By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—In “The Tomorrow War,” the world is stunned when a group of time travelers arrive from the year 2051 to deliver an urgent message: Thirty years into the future Mankind is losing a global war against a deadly alien species. The only hope for survival is for soldiers and civilians from the present to be transported through a portal and join the fight. Among those recruited is high school teacher and family man Dan Forester (Chris Pratt, “Avengers,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchises). Determined to save the world for his young daughter, Dan teams up with a brilliant scientist (Yvonne Strahovski, “Chuck”) and his estranged father (Oscar winning actor J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash”) in a desperate attempt to save the planet.
Directed by Chris McKay (“The Lego Batman Movie”), from a screenplay by Zach Dean (“Deadfall”), this action-packed time-traveling adventure also stars Betty Gilpin, Sam Richardson, Edwin Hodge, Jasmine Mathews and Keith Powers.
The filmmakers and the stars joined together in a virtual Zoom call to discuss the film, its message about protecting the environment for future generations, the enduring bonds of family and fighting an invisible enemy.
“The Tomorrow War” launches globally July 2 on Amazon Prime Video.
Q: One of the heavier themes in the movie is about what one generation owes to the next and the notion that humans can be their own worst enemies, destroying our planet, let alone having to save it from invaders. Chris McKay, as the director, what are your thoughts on this and what did you think about the importance of layering in a few thoughtful messages along in this large-scale alien invasion popcorn movie?
Chris McKay: What was really important about the script to me was the idea of what do you owe the future? What do you owe the world? How do you leave the world in a better place? Do you count your blessings that you have in front of you? All that was really important. I love genre movies, science fiction, action movies, horror movies. That’s the stuff that the little kid in me wanted to make. That’s the thing that I responded to, but also I’m caught somewhere between John Carpenter and John Cassavetes. There’s always a little bit of the human story and the drama, I want any sci-fi movie that I do to have an original big epic scope and amazing performances with a beautiful cast, but also can have a little bit of heart and a little bit of something to think about. That was why I wanted to do this. The script in this cast and crew was a real gift.
Q: Chris Pratt, what is the biggest adrenaline rush you had during your part in the making of “The Tomorrow War?”
Chris Pratt: You could ask me this question on 10 different days and I might give you 10 different answers because it really was a physical film and there was so much to choose from. Off the top of my head, there’s a really great sequence … when we make that jump to 2051, and we fall from the sky in Miami and land in a pool. There was some serious water work that we got to do and that is a lot of fun. We got to jump off of this high dive that we built out of a forklift and jumped off it and into the water. The camera followed us down and then you had stunt people jumping down and landing on top of you forcing you down. That whole sequence probably took two or three days to shoot. It was really cool, really fun and really physical.
Sam Richardson: That was really fun. You see a scene like that in a movie and you’re like, “Oh, they must have done that once or twice.” (But we did) that all day for three days.
J.K. Simmons: I didn’t get to work in the water but I worked on (a glacier), which was a different kind of exhilaration, I’m still a little miffed that McKay let them (eliminate) my traumatic slide down the glacier, but that will be in the sequel, I guess.
Edwin Hodge: There’s the sequence where I’m running around after the drop from the sky. I feel that scene itself took a month to shoot. We were trying to film on the weekends buying that time here and there. It was just amazing to run through Atlanta, shooting guns (and) blowing things up. What more could you ask for?
Q: Betty, you’re much more on the home front as Chris’ wife in this, but was there particularly an intense scene that you loved?
Betty Gilpin: Yeah, there was not as much action for my character. I play the frowning therapist wife. I mostly sob in a cardigan, which is action, emotionally. There was a day where I had a bagel and I thought, “I want a second bagel.” They announced there are almost no more bagels and my adrenaline was sky high. We were rolling and, luckily, I ran outside, got a second bagel and came back just in time for (McKay to call) “action.”
Q: Zach, in writing the screenplay, you’ve got to conceive a lot of these set pieces and these action beats. What’s the backstory behind the plunge into the swimming pool from what seems to be hundreds of feet in the air once they leap back in time? How did that scene originate and what can you tell us about its creation?
