Two blockbuster-scope films dropped within a week of each other, with similar budgets and big-name casts. They could have been the summer’s perfect popcorn movies, yet were overall disappointments — so we’ll just do brief discussions of both in one review.
Josh: All right. So, what are we going to talk about first? Let’s do Black Widow first, because you hated it so much.
Arley: Yeah, I mean, I think comic book movies, in general, just have a tone problem, because everything can end up very monotone. You’re dealing with a lot of CGI action and with heroes in situations that you don’t necessarily feel stakes for nine times out of ten. The movie is set up in a way in which you’re like, well, they’re inevitably going to get out of whatever the problem is. So I think I think there’s an inherent challenge in making those action scenes vibrant and gripping. Some movies pull it off, but Black Widow did not do it at all. It was just dull.
Set for the most part directly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, while Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is a fugitive from the American government, the film takes a break from our regularly scheduled Avengers shenanigans in order to take a stab at a standalone, Marvel-style spy thriller.
Even in hiding, Natasha is pulled back into action by the ghosts of her past. The deep-cover Soviet agents of her faux childhood “family” — sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), father Alexei (David Harbour), and mother Melina (Rachel Weisz) — team together to locate the “Red Room,” where other Black Widow assassins are trained and brainwashed.
Arley: I felt like, for the most part, I’ve seen the plot before: La Femme Nikita, The Long Kiss Goodnight, you know, let’s get the girls and turn them into super spies.
Josh: Killing Eve. The Americans. Or, did you watch Red Sparrow with Jennifer Lawrence? That’s way more overtly sexualized and a little more grim. Like, oh, they’re doing like some fucked-up shit to people, which is what Black Widow was trying to convey but didn’t actually get that point across as well. Of course, this is a PG-13 Marvel movie, so they’re not really gonna go that far. So I was comparing it to a lot of different spy movies, which may not be fair, because it’s a superhero movie, not a spy movie.
Arley: Given the setup and so many elements, it raises the comparison. It can’t commit to being either kind of movie.
Alone in her hideout, Natasha watches (and quotes) Moonraker, and the level of tradecraft here is definitely more Bond than Bourne or Mission: Impossible. There are no quiet moments of sneaking or actual spying, no Tom-Cruise-suspended-from-cables wherein the tension revolves around preventing a single drop of sweat from landing on a pressure sensor. To be fair, Black Widow (and James Bond) are better assassins than secret agents, but Natasha’s high-tech gadgets and disguises are severely underutilized in favor of guns. Lots of guns.
Also inherent in Marvel movies is the problem of invulnerability: Natasha Romanoff — supposedly full-blooded, mortal human — survives rocket attacks and high-altitude free falls without any visible damage. She falls off a building and hits every balcony on the way down —
Josh: I said, “Parkour! Parkour!” every time she bounced off one.
— and still manages to land on her feet. It is the same problem found in Captain Marvel, where the audience can hardly keep track of the varying strength dynamics between characters. There are super soldiers and cyborgs all around her, but Natasha displays the action-hero superpower of shrugging off otherwise debilitating gunshots and stab wounds. The suspense is killing no one, least of all the audience.
Arley: It’s not like you can’t do an exciting version of that.
Josh: Sometimes the fun isn’t in, “Are they going to get out of this one?” so much as in, “How are they going to get out of this one?”
Arley: For me, the only thing exciting about it was that it’s a female superhero in a lead role. But then, like, how much of the screen time was taken up by other people? So, even that is really in question. If you have a Captain America movie, or standard male action hero movie, you know, the male lead is solidly taking up all of the screen time. But here you have a lot of screen time taken up by other characters in their journeys. I have to wonder, is it because this is a female lead? Is it a cultural problem? Or is it just a problem of these writers trying to do something that they’re not exactly pulling off? I don’t know what it is.
Josh: Most likely they were giving David Harbour and Florence Pugh more screen time to get you to latch onto them, to build up stakes for them, because you have no idea if they’re going to die or not. You know Scarlett Johansson isn’t going to die in this movie, so what’s even the point? They can’t really do anything with her character in this movie. She’s a dead end, and from the end credits scene, Yelena is clearly being set up as the successor Black Widow. I did actually like the supporting performances — Yelena was very sarcastic, and she and Alexei provided some humor, and even Melina was pretty strong in the limited scenes she had. There were some nice dynamics between all those characters.
Arley: There are cool Russian superheroes in the comics. There’s basically an anti-Avengers team, called The Winter Guard, for example. It would have been fun to see that movie. They have Crimson Dynamo, who is their answer to to Iron Man, and all these other characters. Some of them have kind of cool powers.
Josh: So maybe they’ll do that in the future.
Arley: Yeah, that’d be more interesting.
