I watched some new and new-ish sci-fi.
The Tomorrow War is a 2.5 hour epic now available on Amazon Prime. You may have seen it advertised on buses. Despite the similarity in titles, it is nothing to do with Joe Haldeman’s Vietnam-in-space work The Forever War from the early 70s.
It commences with some nervous, heavily-armed Americans falling out of the sky on a burning cityscape. The main guy with a gun is played by Chris Pratt. But then we are told we are jumping back 28 years to December 2022. “Christmas Wrapping” is playing, and suburbia is getting ready for Christmas as well as watching the Final of the World Cup.
Chris is Dan Forester, who tells us right away he is “incredibly proud of my military service”. Here and later he fills in that he was in Iraq, he “ran combat missions”, but “found my passion in the Army Research Lab”, went to Cal State, and is now a High School teacher. He really wants to get in to doing real scientific lab work again, and he’s applied for a position at Harvard… but then he gets the killer rejection, all because of his “lack of private sector experience.”
How can a guy get a break anymore, I mean if you’re a war hero and a liberal schoolteacher who says inspirational stuff to your daughter, and you still get dumped on by the corporate suits? Actually, maybe Muri is better at teaching Dad what to think, hopefully insisting he is “the best at science”.
The message he has for Muri is somewhat undercooked:
DAN: “You have to be willing to think this:”I will do what nobody else is willing to do.”
There are problems with that formulation, and I think Muri is smart enough to realise right away. We also learn that Dad is estranged from his Dad and throws his Christmas card straight in the bin. But never mind, just look at the weird shit happening on TV:
A time portal opens suddenly on the World Cup pitch, lots of Special Forces guys storm out, and their leader is this really hot chick with a message of doom from the future. This premise is an article for Viz or The Onion that was abandoned because no one could make the joke go any further, so someone fished it out of the bin and decided to make an entirely stone-faced sci-fi interpretation instead. Regardless of how derivative everything that follows may be, this is definitely a strikingly original opening gambit.
With brisk efficiency, presumably honed from their collective response to COVID-19, all world leaders get on board with the idea of sending warriors forward in time to join in the last stand of humans against the infestation of aliens that are wiping us all out in the year 2051. What are the aliens like? They’re called Whitespikes, and they are… mid-size Alien Queen crossed with Velociraptor. Spraying them with a sub-machine gun is usually effective in a short time span if the shooter has the basic competence to aim at the weak spot on the neck.
Survival rates of fighters sent in to the future are no more than about 20%, but apparently this invisible meat grinder enjoys the support of the G20 and UN and only a few rogue voices protest, even when conscription has to be brought in. The system is something like the one that US used: candidates are called for assessment, if they are suitable they are entered in the selection lottery. Our man Dan is called in, and he gets the treatment, with a special “Jumpband” cuff attached to his left wrist, using his unique “biosignature” for the time-jump.
We get very little detail about how time travel was made possible, other than it was an experimental process that had to be used as a last gamble, although we can be sure that arrivals and departures at both ends are always consecutive and synchronised. Quite why the future wasn’t prepared already, and didn’t have the equipment lying around to improve, is not discussed either. If there is an answer about branches and alternative timelines or causal loops then no one thinks it worth mentioning. But the team running the implant process are also the very best GI Janes available. Part of the selection process is the verification that the soldier will be dead in 2051, and that’s how Dan finds out he is fated to die in 2030.
We also get this odd exchange with the soldier identified as CONSCRIPTION OFFICER PAVEZA in the credits, which I suppose establishes that the 2051 future also has our past:
CONSCRIPTION OFFICER PAVEZA: I see you were a Squad Leader in an Army Special Ops Command, in Iraq
DAN: Yeah… 15 years ago.
CONSCRIPTION OFFICER PAVEZA: Thankyou for your service.
Dan is on a squad that includes a few nervous wrecks that ain’t gonna last too long and maybe are only on the mission as bait to lure the enemy We have a tough black guy who’s really cold and efficient at killing, and a rather cowardly black guy who’s great at tech and is married to a scientist.
But before jump-off, he has to make an attempt to reconcile with his old Dad, a Vietnam vet who went off on his own, with “a Masters Degree in Engineering and a general disdain for the US Government” and now dwelling at his own airfield with an arsenal of guns and cool tech stuff.
It’s not really a spoiler to tell you that in the future, one of our top people is a Colonel Muri Forester.
