Cosmic Science

‘Tomorrow War’ adds time travel twist to today’s problems

As far as we know, we won’t be facing an alien uprising in 2051 — but there are plenty of catastrophes that could be hitting with full force by then, ranging from the wildfires, droughts and floods associated with climate change to super-pandemics and food and water shortages.

In that context, the aliens of “The Tomorrow War” — a sci-fi movie making its debut today on Amazon Prime — serve as stand-ins for the perils we could well bring upon ourselves over the next three decades.

“The Tomorrow War,” starring Chris Pratt, calls to mind earlier time-twisting movies including “Edge of Tomorrow” (the Tom Cruise alien-battle flick) and “It’s a Wonderful Life” (watch for Pratt’s “heehaw” greeting, which was used in the Jimmy Stewart classic as well).

This time, the time travel trope includes a setup in which unsuspecting present-day citizens are drafted to fight future-day aliens as unrelenting as the bug-eyed monsters of “Starship Troopers.”

“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 your country, but being about literally your desire to save your own kids,” screenwriter Zach Dean said during a pre-premiere press conference. “Who doesn’t sign up for that?”

The time travel draft in “The Tomorrow War” is designed to send the older generation into battle, rather than the younger generation.

“Everyone who goes forward into the future is over the age of 30, and everyone who’s come back to train us is under the age of 30, because 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 in 2051,” Pratt explained.

“I hope that’s not a spoiler, but if it is, oh well, it’s not that big a spoiler,” he added. “You are dealing with people who are making life decisions based not on the life that they could lead, but rather the world that they’re leaving for their children.”

Keith Powers, who plays a military commander from the future in “The Tomorrow War,” was struck by the resonances between the movie’s futuristic plot and the world’s present-day problems.

“After the crazy year we had, just the parallels between the pandemic and us fighting a war tomorrow in the present, all of it just hit me like, ‘Oh, wow, it’s crazy! God’s timing is crazy … the timing of this coming out and where we are in the world,'” he said. “And it’s much needed.”

The parallels to the global climate crisis are unavoidable: You can easily imagine a movie character coming back from a 2051 climate hellscape and telling the world, “The gap between your actions and words is becoming more impossible to ignore, while more and more extreme weather events are raging all around us.”

That’s exactly what teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg said this week during an address to the Austrian World Summit, which was hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger (a veteran of the “Terminator” time travel movies). But she was talking about the present, not the future.

Pratt, who’s played heroes in sci-fi sagas ranging from “Jurassic World” to Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” has enough Hollywood savvy to warn against reading too much into what’s basically a summertime action thriller packed to the gills with special effects.

“I’ve heard this rule … that when you give a dog medicine, you wrap it up on some hamburger so that they can eat the hamburger and they don’t know they’re eating the medicine,” he said. “Any medicine that’s in this movie, it’s going to taste like a hamburger, you know what I mean? Don’t worry about it. It’s a great, entertaining, vibrant, exciting blockbuster movie.”

But looking beyond the Hollywood hamburger, it’s not that big a spoiler to say that the solutions to the sci-fi alien problem that confronts the draftees of “The Tomorrow War” in 2051 are found in the world of 2021. And the same could be said about the solutions to climate challenges, health threats, food shortages and the other real-world problems we’re sure to face in the decades ahead.

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

“The Tomorrow War” is only the latest in a long line of time travel movies. If you really want to have your mind blown, Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” released last year, plays with time that flows backward and forward in a plotline so complex you need a shot-by-shot guide to the action. (And “Tenet” wasn’t Nolan’s first time-twisting movie: His 2000 film, “Memento,” is a little easier to follow.)

There are lots of time travel novels to choose from as well, and two of them are this month’s selections for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club:

  • “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” by Connie Willis, is a comic novel published in 1998 that has time-traveling agents shuttling between the 21st century, the 1940s and the Victorian era.
  • “This Is How You Lose the Time War,” by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, is a 2019 novella that’s cast in the form of a series of letters between time-traveling adversaries who fall in love.

For nearly 20 years, the CLUB Club has thrown a spotlight on books with cosmic themes that have been out long enough to show up at your local library or secondhand book shop.

If your taste in reading tends toward nonfiction, here are two previous CLUB Club selections that touch upon time travel: “In Search of Time” by Dan Falk; and “From Eternity to Here,” by Sean M. Carroll. To get Carroll’s take on why backward time travel is limited to fictional worlds, travel back in time to this 2010 interview.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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