The Tomorrow War’s time travel rules are explained throughout the film and while they’re in place to prevent paradoxes, they did not necessarily prevent one from occurring. Released on July 2, 2021, the film currently sits with a cool 54% on Rotten Tomatoes which coincides with the divided reception of the film. While generally acknowledged as a fine film, its somewhat convoluted use of time travel may be to blame for its lukewarm reception. The Tomorrow War marks Amazon’s most recent Sci-fi original film from director Chris McKay, known for The Lego Batman Movie. In fact, The Tomorrow War marks McKay’s first live-action film, having worked primarily in animation.
The Tomorrow War stars Chris Pratt as Dan Forrester, an unfulfilled high school science teacher, searching for his life’s purpose. But then, his world is turned upside-down when soldiers from 2051 travel to 2022 to warn humanity of an apocalyptic war with an alien race known as White Spikes. With a “Jump-Link” in place, reinforcements are ferried to the future to join the fight. Dan is eventually drafted and forced to fight. There, he discovers his young daughter Muri all grown up and leading the final resistance against the aliens. Muri is a scientist, like Dan, and hoping to discover a toxin that can be sent back to the past with her father to kill the aliens before the tomorrow war ever begins.
The plot may sound simple enough, but time travel is never an easy hurdle to overcome as it presents its own set of unique challenges. The Tomorrow War, like many time travel sci-fi films, struggles to abide by its own time travel rules. Subsequently, the film’s straightforward time travel rules are overshadowed by the questions surrounding the possible paradox which is created by the end of the film. Moreover, where most time travel films have a laundry list of do’s and don’ts to prevent paradoxes and altering the future, The Tomorrow War essentially has three rules succinctly explained relatively early on in the film through easily digestible exposition.
The Tomorrow War’s Time Travel Rules Explained (In Detail)
The first time travel rule acknowledged in The Tomorrow War states that only those who have died prior to 2051 can travel to the future. Dan discovers this during his drafting process and following training as he realizes many of the drafted recruits belong to an older generation. Dan’s death results from a future car accident within the next decade. The second part to this time travel rule is that only young soldiers from 2051, those who have not yet been born in 2022, are allowed to travel to 2022. As far as time travel rules go, this is a standard measure put in place to prevent paradoxes from occurring such as a past and future-self meeting. Here, these rules may also prevent prematurely depleting the future’s initially available forces in 2048 when the alien war first begins.
Perhaps The Tomorrow War’s most interesting time travel is the inability to “Jump” auxiliary forces to a time before the invasion begins in Russia, where they trace the aliens’ origins on Earth. This is directly addressed when a new recruit inquires why they are not being taken to that point instead of 2051 when the war is already lost. The response from the 2051 soldier comes in the form of a metaphor where the two Jump-Links in 2022 and 2051 are moving through time like rafts on a river. Reinforcements are able to jump between rafts, but each raft is continually moving forward. Hence, when the 2022 recruits are sent on their 7-day deployment in 2051, 7 days have also passed in 2022. The film’s logic and explanation is quite simple and addressed promptly, indicating the filmmaker’s desire for the audience to not become lost in the specifics.
An additional less-defined time travel rule in The Tomorrow War deals with how altering the past affects the future. The Tomorrow War’s ending makes it clear that in this science-fiction universe the future can be changed and is not written in stone. Hence, Muri’s plot to manufacture a toxin to send back to 2022 to prevent the alien apocalypse from ever occurring. Regrettably, the film does not seem to consistently follow this rule. The best example of this is Dan’s interactions with his daughter in 2051. These interactions undoubtedly change Dan’s future and thereby Muri’s future. If the film stuck this rule that the future is still being written, then these interactions would theoretically eliminate Muri’s role in 2051 and Dan’s ability to Jump, as he would most likely still be alive in 2051. Ignoring this time travel rule creates potential paradoxes that will likely confuse audiences.
Does The Tomorrow War Create A Paradox?
Paradoxes are commonplace in time travel movies and usually fall into two categories, causal loops (closed time loops) or grandfather paradoxes. Causal loops are those in which there is no obvious beginning or end to the loop, instead it is a continuous cycle of events. This does not apply to The Tomorrow War because Pratt’s character ensures the future war never happens. In the film, Dan and a small team of soldiers travel to Russia in 2022 to find the alien ship before they ever attack and use the toxin developed by his daughter in 2051 to destroy the aliens. This rules out a causal loop, because there is no cycle to be continued. Employing terminology from Disney+’s Loki, which highlights time travel in the MCU, one could say Dan and the team “prune” the 2051 apocalyptic future.
Nonetheless, the action of “pruning” this future does create a paradox in and of itself. This paradox falls into the category grandfather paradoxes, which deal with one’s ability to change the past because of its effect on the future. The namesake example of this paradox would be a grandson traveling to the past to kill his grandfather. This creates a paradox, because killing the grandfather means the grandson is never born to begin with. This is the type of paradox created in The Tomorrow War. In fact, the paradox becomes quite obvious and even distracting, during the final third of the film as Dan becomes determined to prevent the future he witnessed in 2051, including the abandonment of his family. This leads to The Tomorrow War having unanswered questions regarding how the future will change.
Dan’s interactions with Muri in 2051 guarantee that he will not permit his marriage to fail and leave Muri in the forthcoming years. Consequently, Dan would likely not die in the car accident that he was destined to be killed in. This change alone creates a paradox, because if Dan does not die in that car accident, he would never have met the criteria to be drafted for the war and would never have eliminated the alien threat in 2022. The sole way to prevent a grandfather paradox would have been to make Dan fail in destroying the aliens. Unfortunately, while this would solve the grandfather paradox, failing to destroy the aliens in 2022 would imply a causal loop in which humanity still ends in 2051. Truthfully, it is nearly impossible to craft a time travel film on this scale without running into some form of paradox.
The Tomorrow War presents itself as a straightforward time travel film with simple rules, but its execution is messy and at times leaves audiences questioning the film’s logic. This is particularly relevant when delivering the toxin to 2022 isn’t enough to prevent the future war. Even with the film’s rudimentary rules designed to streamline the narrative and allow audiences to quickly accept the film’s premise, the resulting paradoxes lead to confusion by the end of the third act. Much of this confusion could have been avoided had the film been more consistent in its approach to what and how changes in the past affect the future. Nevertheless, The Tomorrow War is still a fun watch for those looking for a spectacle-driven sci-fi film who are able to overlook a few paradoxes here and there.
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