Let’s not mince words: The Tomorrow War is the feel-bad movie of the year. Yes, it has the standard-issue upbeat ending in which the world is saved and a family is restored, but the journey there is a loud, gross, right-wing bummer that feels rewritten by about a dozen people with conflicting ideas about the film’s themes, story, and tone. But the movie’s most severe offense is the dogged persistence with which it squanders the considerable talents of its cast. The film is stacked with comedy veterans—Veep’s Sam Richardson, The Larry Sanders Show’s Mary Lynn Rajskub, Glow’s Betty Gilpin, and sketch comedian Mike Mitchell among them—but only Richardson is given comic material, and little of it is funny. Oscar winner J.K. Simmons appears to have spent way more time getting jacked at the gym than the writers did in crafting a coherent role for him to play. But the biggest surprise, and in some ways the film’s greatest disappointment, is the performance of Chris Pratt in the its leading role.
Pratt plays Dan Forester, a Green-Beret-turned-high-school-science-teacher who chafes against the ordinariness of his suburban life. Soon, destiny finds him as he is drafted into a war with aliens that takes place in the future, a battle in which he serves under the grown-up version of his own daughter and carries out the requisite cancellation of the apocalypse. From the film’s very first shot, in which we see Forester and his squad dropped into a battle in Miami, he looks confused, as if neither he nor his character know what he’s doing in the film. Pratt, who is so winning at playing genial goofballs, seems completely lost trying to play a character who is simmering with barely-suppressed rage, and is the least convincing high school science teacher since Mark Wahlberg in The Happening. It’s rare for a performance so bland to also be so off-putting, but it sinks whatever slim chances remained for The Tomorrow War to be dumb summer fun. It also serves as a reminder that anchoring a silly action film isn’t quite as straightforward as it looks.
It’s easy to scoff at acting in tentpole action films. At times, it can seem like all these movies require of their actors is for them to stare with grim determination at a tennis ball dangling from a fishing rod that will, thanks to post-production magic, turn into one of the evil Glipglorps that has come to Earth to, like, steal the Thunder Cube so they can awaken a Space Kraken. But there is an art to acting in a blockbuster, a quality often most visible in its absence. Actors in a big-budget, effects-driven spectacle must deliver convincing performances in highly artificial—and often physically arduous—circumstances. They must transform their bodies, reaching a level of shredditude heretofore unimagined by science, yet somehow come across as normal folks. They must ground their material by providing human stakes, and often they must fill out what, on the page, are quite flat characters. Most important of all, they must understand, master, and project their type.
We tend to think of good actors as chameleons, capable of appearing naturalistic as a disparate variety of figures, but for much of the first half of the 20th century, good screen acting was nearly synonymous with typecasting. To be a good actor was to have mastered a persona which could be parlayed like a theme and variation into film after film. There were industrial reasons for this—during the height of the studio system, actors were kept on multi-year contracts, and worked far more frequently than they do today. Relying on type allowed films to be made faster and marketed clearly to fans. Audiences came to films like His Girl Friday not just to watch the story of Walter Burns, but to watch the story of Cary Grant playing Walter Burns. The studios made these personas as surely as they made the films that contained them, changing actors’ names, training them in everything from fencing to elocution, inventing biographies for them out of whole cloth, and manipulating the press to ensure that what the public knew of their personal lives rhymed with the kinds of roles they played on screen.
This system began dying out after the Supreme Court ruled against the studios in a long-simmering antitrust case that finally resolved in 1948. The studios, forced to sell off their movie theater holdings, stopped keeping actors on salary, and the more presentational and type-based style of acting in Golden Age Hollywood gradually gave way to the more naturalistic style championed by the ascendant Method actors. But persona-driven star turns never fully went away. Since at least the 1980s, blockbuster action cinema has been a reliable repository of types. Just think about Bruce Willis, a balding American everyman with a bit of a mean streak finding himself seemingly overmatched, only to triumph again and again. Or Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose robotic delivery was used first to terrify, and then to delight, audiences, often as a literal robot. Instead of breeding contempt, the familiarity on display in blockbuster action films is an asset, and while the types may have shifted, the reliance on them—and on almost exclusively men to play them—has remained unchanged.
In the 1930s, talent scouts scoured everywhere from Broadway shows to small town beauty pageants to find stars, confident that the system could train up a newcomer from scratch if it had to. From 2009–2011, the Chrises Pine, Evans, and Hemsworth graduated from small roles in TV and film to action stardom. Pratt’s rise, however, is part of an increasing reliance on the very type-driven worlds of professional wrestling and sitcoms by studios hungry for new leading men. Wherever the newly minted star comes from, the goal seems to be the same: engineer a new male lead who is simultaneously super-ripped and funny, hypermasculine, and tenderly approachable. John Krasinski has parlayed aw shucks everyman Jim Halpert into a career as America’s New Dad. Ryan Reynolds’ keenly honed snark and puppy-dog eyes worked equally well on Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place and Deadpool. No matter how shredded Kumail Nanjiani might get, you can be pretty sure that the Silicon Valley alum will raise one eyebrow while delivering some perfectly timed bit of sarcasm in The Eternals.
As he transitioned from Parks and Recreation to Guardians of the Galaxy, Pratt seemed to understand his type perfectly. Peter “Star-Lord” Quill might be sexier than Andy Dwyer, but he still has the same exuberance, a giddy energy reminiscent of a kid being invited to eat at the grown-ups table for the first time. He’s still not quite smart enough for the situations he finds himself in, and no matter how smooth he tries to be, he’s still a bit of a goober. Quill in particular is less a man-child than a kid’s idea of what a cool older brother might look like, an amalgam of Han Solo and Indiana Jones whose every attempt to be slick falls hilariously flat. There’s something inherently self-deprecating to Pratt’s best work that flows from his innate understanding of how type works. Since we’re never supposed to be fully convinced that the actor is the role, a space is created between the two that allows the actor and the audience to be in on the joke together. This both bonds us to Pratt and makes his characters lovable, even when they should be irritating or despicable. You can even see him bring this energy to the role of playing himself in an episode of Top Chef’s 10th season, as he dotes on his (now ex) wife Anna Faris and dunks on his own love of game and organ meat.
This version of Chris Pratt—the boyishly charming one who acknowledges with a wink the fundamental silliness of what he’s doing—resurfaces for one eight-minute stretch of The Tomorrow War. As the film winds up for its final action set piece, the plot contrivances that climax requires are so absurd that it can’t help but mock its own material. At that moment, a more familiar Chris Pratt emerges, as welcome as the sun breaking through clouds. Finally, in the midst of this miserable movie, someone seems like they’re actually having a little bit of fun. It doesn’t last. Eventually our hero must return to glowering at the Glipglorps. But it gives us a little reminder of why Pratt became a star in the first place. Hopefully, with several turns as Peter Quill for Marvel and a very silly-sounding film in the works called Cowboy Ninja Viking, we’ll get to see more of this Chris Pratt before too long, one that registers as more than just a clenched jaw pointed at a tennis ball.