, time travel, and a female protagonist plucked from The Handmaid’s Tale cast: what could be better?
A Derivative Plot with Interesting Embellishments
In Amazon Prime’s new “military science fiction action film” The Tomorrow War, released July 2, young time travelers from 2051 arrive in the middle of a World Cup match near the end of 2022 with a message: humanity is on the brink of extinction from being food for the “Whitespikes.” The visitors need new troops to jump ahead to the future. At first I thought the characters were saying “white stripes” and expected the appropriate soundtrack, but the spikes are part of the enemy’s phenotype.
The Whitespikes appear suddenly, ducking radar and satellites, in November 2048, in northern Russia. They gobble through humanity quickly, leaving a mere half million people. So dire is the future need that military folks and civilians are selected from the populous past for week-long deployments, with no time for training. Only a third survive.
The recruits painfully get arm implants that receive signals from a hovering wormhole-based “jumplink” to suck them up into the future. The group ascension reminded me of the people reaching age 30 in Logan’s Run floating joyously upward as they attain “Carousel,” aka death. The jumplink is far more massive and sophisticated than the clunky bike-like vehicle that hurtled time travelers centuries forward in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. The sucked-up ones in 2022 are then unceremoniously dumped into a future crawling with fire and destruction and hordes of leaping, slathering, hungry “aliens.”
Despite the derivative nature of The Tomorrow War, I lasted through the two-plus hours because it adheres to Isaac Asimov’s basic law of science fiction: change one thing. All other plot points fall from that. The time travel is the one thing. And it works, if you can block out the endless battle scenes.
The Whitespikes are pale, crab-like creatures, resembling hybrid offspring of the beast that jumped out of Sigourney Weaver’s abdomen in Alien and the velociraptors of Jurassic Park fame, which makes a certain sense because Chris Pratt, star of Jurassic World, plays the protagonist in The Tomorrow War. The creepy white appendages zoom out from the beasts and strangle people before popping them into the gaping maws.
Much of the film depicts hapless humans blasting guns uselessly at the monsters, but occasionally a sharp object lands and green goo pours out.
Dan Forester (Pratt) fought in Afghanistan and is, in 2022, a scientist wannabe and a dynamic high school biology teacher. In his typically bored class is Martin, whose passion for volcanoes will of course eventually save the planet when the adults can’t.
Spoiler alert! The time travel twist that propels the narrative is Dan’s precocious young daughter, Muri, who grows up to be the scientist who figures out how to kill the Whitespikes. She’s her father’s commander when he lands in the future. It’s fitting casting because the actress, the wonderful Yvonne Strahovski, played Serena Waterford, wife of the twisted Commander Waterford, in The Handmaid’s Tale. Now she’s in charge.
IMDb dubs Yvonne’s Dr. Forester a “brilliant scientist,” and she is indeed well qualified to conquer the Whitespikes. She has a PhD in biotechnology from MIT and specialized in genomics (mispronounced jee-NOM-ix) and immunology – coincidentally two areas of expertise essential to conquering COVID.
Two other familiar cast members are citizen soldier Mary Lynn Rajskub, who bore a perpetual frown as Chloe O’Brian in the Keifer Sutherland drama 24, and Dan’s dad, an estranged grizzled mechanical engineer Vietnam vet played by J. K. Simmons, a Law & Order alum. Every sci-film must have one of these.
“Sciencing the (Expletive) Out of It”
When marooned astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) found himself alone on the red planet in 2015’s The Martian, he looked around in despair at the forsaken landscape. “I’m left with only one option: I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”
Science is what it would and will take to wipe the Earth of the Whitespikes.
And so Muri gets to work at her handy bioinformatics set-up, digging down into the genome sequence of a sample of Whitespike flesh and deducing how to synthesize a “toxin” that will disable an enzyme and/or target the DNA. The futurists have already figured out how to kill the males who, after all, aren’t nearly as important as the females. Muri and humankind need to fashion a weapon against the females, but due to the massive destruction of labs, scale-up can only happen back in the past.
Fortunately, creating a female-targeted biotech weapon takes only a few minutes, with a disembodied voice bleating “15% bond,” “36% bond,” “74% bond,” as the tension builds. Several screens depict cheesy graphics of double helices, to remind Muri of the molecule’s conformation in case she forgets. Strings of undulating DNA bases – A, C, T, and G – remind her too.
The toxin, once invented, is stored in a small green bottle that looks a lot like travel mouthwash. Once the stuff is scaled-up, presumably the humans can Listerine-the-shit out of the monsters.
Enter the Junior Volcanologist
It turns out, as it does in other sci-fi films, that the enemy didn’t quite suddenly emerge from spaceships. In a convo between Dan and his wife that is too short and fast to comprehend, they somehow deduce that the monsters came from a glacier.
Sci-fi films do this. Hand-waving. Characters vomit out a bunch of big words and look worried, all under a minute, instantly pivoting the plot. Viewers just accept it, assume they’ve not understood the mangled or invented science.
The precocious kid in Dan’s biology class, Martin, helpfully fills in the blanks for the flummoxed adults. He immediately realizes that the alien invasion happened with the Millennium Eruption in 946, when Paektu mountain in Korea and China blew up, creating, eventually, Heaven Lake. Martin helpfully grabs an iPad and shows everyone.
Martin then hypothesizes that a Whitespike-bearing spaceship or two must have slipped in amidst all the geological upheaval. By November 2048, the warming planet will have melted enough of the glacier in northern Russia to unleash the beasts. (Reminiscent of the excellent Netflix series Katya, which I reviewed here.) Although China is indirectly implicated in this invasion story, it’s good to know that nothing escaped from a lab and hid out in a live animal market.
The thawed aliens are hungry.
After a lot of violence between humans and enraged CGI Whitespikes, during which Muri perishes in the jaws of a beast, the survivors are zapped back to their time. The Listerine is indeed scaled up, and Dan and a few others trek to Russia. Amid lots of fighting on snow, Dan finally hurls the mouthwash on a huge female Whitespike.
Like the Wicked Witch of the West withering away in Oz under a tossed bucket of water, the she-monster dies.
Humanity is saved.
The COVID Connection
The Tomorrow War was conceived pre-COVID, originally called “Ghost Draft,” so any resemblances to our present plight are coincidental. Yet as the plot unspooled, I felt a distinct undercurrent, not a subtext because it was unintentional, yet still echoing events since COVID upended our lives.
I couldn’t find any other reviews mentioning a COVID connection. The usual film critics tended to take The Tomorrow War at face value, just another monster film, derivative and rambling, “a trashy popcorn vibe,” “unremarkable,” with “sentimentality veering into melodrama” and “a cornball machismo.” Cookie-cutter, stereotyped characters transcend even a racially diverse cast.
All true, on the surface.
But isn’t the narrative of “science from the past saving the future” especially relevant right now?
Aren’t the folks fighting the Whitespikes three decades hence similar to the mRNA vaccines whose backbones were developed to defend against the original SARS, circa 2003? Researchers in early 2020 needed only to insert the new genome – in its original incarnation – to retool the invention into the first generation of COVID vaccines. But vaccines are temporary measures.
Vanquishing SARS-CoV-2, which may amount to merely quelling it into a quieter endemic state, is going to depend on a solution from the future – just like Muri Forester developing her anti-Whitespike, gene-guided, female-targeting, green mouthwash toxin.