the tomorrow war vs independence day

I love dumb movies and I can’t get enough of dumb movie moments. You know the ones! They tend to aim big and throw “realism” to the wind, all in favor of delivering heightened emotions amid satisfying thrills. What’s more, I don’t think there should be any shame or stigma attached to that statement. There’s plenty of room in a well-rounded palette for all sorts of films, after all — from highbrow to lowbrow and everything in between.

Something as iconic as Jurassic Park, for example, may not be widely considered to be your prototypical dumb movie… but then again, why not? In addition to certain scenes that defy all reason and common sense, the entire premise depends on a credulity-straining sequence of events: mosquitoes biting every single dinosaur species we see in the movies, subsequently (and immediately) getting stuck in amber for lucky paleontologists to find millions of years later, and then preserving enough dino DNA to still be viable for cloning. If that sounds unlikely, to put it mildly, that’s because it is.

So why does it all come together and work anyway? It’s simple, really. And while this equation may apply to certain dumb classics, like 1996’s Independence Day, some films chase it and miss the mark entirely. Like Amazon’s new release The Tomorrow War.

Independence Day and the Art of the Dumb Movie

Trailblazers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas figured out pretty quickly how to leverage a certain “stupidity-to-awe ratio” to their advantage, especially when it comes to blockbusters. It might sound counterintuitive, but audiences generally tend to be willing to go along with almost anything that a story can throw at them that perhaps doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny in retrospect. Think of the infamous “plot hole” regarding the pesky geography of that clifftop T-Rex sequence in Jurassic Park, or Lucas bending space and time in The Empire Strikes Back as Luke trained with Yoda on an apparently accelerated timeline, or even the entire Fast & Furious franchise that has only become more popular and successful over time.

However, there’s a subtle yet all-important catch to all this: typically, the emotional payoff at the end of the road has to be worth the leap in logic.

1996’s Independence Day and this year’s The Tomorrow War both serve as examples, but on opposite ends of the spectrum. Let’s focus on the former. Roland Emmerich‘s disaster flick stands proud over 20 years after release as a beacon for entertaining, unabashedly dumb blockbusters. Written by Emmerich and Dean Devlin, the script simply has no time for silly little concerns such as tightly-wound story mechanics or CinemaSins-proof plotting.

No, this is a movie where an impossibly advanced civilization of aliens conveniently gives observant Earthlings, such as Jeff Goldblum‘s David, a countdown timer to their opening salvo on landmarks around the globe (don’t ask why they even need a countdown in the first place rather than just, uh, blowing everything up immediately). This is a movie where Will Smith‘s Air Force Captain Steven Hiller casually strolls up to a military helicopter (my degree in aviation taught me that fighter pilots and helicopter pilots are two wildly different skillsets, for the record) and is allowed to just… steal it. And finally, this is a movie where that aforementioned advanced civilization is brought to its knees by a mysterious ’90s-era computer virus that sort of just appears when it needs to.

And you know what? None of those “flaws” really matter, because here’s the thing: holding any of this against such an intentionally silly movie would be a terrible approach to media, particularly when each and every one of those examples is anchored by their own emotional justification.

Devlin and Emmerich introduce a countdown timer because of an age-old Alfred Hitchcock adage: to paraphrase, the difference between surprise and suspense is when viewers are told there’s a bomb underneath a table about to go off and have to watch the rest of the sequence unfold in dread, rather than simply experiencing a bomb detonate out of the blue and feeling nothing else besides momentary shock. Would it make more “sense” in a Neil deGrasse Tyson sort of way for the aliens to just annihilate Earth right away? Sure, but then you’d have to ask yourself whether that would make for effective drama. Will Smith, meanwhile, is able to steal a helicopter with ease because 1) he’s Will freaking Smith and 2) he and every other character are at their absolute lowest moment in the story. Viewers desperately needed a pick-me-up after a surprisingly relentless onslaught of losses and failures to that point, and Smith’s reckless bravado provides exactly that. And what even needs to be said about the payoff to the computer virus, which gives us the brief Goldblum/Smith buddy comedy that’s worth the price of admission alone.

So why am I having so much trouble extending the same benefit of the doubt to The Tomorrow War?

the tomorrow war review

Where The Tomorrow War Fails

Directed by Chris McKay from a script by Zach Dean, the alien invasion/war movie shares more than a few surface-level similarities with Independence Day… but with a few key differences. For one thing, there’s almost no comparison between how the two films build up their existential-level stakes.

After starting with one of the more pointless in media res openings in recent memory, The Tomorrow War does its best to present the “Whitespikes” as formidable, nigh-unstoppable foes. But as a result of its vague and largely baffling time travel shenanigans, we’re inexplicably given a specific expiration date for Chris Pratt‘s Dan Forester, meaning that he knows he’ll survive his one week tour of duty in the future. Now, this normally isn’t much of a deal-breaker (how many main characters are killed off in their own movies, after all?) but this choice severely deflates any potential investment in Dan leaving his family behind. Rather than being caught up in the emotions of his young daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) and wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin) possibly never seeing him again, I was left wondering why Dan wouldn’t just reassure his own family that he knows for a fact that he’ll survive the war.

Granted, it’d probably be less intelligent than anything in the actual script to ask a summer blockbuster to get deep in the weeds about the nature of time travel and Lost-like philosophical questions about whether we can change the future or whether whatever happens, happens. But in the case of The Tomorrow War, taking the same “Don’t explain it, just go along with it!” approach to its own premise that Independence Day took with its magical computer virus plot device felt like a fatal misjudgment. There are degrees of dumbness, I would propose, and McKay’s film doesn’t seem to recognize that or care.

The Tomorrow War makes a similar mistake with its extraterrestrial antagonists, too. Despite acting as bullet sponges during many action sequences, it doesn’t seem to take much more than conventional weapons to dispatch these threats. We even see the last surviving human remnants in the future order a bombing strike on a ruined downtown Miami that sure seems to do the trick. Despite this, much of Dan’s story in the future apocalyptic world involves reverse-engineering poison from a female Whitespike alongside a much older Muri (Yvonne Strahovski).

Though we once again run into another time paradox here (why does everyone act so defeated when Dan makes it back to his present-day world with the toxin in hand? Can’t they mass produce it and be better prepared for their future fights with the aliens, or does “whatever happen, happen”?), the bigger issue is the fact that the toxic compound never once seems like their One Major Advantage over the aliens in the same way that taking down the shields of the hovering ships does in Independence Day. Though I always appreciate a surprise fourth act structure — and that goes double for such a heavily Alien/Aliens-inspired sequence — it can’t help but render the final forty minutes or so of The Tomorrow War inert. Why spend all this effort on a toxic compound when they could just carpet bomb the hidden alien ship in Russia from the air? Forget logic, what’s the in-universe and emotional justification for any of this?

Mileage will obviously vary when it comes to these dumb blockbusters, but these sorts of unanswered questions and blank spaces bothered me with The Tomorrow War in a way that Independence Day sidestepped with clever ease. As it turns out, maybe that behemoth of a blockbuster still remains the standard (don’t take my word for it, the idea that it “reinvented the blockbuster” comes straight from Spielberg himself!) for a good reason. It’s always worth giving a chance for up-and-coming films like The Tomorrow War to at least put themselves in similar company, but maybe it’s just as important to study what worked with Emmerich’s film and why.

Long live the dumb movie. Is it too much to ask that they’re the right kind of dumb?

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