Zach Dean: The water scene had a lot of different incarnations, but it was always that sort of horrific idea of you leap into the future and you end up in an environment that you didn’t expect at all. This idea that suddenly you’re struggling for your life—you’re already taking this leap into whether or not you even know what you are in the future—and then you land in this space that’s high jeopardy. There were a lot of different versions of that horrific scene and the one that we ended up with was fantastic. I loved it.
Q: Keith and Jasmine, what can you say about the film combining big action moments with thoughtful real-life issues such as the environment and family relationships?
Keith Powers: I always think super cool when a film like this have all those elements. It always reminds me of underground music being on a radio type of thing. It’s like underground music meets that radio song. It’s like a radio song with great lyrics. You’re getting all of it. You can listen to it every day, but you’re getting some game every single time you listen to it. The funny thing is a lot of that stuff didn’t even hit me until we were shooting. I was like, “Whoa, that whole environmental aspect…” and then, after the crazy year we had, just the parallels between the pandemic and us fighting a tomorrow war in the present, it just hit me. The timing of this coming out and where we are in the world, I just think it’s very much needed. It’s dope that it gets to be this way, a summer blockbuster, fun, action-packed sci-fi, and all that.
Jasmine Mathews: What was also cool for me is that it gave me a sense of hope. We have this idea of everyday regular people coming together dedicated to one mission, and everyone has their purpose. Everyone has something that they can do to help save the world. You need a Norah (played by Mary Lynn Rajskub). You need a Cowan (Mike Mitchell) to do what they did in order for the world to be saved as well. It’s this idea that it’s going to take all of us together, focused, and dedicated to save the world and make this a better place. I just love that idea, that unity aspect to it.
Yvonne Strahovski: I echo that last sentiment. The unity factor is really interesting coming out of the pandemic and how we’ve all been unified during this time of isolation, and how this comes at a really good time where it echoes where we’ve been and, hopefully, where we should go to really focus on the environmental aspects that we face all together as a people and the reality that we live in now.
Q: J.K., you play Chris’ father in this. The film deals with the notion of what one generation owes the next, including being caretakers of our environment. Do you feel it’s important for science fiction to tackle these sort of more intimate themes as well as social themes?
Simmons: When I read the script, I saw the micro and the macro. There’s beautiful family stuff with Chris’ character at home with Betty and their daughter, and then we get a glimpse of my sort of estranged dad character. You see there is going to be some kind of a worthwhile journey there. It was great to be able to incorporate that small picture with the gigantic picture of, “Are we going to save the world or not?”
Dean: I would say that in (the screenplay’s) conception, I wanted to do something with the idea of conscription/the draft for a long time. The idea of not having it be about necessarily an ideology or patriotism or loyalty to protect your country, but being about literally your desire to save your own kids. Who doesn’t sign up for that? It’s a different thing. We’re not asking for an abstract idea; it’s about parenting.
Q: Many wars have been fought by young soldiers thrown into battle. In this case, it is middle-aged people—people in their 30s’ and 40s’—drawn into the fight. Chris, do you have any thoughts on that?
Pratt: I do. In terms of our history of conscription, World War II and Vietnam, we’ve seen these movies where it is 18, 19-year-old kids getting thrown into battle. They’re just kids forced to become men. (In “The Tomorrow War”) everyone who transports into the future is over the age of 30 and everyone who’s come back to train us is under the age of 30. You realize that you can’t live in both timelines at the same time. They’re really just drafting a crop of people who are going to be dead by 2051. I hope that’s not a spoiler, but if it is, oh, well, it’s not that big a spoiler.
You are dealing with people who are making decisions based not on the life that they could lead, but rather the world that they’re leaving for their children. My character, Dan, is doing this because if he doesn’t go, they’re going to take his wife in his place. This is something he has to do to protect his family and to protect his daughter so she will have a home and having her mother. It’s a different theme to think about someone being drafted away from their children rather than children being drafted away from their parents.
Q: J.K., how did you establish a contrast between your character and Chris’? They’re father and son, but they’re clearly very different people who have chosen very different paths. How did you make sparks fly between these two?
Simmons: It’s all there on the page. The beauty of working in this scenario with a guy like Chris is that we can take the page and we can incorporate all that. We also have the freedom to find other angles and fold them into the drama, and the conflict and the emotion of it. We felt free to make it our own too, so you end up doing six or seven takes of a given scene and really then the director has six or seven significantly different versions of the emotion, the passion, the drama and the comedy to choose from.