Black Widow fails to impress from an action-movie perspective, as well. None of the fight scenes are very well choreographed, other than one or two cool moves from the Taskmaster. An early foot-chase scene looks like a videogame cutscene purely through its composition, and every action sequence after that is a ramp-up of CGI-laden pyrotechnics.
Josh: There were definitely parts where I was laughing out loud at how over-the-top it was, like during the motorcycle/car chase. I thought I was watching a cartoon. The CGI wasn’t as bad as Gemini Man, for example, but it was distracting in how blatant it was, and pretty close to being that unappealing. Probably more noticeable because they’d started out with a more grounded storyline, but didn’t maintain a realistic or even plausible grasp on basic physics.
Arley: To me, it’s just boring, which is too bad, because I remember we were both so excited when we first heard about this movie.
Josh: I was at least entertained enough. I was like, I need to watch a stupid movie, and for an hour and a half I was distracted. I probably wouldn’t watch it again, but it isn’t my least favorite Marvel movie, and it’s not actually a bad movie. It’s not a complete mess like Wonder Woman 1984. We’re probably just disappointed because Black Widow is a pretty cool character and this didn’t do her any justice.
So kicks off phase four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with a further ten films slated through 2023 and 13 accompanying television shows. By the law of large numbers, the CGI avalanche is certain to contain something watchable in there, somewhere, but Black Widow is a weak start.
Directed by: Cate Shortland
Written by: Eric Pearson, Jac Schaeffer & Ned Benson
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, Ray Winstone, Ever Anderson, Violet McGraw, O-T Fagbenle, William Hurt & Olga Kurylenko
The World Cup is interrupted when a wormhole opens up in the middle of the field and people with guns jump out! We’ve got a big problem, they say. Aliens! Aliens everywhere! We need you all to come back to the future with us and shoot them!
Everyone immediately takes them at their word, and untrained conscripts from the present day are sent ahead 30 years to fight a losing war. Army veteran Dan Forester (Chris Pratt) gets sent along with them, into a warzone where he finds that things aren’t exactly what he’d been led to believe.
Arley: So you liked Black Widow more than I did, and I think I liked The Tomorrow War more than you did, right?
Josh: Probably. The whole time travel concept was ridiculous, which is a real problem, considering it’s the central idea of the entire movie. I spent a large chunk of my viewing experience just trying to break apart how this time travel thing was working. They kind of answered some of the questions eventually, but they should have frontloaded a lot of that information. And I still didn’t believe it.
Arley: This was definitely a dumb military science fiction movie, and everything in it was just a dumb excuse to do military sci fi action stuff, so any time they tried to explain anything, I’m just like, yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re just gonna hurt yourself trying to explain it, just focus on the guy with the gun shooting aliens. The movie made fun of itself, when it tried to explain things. Literally, the dude threw up his hands and was like, we don’t really know how it works, which I thought was kind of funny, because the more they explained things, the dumber it got.
Josh: Yeah. It’s like the Terminator movie we watched, where they just said, “Future shit,” and left it at that. All these small things didn’t really fit together. The premise was that they only have so many people left in the future, so I thought, why don’t you just take all those people from the future back into the past, instead of taking old people from the past and bringing them to the future. Then you have time refugees, and you’re building out your population in the present, and have more time to develop shit. You have a time machine, come on, it’ll solve all your problems! I recently saw Kameron Hurley’s (uncited) tweet about how a critical piece of the original script was cut, and that’s why nothing makes sense. Still doesn’t quite make complete sense, but it’s a lot less nonsense when you have more of the story.
The Tomorrow War shares stylistic DNA with Edge of Tomorrow and also a plot reveal straight out of the Alien franchise, especially elements from Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. Its title and military SF basis call to mind The Forever War, though this film lacks the intellectual rigor and conceptual breakthroughs of Joe Haldeman’s classic novel.
This is not to say that dumb military SF can’t be supremely enjoyable — Starship Troopers, for instance, though that might be a bad example because it was trying to be dumb on purpose — but The Tomorrow War, at PG-13, avoids the kind of overly gruesome violence that turns war film into a commentary on itself, and it falls into the same traps that every time travel story seems to: of course it will have plotholes (paradoxes are inherent when causality is elastic), and as soon as you see a time machine, you know that the main character is going to run into a future or past version of themselves, or an ancestor, or a descendent — the temporal-Oedipal complex in which every time traveler wants to fuck their grandmother and/or kill their grandfather.
Arley: The best scene for me was probably when they first transported in and they’re all falling out of the sky. It’s scary. It’s shocking and visceral. And then the movie just goes downhill from there.
Josh: Yeah, I agree. That was that was probably the highlight. Or the high point. My favorite part, though, was the alien design. The creatures look fantastic!
