After suffering through Chris Pratt’s The Tomorrow War, which put my wife to sleep in a brisk 45 minutes and kept her asleep even during my constant exclamations of “no one would ever do that!”, a question occurred to me: where does bad science fiction writing come from?
This movie had potential – the premise of sending people into the future to fight a hopeless war is intriguing, and the acting is strong throughout. But I can imagine a studio conversation that went something like this:
“It’s Edge of Tomorrow but with time travel. We’ve got Pratt signed up to star. Yvonne Strahovski. J.K. Simmons, and he’s even more jacked!”
“Perfect. Here’s a budget. Do you have a script?”
“Ah…no. But we’ll figure it out along the way. It’s aliens and time travel. Like Marvel!”
And yet the final product’s writing really lets down the movie’s performances, to the point where its score of 54% on Rotten Tomatoes feels almost too generous. So what happened, and how can we use it to avoid bad sci fi writing in the future?
WARNING – SPOILERS FOR THE TOMORROW WAR FOLLOW
Why Was The Tomorrow War’s Writing So Bad?
In my opinion, The Tomorrow War made three critical mistakes that tend to show up over and over again in bad science fiction writing:
- Driving the story with plot instead of character
- Forgetting to detail the Hows and Whys of its plot
- Trading action spectacle for intimacy
These issues doom the movie to a state of arbitrariness – there’s little consistency across the plot and character arcs, and most of what happens feels disjointed and unrelated. Rather than enjoying a series of revelations that fall neatly into place, the audience is left snorting at the improbability of what are meant to feel like desperate scenes.
And of course, the big question is how could they have been avoided?
1. Avoid Bad Science Fiction Writing by Driving Plot with Character
At the highest level, plots move forward in two ways:
- The narrative progresses based on a character’s decisions and actions
- The narrative progresses based on external circumstances outside of a character’s control
The danger of the first approach is that you get lost in a character’s navel-gazing and nothing interesting ever happens. The danger of the second method is that your plot falls into the trap of checking boxes (action sequence, family moment, more action!) without generating any emotional impact or character development.
The Tomorrow War begins with Chris Pratt wanting his life to mean something more than just teaching science, and then sweeps him up in the mother of all alien wars as soldiers from the future arrive with a desperate plea for help. This is a fine set-up, but then the plot falls into box-checking: the whole world just answers the call to arms without question; the body count is horrific and the training is laughable but people still go; Pratt receives his draft notice and careens into the movie’s action sequences. Things are happening, but no one has had to make a choice so these scenes feel very unearned.
Sure we see a tearful family goodbye, an argument with Pratt’s father, and some (laughably bad) scenes during the recruit’s “training”, but wouldn’t we be more invested in Pratt’s survival if he’d actually tried to avoid the draft for his family and been arrested, or made the decision to train his recruits as best he could given the short time he had? Or even volunteered, putting his military background to some use?
As soon as Pratt heads to the future, the plot takes over and we watch things happen to him for the next 45 minutes or so in which he makes only two decisions: the first to rescue a team member, and the second to try and rescue his future daughter (and abandon the human race’s last chance to stop the invasion). In both cases, these decisions seem to be at odds with who he wanted to be at the beginning of the movie, but the plot demands more complexity and so when they happen they seem strangely divorced from the way the audience feels things “should” go.
2. Avoid Bad Science Fiction Writing by Detailing Your Hows and Whys
What truly dooms the movie, however, is the plot’s inconsistency. One of the hardest things to do in sci fi writing is create an internally consistent world where the audience understands the rules. Creating that world requires the writer to have a thorough understanding of how and why things happen, then deliver that detail to the audience in an entertaining way. Delivery can be accomplished through exposition, dialogue, character action, or any number of other tools, but it needs to happen. In The Tomorrow War explanations just…don’t exist.
Let’s start with how the war “works”. Every nation in the world starts sending soldiers at the drop of the hat (because the plot demands it). How exactly does NATO agree to this, especially when the body counts become horrific? Why, in a world where time travel exists, don’t they have adequate time to train anyone? Why are people only sent for 7 days if this is an extinction-level event? What happened to the military of today? Why can they only send people who have died? Resolving these issues could have been done with a desperate future scientist struggling to give humanity a chance, but we never see that perspective and so we never get a cohesive understanding of the world’s rules.
Now let’s look at the escape from Miami sequence. First, Pratt’s motley group arrives in the sky due to an accident – has this never happened before? It’s not been mentioned so far. So what happened? Why are the civilians sent to the lab when there are soldiers in Humvees standing very close by to retrieve them who could have done the job themselves? Why did the jets with the bombs have to strike at the time they did? And, once Pratt is evacced, how is it that humans are reduced to surviving on an oil rig, but somehow there are still airfields the jets could take off from?
Much of these questions could have been resolved by a tweak to the plot: train the draftees in the future, so someone would exist to answer these questions before we jump into the shooting.
And for the last portion of the movie, why after Russia sent its military to the future just like the rest of the world, and Chris Pratt has a weapon against the aliens, doesn’t the Secretary of Defense even try to ask Russia for help? You don’t think they would have an interest in trying to stop this?
Resolving this issue would have required adding a political component, but surely in a movie this long you could have carved out a 5 minute scene at the UN discussing things?
I’m ranting a bit here, but really the movie needed a few more character perspectives in order to tie up all these questions, and we didn’t get them.
3. Avoid Bad Science Fiction Writing by Focusing on Intimacy
This last point is one that constantly traps promising sci fi movies. In spite of movies like Arrival and Children of Men showing that audiences don’t need massive spectacle to enjoy science fiction, for some reason many more movies push for spectacle when what the audience really wants is to spend more time with the character’s struggles. The stakes always seem to be the survival of humanity against some world-ending threat, and so we see endless scenes of generic cities being destroyed that lack impact, mass casualties where we don’t really care about anyone, continents being swept away under an alien surge, over and over again until we’ve become numb.
Audiences attach to characters, not spectacle, and the more character moments you give your reader the better they’ll attach to your work. Think about Spielberg’s take on War of the Worlds – he’s running in the middle of a similar war, but we don’t see him working with the military or trying to fight. He’s always at the periphery of a much larger battle, and the camera stays focused on the individual challenges he faces.
As an example, consider Tom Cruise’s fight with Tim Robbins in the basement of the farmhouse – that one scene revealed much more about his character than any escape from collapsing skyscrapers. Now contrast that experience with Pratt being swept up in a global conflict that just doesn’t have any weight to it because it isn’t experienced on an intimate level. Sure the movie tries with its survivor groups, his estranged father, and his future daughter, but we lose the impact of the strong acting performances as soon as we zoom out to a larger backdrop of soldiers and cities getting impersonally destroyed.
Did You Enjoy The Tomorrow War?
For me, watching this movie was another example of what could have been if the sci fi writing had been up to par. It’s big and dumb and has some glimmers of interest, but the three areas above marred it for me.
So as you work on writing good science fiction, remember to constantly challenge yourself with the hows and whys of your plot. Everything must be thought through and earned, which is a hard challenge, but hey, at least you’re not fighting off an alien invasion with a few hours of training.