Q: Chris, do you agree that a lot of people can relate to the notion of having an older, impressive person in their life that they’re living in the shadow of?
Pratt: Yes, 100 percent. It’s tricky to navigate this question and give an answer without getting into that spoiler territory. There is a nod to “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the beginning of this film. He does this “hee-haw” expression with his daughter that was lifted from that film. Thematically, we have some similarities there. This is a guy who’s not happy with his station in life and the course of the events in his life. He’s got this (fractured) relationship with his dad that he’s estranged from, and he’s blaming his father for all of his issues. His dad wasn’t around, et cetera. He realizes through the course of this story that, in fact, he has more similarities with his father than he’s even realized, and in coming to grips with that, he gets to a place of grace, acceptance and forgiveness because he sees that it wasn’t easy for his father either. That’s a real pivotal moment that comes in adulthood.
When we look at our parents as these deities in our life, we come to a moment in our life where we realize, “Oh, wow, that was just a kid who had a kid.” When you realize that, you can forgive them for their shortcomings because they didn’t live up to the god-like status you gave them when you were young. You realize, “Okay, now I’m in the same dilemma. My kids are going to look at me like I’m some sort of infallible person and, of course, I’m not.” That’s a big part of this. In the beginning (of the film), it seems like we’re two different people, but in fact, I think we have a lot more in common than Dan would like to admit.
Q: Sam, tell me about bringing your own comic sensibility to your character and what did you want to convey with him?
Richardson: I play Charlie in the movie and something that’s comedic about him is that he is an Everyman. I feel that everybody is in defense mode when they are in this thing, and so truly people do rely on comedy or humor as a coping mechanism. I wasn’t trying to play very broad whack-a-doo comedy, but you also need that release valve from all the action and these high stakes, and so it was fun to get to play that. I was also trying to at least ground that with emotion. With Charlie, he’s a bunch of emotions and emotions that people typically would hide. He’s very fearful, he’s afraid. The emotion of fear is what I was playing with.
Q: Edwin, your character, Dorian, seems to be a representation of the person who comes back but never really left that conflict. That’s also a very real thing that happens to people who’ve experienced combat. What were you channeling for this role and what can you tell us about the person you play and what he stands for in this story?
Hodge: I’ve spent many years with wounded warriors talking to vets who suffer from PTSD just to understand a different perspective of how they deal with war and the consequences that reflect on them physically, emotionally and mentally. Dorian thinks he’s a man amongst men. He’s done three tours, but we also understand and find out that he has terminal cancer. He feels like there is no hope for him either way, whether the aliens are going to take him out or whether the disease is going to take him out, he is going to go. There isn’t hope for him. Then he meets Dan who has this huge weight on his shoulders and everything to live and fight for. He realizes that though his own future is bleak, something positive could happen with the defeat of the aliens in 2051. It’s a mix of different emotions—wanting to be courageous, but also being vulnerable yet not showing that vulnerability. He’s an Everyman just like Charlie’s character, but he’s tormented. He’s seen death. He’s taken lives and it’s not easy to come back from that.
Q: Chris Pratt, you’re also an executive producer as well as the star of this. What was it like working with your director, Chris McKay?
Pratt: I’ve worked with him before. He’s been making films for years, and this is a big live-action movie. It was a massive step for him and for me coming on as a producer. I had so much to learn. I was grateful to be surrounded by really smart people. I was grateful to be working with him. He’s the kind of guy that is open to collaboration but also has a very clear vision. This is 100 percent his baby.
Chris had cut his teeth mostly in the post-production process, and then as a director in animation, and then as a director of live-action. He gave himself a lot of amazing options for the edit. And he’s got a great knowledge of film, but also he’s just a really vibrant personality. There’s an exciting aura about him when he’s on set that’s really contagious. I remember being up on top of a glacier in Iceland and he’s walking with sticks and a camera on his shoulder, trudging through the snow and he looks at me and says, “This is what I ******* got into this for, man. He says, “We’re up on a ******* glacier making a ******* movie right now.” He does say the F-word a lot. There’s an excitement and an enthusiasm for the craft that he has. It’s his life. You could see it. I’m just excited to see what he does next. I hope I’m a part of it.