Arley: I found myself continually looking at them, trying to figure them out, trying to see what sorts of things were happening in there. And the shots were just long enough to engage that curiosity but then to snap away before I figured it out too quickly. I was like, is there a flea shape in there somewhere?
Josh: I enjoyed J.K. Simmons’s transformation into libertarian survivalist. I like to pretend he’s reprising his character from Palm Springs, and he’s just sick of all this time travel shit.
Arley: There are a lot of predictable twists. As soon as Chris Pratt said, yeah, I have problems with my dad, I’m like, Okay, so that’s gonna reconcile later, you know? Of course it’s the standard white-male-story-arc, shooting-shit movie with a dash of sexism. Everything in this movie is about the guy and only exists in how it relates to him, including his daughter’s arc. She’s like, “I’m upset,” and it’s really just to serve his character growth. Like, I can’t with these characters. Just get back to shooting shit. I do actually like those straightforward action movies when they hit the right spot: Upgrade, John Wick, even dumb action movies like Vin Diesel’s XXX (Pitch Black was AWESOME). You don’t have to have a brilliant action piece like Besson’s The Professional to win me.
Josh: I don’t think Chris Pratt was the best choice to lead this movie. He’s fine as an action hero, like in Guardians of the Galaxy, but he’s a goofy dude, so he’s strongest with humor, and in this they’re trying to set him up as this conflicted, emotion-laden character that you’re supposed to feel deeply for. The whole thing with his daughter, that’s such like a manipulative subplot, and I kind of feel offended that they put it in there. You can’t make me love this character because of this. I don’t feel bad for him, even though they tried real hard to make me.
As in Black Widow, the supporting cast stands out. None of the acting in either film is bad, but Yvonne Strahovski as Muri Forester and Betty Gilpin as Emmy Forester provide strong performances that are, unfortunately, backgrounded to Pratt’s leading role. Sam Richardson plays Charlie, arguably the most intelligent character in the entire movie, but is sidelined as the wise-cracking comic relief. Edwin Hodge plays Dorian, a soldier returning for his third tour in the future war. He and his (short-lived) squad of badass warriors hint at a much more interesting potential story, if the movie had focused on them. However, Dorian’s limited arc concludes with a noble sacrifice to save the white men.
Arley: So many moments in Tomorrow War were obviously referencing other movies, and I can’t decide if it’s the collective creative subconscious at work, if they are deliberate tributes, or if it’s just really derivative of a host of other films. I enjoyed Tomorrow mainly because I decided early on to just watch it as a dumb action movie, and to not expect anything to make sense. Ultimately, these are movies that you can watch if you’re super bored, and you don’t have any expectations about them. These are both good airplane movies, when you’ve already seen everything else you might possibly want to see.
Josh: The Tomorrow War actually looks good, though. There are a lot of direct-to-streaming movies that look really cheap, but this has production value behind it because Paramount was originally going to release it in theaters, and when it couldn’t because of COVID, Amazon bought it up. There was some skill in the cinematography. There were a few shots I noticed in their oil rig headquarters scene while Muri is falling into the mass of aliens. It looks like an eyeball, the way they’re all swarming around her, and then switches to a cool side view. Larry Fong was the cinematographer for this and on four Zack Snyder films, which you can totally tell in the slow motion and color choice in these shots. It looks really stylish.
The Tomorrow War is worth watching once, if you have access to it for free, and if you can mentally gloss over any part having to do with time travel. As an alien invasion shoot-’em-up, it delivers enough action and visuals to entertain. A lot of the trouble seems to stem from the title (originally Ghost Draft), as though they’d started with the phrase “Tomorrow War” and tried to work backwards from there, forcing in elements that just didn’t fit and leaving gaps in the plot like exit wounds.
Josh: Ah, Jesus, I just read that they’re already in talks to make a sequel. They can call it Fight the Future and have more aliens on a ship buried beneath the ice — oh wait, that’s just the X-Files movie.
Directed by: Chris McKay
Written by: Zach Dean
Starring: Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, J.K. Simmons, Betty Gilpin, Sam Richardson, Jasmine Mathews, Edwin Hodge, Ryan Kiera Armstrong & Keith Powers
JOSH PEARCE has stories and poetry in Analog, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Cast of Wonders, Clarkesworld, IGMS, Nature, and more. Find him on Twitter: @fictionaljosh, or at fictionaljosh.com. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.
ARLEY SORG, Senior Editor, grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He lives in Oakland CA. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, Arley is co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine, Associate Editor and reviewer at Lightspeed & Nightmare magazines, interviewer at Clarkesworld Magazine, and reviewer for Cascadia Subduction Zone Magazine. He can be found at arleysorg.com – where he has started his own “casual interview” series with authors and editors – and on Twitter (@arleysorg).
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