'The Tomorrow War' Writer Zach Dean On The Real-World Issues That Inspired His Sci-Fi Adventure [Interview]

The Tomorrow War is a big action movie full of time travel, monsters, special effects, and everything else you'd expect from a popcorn-powered summer release. But the core of the film is about what one generation owes the next, and the personal responsibility parents have to ensure a safer existence for their children. And it's also about Chris Pratt shooting aliens, but who says you can't have both?

Screenwriter Zach Dean agrees with that much. Speaking with him on Zoom ahead of the film's release on Amazon Prime Video next month, we talked about what it's like to write terrifying alien monsters and action scenes, but also the serious questions and big ideas that drew him to write this story in the first place. And while the script was written before the COVID-19 pandemic, Dean notes that the film's central threat can't help but feel like a reflection of the horror of the past year, an element that makes a film with a modern message feel all the more timely.

There's a real '90s vibe in The Tomorrow War. It's a very specific type of old-school blockbuster. By old school I mean, 25 years ago. Is that a compliment to you?

Oh, it is. It is. Absolutely. I am a student of those films, man. I mean, I'm in my mid to late 40s and I grew up watching all...I mean, earlier than that, and then through that whole period and all that stuff, but those are the stories that glow, and we're all standing on the shoulder of giants and building on what we learned before, and we have those images and those things that fascinated us and stayed with us as kids. I love being part of this sort of legacy of films, I love it.

I'll go to one of my '90s touchstones: Independence Day, a movie that I love because it could be very silly. It often asks you to make big leaps, but it never talks down to itself. When you're writing this, how much are you aware that this could become a parody of itself if you're not careful?

Well, I think what grounds it, it's about a family, honestly. I mean, I think at its core, it deals with all this stuff, it deals with all these larger issues.. But at the end of the day, it's a family story about a family that has fractures in it, and a man who has to figure out how to be a father while looking at the father that is not necessarily the one he thought he wanted, and then he has to figure out how to be a father to his kid. And so, I think that, as long as you stay in a true place where it matters, which is why it made a pleasure to write, it was a story that came very naturally, it's an original thing. I do mostly original work and it just felt like... I have three kids, I'm trying to figure out how to be a dad all the time, and that just felt like a really real place to come from. I think just in terms of inception, the idea, not the film Inception, but the idea inception is that there's...

For a long time, I wanted to do something with the idea of conscription in the draft, but I think that, that whole concept would be almost unacceptable today, in today's sort of standards. But I think the difference is, in the past we've always, not always, but oftentimes we've drafted children to fight wars, like the 19-year-olds go. And in this situation, it's the 40-year-olds and the 50-year-olds, the parents. And so, you're not going to war to fight sort of an ideology or patriotism to a particular country or a long-standing blood feud, any of that, you're going to war because your kids' lives are literally at stake. If you line up 10 moms and 10 dads from all over the world, I don't care what culture you're from, and you put a little kid and the kid falls off the bridge into the lake, how many of them are going to jump in and save that kid? I mean, literally, it's a parenting decision. It's a universal human impulse.

And I think that, yes, there'll always be naysayers and there'll always be deniers and there'll always be that stuff, but I would like to think that there's a universal human story of resonance here, and I think maybe the pandemic even, as we're all working together, hopefully as a globe trying to solve this big problem that, this might resonate even more. Maybe we still have the ability to work as a whole human race and figure out something.

The movie wears its heart on its sleeve about that. It's a global warming metaphor, and you treat that seriously. I don't ever feel like I'm eating my vegetables with my popcorn during The Tomorrow War, but there is definitely something melancholy about it.

Yeah. I think, that's why I wanted to write it. You know what I mean? I feel like in terms of all of the incredible humor that was infused by the actors, and I mean, the truth is, is that Chris McKay as the director and then that cast, they did things with this film. They were able, at least in my perspective, to hit this impossibly perfect tone, where you never lose that this film has gravity and it is a serious thing about all these different things, but they have that cast, it's able to find that humor in this, what we would honestly do. People will find a way to laugh at the absolute insanity and disparity and horror of their situations and I think that, that's one of the things that I couldn't have hoped for better, is to have that cast put together and have those moments collectively. So, it has time to breathe and anybody can watch this, not anybody, but a lot of people watch this movie. It's not so dark that you couldn't follow it, but it never loses its point either.

The aliens themselves show up late in the movie, maybe halfway through, and they're genuinely scary. What did they look on the page? How do you make it clear in the script that these things are terrifying and they're going to kill you?

By what they do, by action, like any other character. If they do horrible, terrifying things, then you pretty much define them as horrible and terrifying. But I mean, the thing about these, which makes them, at least in my perspective, truly terrifying, it's just biology, man. There's no nefarious plot. These things just want to live. They want to reproduce and live and breed and they want to populate and we're a means to an end. That's all it is. And I think that that hardcore biology is what makes them scary. It's the same thing, not to draw too much of a parallel, but that's what COVID-19 is, man. It's just biology. It's just something that wants to live and we're the means to it's end, and that's where it feels like these things are, they're biological creatures that are okay with doing whatever they want with us.


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