Q: For the actors, what was the most daring or difficult thing that you had to do in “The Tomorrow War?”
Strahovski: That moment where Chris and I were at the top of a power plant and we had to run across this steel beam. You could see the very bottom. I’m not too afraid of heights, but this was a moment where I was like, “Oh, God.” Getting up on that steel beam, I wasn’t sure if I could actually run across it. We were obviously on wires, but just doing the first few couples of walks I had to really channel my inner Zen, and then just have blind faith that I was going to run across that thing and not fall off. If you do, they’re going to catch you, but still, it’s a little terrifying.
McKay: That was like the first day or second day, wasn’t it?
Strahovski: Yes. (She laughs.) Welcome to the movie.
Pratt: That beam was narrow too. Yes, they’re gonna catch you if you fall, but not before like careening and hitting your shins, chest, face, and elbows off of this beam. You won’t fall to your death, but you’ll certainly be hurt. That was intense. Yvonne was so good at it, way better than me.
Q: How about you, Jasmine? Any on-set war stories?
Mathews: Yes. Mine was one of the first days as well. It’s the opening scene when I’m flying into the soccer field. I’m afraid of heights, terribly. I have to come in and command the stage and deliver this very important monologue that sets the tone for the entire movie. I just remember rehearsing at normal speed and flying down with this heavy gun in my hands, and you can’t stop. Once your feet touch the ground, you have to keep going. The camera is super close, so I had to stop before I hit the camera. I was really scared about that. Just the simple fact of overcoming my fear of heights was incredible for me.
Q: Chris McKay, could you talk about the creature designs? They are jarring and disturbing. Could you talk about the development of their look and how you reached the version we see in the finished film.
McKay: There are a couple of key points in the script, with the claws and the fact that they were white and had spikes on them and things like that. That’s a lot of room to interpret, and a lot of room to kind of play. Obviously, there are a couple of high watermarks as far as alien designs, it’s whether it’s the Xenomorphian alien, or whether it’s the Predator, but then there’s everything else. It’s trying not to get close to that, but it’s also trying to find something that serves the purpose of the film and was memorable and on its face horrifying. I wanted something that felt ancient and hungry.
Those are the words that we used when we first started talking about it, that it needed to feel like it had just an insatiable hunger. I wanted the texture to really come through so that you would feel that that surface texture was really hard, that it had lots of chips, hunks, nicks and cuts, things like that because it had to have been around forever. I wanted you to feel the flakiness. I wanted the skin to feel like it would flake off, and that there were shoulders that almost felt like armor, so it could repel attacks and that sort of thing. Also, having some kind of offensive weapons. We came up with the tentacle and the spike and that kind of thing. I’m also a big H. P. Lovecraft fan, sort of like that cosmic technical horror stuff was something that was on my mind at the time.
We had a bunch of great design teams working on stuff. They came up with some really wonderful, interesting stuff that I hope if we get a chance to do another “The Tomorrow War” (sequel) that we would use some of these other designs, we can fill out the other worlds and things like that.
Q: Chris Pratt, not that this is new to you, but how was it reacting to these deadly creatures that weren’t physically there with you?
Pratt: It’s more liberating when you don’t have a prop to work with because you basically force the animators to do whatever they have to do to make your choices work. If you have a real tentacle, you’re moving it around like this, so you’re limited to how you can move it, but if you have a fake one, you can be like, “Oh, whoa, whoa, whoa!” Then, you just imagine an animator pulling their hair out. I’ve had my fair share of experience of running from and fighting against creatures that aren’t there. There’s certainly a craft to it. It’s a combination of various things you’re going to look at, whether it will be a tennis ball or the (stand in) guy named Troy who’s seven feet tall, a mountain of a man, and very scary. You look at Troy and you think, “That’s certainly a person who could lift me up and break me in half.” He becomes significantly less scary when he’s put in a giant gray leotard. Still, he’s scary. It really depends on what the shot is. It’s the most embarrassing acting you’ll ever do—acting opposite something that’s not there and fighting something that’s not there is particularly embarrassing.