Who’s the daddy? Why The Tomorrow War (2021) is a family affair

Films to Read Before You Die | Out October 2021

The Tomorrow War pits Chris Pratt against bloody-thirsty aliens but it’s OK – he’s a dad.

What is The Tomorrow War about?

Soldiers from 30 years in the future jump back to the present with a dire warning. Blood-thirsty aliens have overrun the planet, and humans are about to become extinct.

Family man and former soldier Dan Forester (Chris Pratt) is called up to duty. He’s catapulted into the future for 7 days to battle the alien foe with little hope of surviving. And that’s not even the worst that the future has in store.

Déjà vu?

The Tomorrow War is one of those movies that critics hate but audiences – well, maybe don’t love, but at least get their kicks from.

This isn’t sophisticated cinema, but it’s a lot of fun (and, crucially, often funny). It also has a whole underbelly of legit emotional resonance. All of this makes it well judged as a pandemic blockbuster, at a time when we need both laughs and to believe in triumph.

One of the main criticisms is that the film is derivative or unoriginal, so let’s get that out of the way first. Yes, it’s like a lot of movies you’ve already seen, and some you haven’t:

  • Greenland, last summer’s apocalypse-flavoured offering which the film really shares a lot in common with
  • 2012 and Knowing (dads battling the end of the world)
  • Armageddon (dads saving the planet)
  • True Lies, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (dads, etc.)
  • The Terminator franchise (fighting a war in another time and a cyborg that morphs into a father figure)
  • The Jurassic World franchise (Chris Pratt CGI creature feature)
  • The Great Wall (Matt Damon CGI creature feature)

You get the point. The Tomorrow War doesn’t serve up a great deal that’s new. But is that always a failing?

The film is pretty honest about what it is: thumping action, lots o’ wise-cracks and some sad bits. And, frankly, it delivers on those.

But what’s most interesting is the way the film plugs into the cinema sub-genre of Action Dads and Bad Fathers.

Hollywood loves its bad father figures almost as much as it rates a heroic dad. The Tomorrow War has both.

Who’s the daddy?

In Greenland, Gerard Butler is the crappy dad / husband who must atone for his sins by saving his family (see also True Lies). In The Tomorrow War, Forester’s dad is the former soldier who abandoned his family after coming back from the Vietnam war.

Like any good foreshadowing, this is the fate that lies in store for Forester, too. We learn later that he too will abandon his family in the future – unless he can turn his fate around.

Forester’s quest is to save the planet, and therefore his daughter’s life. But in order to do so, he must re-connect with his deadbeat dad (J.K. Simmons, pulling off the kind of jacked-up reveal that wouldn’t have been out of place in Terminator 2).

Films about bad dads and heroes tend to resolve in common ways. Firstly, dads will do anything for their families. In that sense, they are the superheroes that walk among us. Unsurprisingly, many of these action figure dads are built like it, too – hulk-like, or capable of crushing any obstacle that stands in their way.

There’s also a complex side to such hero worship. Dads go missing, or can’t live up to expectations: they’re still human, for all the superhero wrappings. Dads and their kids often have to overcome emotional obstacles before they can appreciate each other as individuals, too.

Compare Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, for example, in which dad and son rankle each other, but fight together and show how much they care (almost exactly as it happens in The Tomorrow War).

Life after death

In The Tomorrow War, part of the complexity of fatherhood touches on how we grieve and handle death.

Forester’s trip into the future is a glimpse into the afterlife. All the soldiers sent into the future are able to avoid the paradox of meeting themselves because all are destined to die before the time they’re sent to.

Forester is meant to die in a car crash 7 years from the present day. When he arrives in the future (i.e., his afterlife), he’s already dead to Muri. And once there, he in turn witnesses Muri’s death.

For grown-up Muri, meeting her dead dad in the future is the second chance anyone who’s lost a parent craves. Her anger at him for leaving the family when she was growing up is a parallel to grief. Either way, he ‘abandons’ them and it’s devastating.

The fast-forward is a common cinema device. Like Scrooge’s warning in A Christmas Carol (and, in fact, The Game) or George Bailey’s vision in A Wonderful Life, Forester glimpses what life will be like if he doesn’t play an active role in history.

To not step up and be a hero means killing his daughter – and the end of the human race. No pressure, then.

Why does Forester leave his family?

Muri doesn’t reveal why Forester abandons them, just that he splits up with her mother and later divorces her.

The movie doesn’t invest enough in this to make it quite believable, especially as Forester is painted as an incredible dad early on.

This isn’t the only question the film leaves unanswered in favour of punching aliens in the face. There’s also the issue of whether Forester still dies in a car crash after saving the world.

In the movie’s timeline, Forester skips over his time of death to jump 30 years into the future. He grabs the vaccine and comes back to the present day, where he changes the course of history, ensuring the alien uprising can’t happen at all. But as the year in which Forester dies is independent of both the alien attack and his vaccine triumph, there’s nothing to suggest this will change.

We similarly don’t learn where the aliens come from, except that they crash landed during an eruption and have been buried under the ice for thousands of years (shades of The Thing here). The alien creatures appear to have been carried as a kind of cargo, either as cattle or weapons (shades of Prometheus / the Alien franchise).

Luckily one man can handle it all. He’s not the dude. He’s the daddy.

Sci-fi, now

The Tomorrow War shows us a fictional future, but of course, also tells us about the right now.

The Foresters battle to create a vaccine before the human race is wiped out. And if that’s not the horror story we’ve all been living, I don’t know what is.

Similarly, while some characters step up to fight a common enemy, others fall into despair and start rioting and looting. This too can be a common response to disaster, and in disaster movies, where threats come both from acts of God, and the will of the people.

Compare also the way Greenland tackles fathers facing the apocalypse. Released earlier in the pandemic, it takes an aggressive but pretty dour stance on human disasters. A year later, The Tomorrow War refuses to be quite so resigned or straight-faced.

Most tellingly, though, is the nod towards climate change – arguably the defining theme of our times. Rising temperatures thaw out the alien spaceship, defrosting the whitespikes and releasing them onto the world.

Luckily, there’s one man who can handle it all. Of course scientist and soldier Forester can handle global warming, aliens, vaccines and time travel. He’s not the dude. He’s the daddy.


The Tomorrow War (2021), directed by Chris McKay

Picture credit: Norris Niman