'The Tomorrow War' Director Chris McKay On Making A '90s-Style Blockbuster In 2021 [Interview]

The Tomorrow War may be a 2021 release, but it feels like a throwback. It would've been right at home in the '90s, and director Chris McKay is a-okay with that.

It's a premise that could be preposterous: visitors from the future arrive in the modern day to recruit soldiers for a war against an alien race that hasn't even started yet. But the film takes any potential silliness in stride, taking the premise seriously even while the characters themselves trade enough jokes to keep the mood light. It's a balance McKay mastered in the realm of animation. Who knew The LEGO Batman Movie would be the perfect training ground for a summer blockbuster crafted out of Roland Emmerich's personal mold?

I spoke with McKay over Zoom about the film's (very scary) aliens, adding humor to a very script, and how being compared to '90s action movies is a compliment.

So this first question will probably decide whether the rest of this goes well or not. When I say that Tomorrow War is my favorite action film of 1997, would that be a compliment to you? I consider it one.

You know, you're not the first person to actually say something...No one's said that, but somebody said the other day it felt like a lost Jerry Bruckheimer movie from the 90s, is what they said. So no, I take that as a compliment. Look, probably like you, I grew up on a certain kind of movie, right? Like, there is a certain kind of film, a certain way that the film is cast and is even going back to movies way before my time, like Frank Capra movies and Howard Hawks movies and John Ford movies where the side characters and all that stuff have as much to do with the main plot as our leads do. There's an art to that, I think. It's something that I admire a lot. Jerry Bruckheimer is a guy that sort of fills out the cast with a lot of ordinary folks and that sort of thing. That's something that I really wanted for a movie like this – that you would get some funny people and some well-rounded actors to build up the feeling of the army of the ordinary.

The movie feels sincere. I kept on thinking about Independence Day, a movie that is very funny and exciting while never being cynical. Even when it was funny, it was never making fun of itself.

Yeah. The characters take it seriously, but yes, it wears his heart on its sleeve a little bit. That's something that I think is important to me. Absolutely. I don't think there's anything wrong with earnestness and sincerity in the right spot. The cynical filmmakers that I really like, that I really love – and I love some of their movies, like some of my favorite movies – but I also think that there's a time for earnestness and sincerity. I think there's certain movies that sort of work that way. I think there's enough sort of Children of Men-adjacent dystopia in the beginning of the movie to put some pressure on the characters and situations and things like that to sort of earn the balance of sincerity towards the end of the movie.

The sci-fi world building is interesting because first we have a near future, then we also have the distant future. At no point are you like, "We're going to do Blade Runner. We're going to do this unrecognizable thing." It's a very conscious choice to make sure it's our reality. For a movie that is about preserving the world as we know it for the next generation, that feels like a very conscious choice, right?

That's a very conscious choice. Yeah. Even down to things like guns with bullets, right? Instead of doing laser guns or some other choice that we could have had, here's your cool sci-fi weapon. To me, machine guns have been around for so long, I just saw that the gun technology probably hadn't changed, or wouldn't have changed that much. Felt more like grounding it in something that's recognizable and not going so abstract that you can remove yourself from it. I think that was something that I really wanted to do.

I want to talk about the aliens. You bury them deep in the movie. You wait for the reveal. It's even said in the plot that footage of them is not allowed to be brought back through time. You really bury the lead on what those things look like. It startled me. They're scary. They're legit scary looking.

Yeah. That's also an old school thing too, right? You sort of teach me about the characters, teach me about the situation, educate me on all of this stuff, slowly boil the sci-fi stuff. Slowly bring that to a boil, even though obviously people land from the future. We are with Chris [Pratt], we are watching the events of this movie through Dan's perspective. So bring that stuff very slowly in, but then once it's in and especially once the stairwell scene happens, we're no longer hiding it anymore. Now they're there, they're ferocious, and they're after you. Now we're learning. Now this next part is we're learning and we're teaching the audience and your audience is learning about what the White Spikes are and what they can do.

You treat them as horror characters, which I appreciated. They feel like there's a weight to them that landed with me. But during their big introduction, I'm thinking of [actor] Sam Richardson saying, "S***" maybe 30 times as he runs from them. I was laughing, I was cackling at the same time I was appreciating the tenseness of the scene. Is that something you learned in animation? Trying to be able to balance that humor and drama at once?

Yeah. What you learn in animation is how to pack a scene, right? How to be able to get as much out of a scene as humanly possible. In the script it said Charlie, as the dialogue, Charlie, "And then he said 'S***' times a thousand." Was what the note was for Sam on that day.

The original version of the script that I was handed before I developed it in a couple of months before we shot it, the original script had no humor at all. I really thought that movies like this need, in the way of an Independence Day, you need levels of humor to help things not feel so self-serious. That was important to me, adding humor is something you learn in animation, but adding art is also something you do in animation a lot. You want to pack as much into a scene as you possibly can, because animation is very expensive and you may not get another chance to land this idea.

Generally animated movies need to be 90 minutes or less because the budgets. There's no cheap animated movies. They're usually above $50 million, just to start. You learn very quickly to pack as much into a scene as humanly possible. That's why the Pixar movies work so well. That's why they're masters of it, because they are great at getting a lot of ideas and thoughts, whether it's story stuff or character stuff, and dovetailing all that stuff together. They're masters of that and that's what you learn in animation.


The Tomorrow War hits Amazon Prime Video on July 2, 2021.