Fighting the Whitespikes is just the same old high intensity semi-urban warfare Dan is used to, even though his mission starts in the burning remains of Miami. Earth’s dwindling forces still include plenty of armoured vehicles, combat helicopters, jet fighters, and offshore bases surrounded by minefields. So why didn’t we blast the aliens with nukes when they showed up? No answer.
Sadly this is not all a mindless CGI festival of destruction. There has to be a serious emotional story about a man trying to reconnect with his daughter, even when the Magic Science Machine is miraculously coming up with a serum that will kill off the Whitespikes. Why did no one manage that earlier and just send the results back in time.
I won’t give away too much of the climax of the story other than to point out (as many, many others will and probably have done already) that it blatantly steals from Alien, or at least the standard lore around the Space Jockey and the origins and purpose of the Xenomorph, prior to Prometheus and the other joy-sucking extensions to the franchise. It is also notable that nobody seems troubled about the paradoxical exile of thousands of volunteers to death in a possible future that didn’t happen after all. If I were living in this world, and I may yet be, I would definitely join up with the Stop The War Anti-Timelock Truther Coalition and insist the whole farrago was clearly a hoax to cover up the elimination of precariat rubes and liberal spacefillers with no private sector experience.
For a totally different mood, I turn to Synchronic, one of many films that was prepared for release in 2020 but has ended up mainly viewed on streaming services. This is one of those modern “serious” sci-fi films, where we are assured that we will be getting clever ideas thoughtfully presented, and no explosive special effects nonsense insulting our intelligence. That is clearly the promise, though it does not always work in practice. I think the paradigm of this style is Upstream Color, and what mainly struck me about that was that “elliptical” storytelling was simply skipping over plot holes and a rather standard lack of realism about whether characters can drop out of work but still live in fancy apartments for a long time. A jumpy camera style and lack of a swooshy orchestral soundtrack does not guarantee we are operating on a specially smart level of Serious Hard Sci-Fi. If it is meant to be mimicking Tarkovsky then it is far off-target for the moods of Stalker or Solaris. The best Hard Sci-Fi film of recent years, if you want to use that category, would be Little Joe, a superb play around the philosophy of biology and pharmacology.
Synchronic is the latest work of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead, who made the very good films Resolution, Spring and The Endless. All of those found new twists and ideas for stories about time-warps and eternal demi-human creatures, but unfortunately they also used some rather tired ideas and devices as well, such as found-footage and romantic redemption arcs. This one is better because it is even less bad.
We start with some young-ish people taking mysterious pills and having weird visions of strange new worlds. Then we are in to our 2 anti-heroes, the paramedic team Dennis and Steve. They are called out to what seems at first to be another grim drug-related killing in the most desperate part of New Orleans.
In an excellently-shot scene that shifts back and to between two halves of the room, we see Steve challenged by the white cop behind him, who reacts to a guy he sees “dressed like Tupac”. Fun fact: Anthony Mackie did also play Tupac in Notorious.
This is just going to be the first of many crime scenes that the duo are called out to, which have the common features of unusual deaths (spontaneous combustion, in one case) and also the presence of wrappers for the “legal high” drug Synchronic.
But our guys have got their own problems. Steve goes for a medical checkup and is told he has a brain tumour active around the pineal gland in his brain, which is inaccessible to surgery but he can start on radiotherapy, which may be effective. Meanwhile Dennis isn’t getting on too well with his emo-fan daughter Brianna, nor with his wife, though they’ve now had another child together. Brianna does get on with Steve ok.
Steve figures out that Synchronic is a killer, so he goes on his own crusade to buy up any remaining supplies he can find in drugstores or garages. Another guy follows him and asks to buy the whole lot off him, but he refuses. So he then gets a visit at night, and catches Dr.Kermani hiding in his closet. Steve calls the cops.
STEVE: You have until they get here… lucky for you this area has a shitty response time.
Kermani explains that he was working in the “designer drugs” racket, synthesising analogs of banned substances but with sufficient structural difference to formally evade restructions.
KERMANI: FDA finally cracked down on every variant we could come up with, so we rushed out to market with what was meant to be a DMT-like drug that would be synthesised from a red flower that only grows in a very isolated region of the California Desert.
“Synchronic” turned out to be aptly named, as it gives access to other times. In the case of young people, whose pineal glands have not calcified, they achieve actual physical transference, whilst calcified adults can only appear as ghostly presences.
KERMANI: Experience time as it actually is…. You drop the needle on the song you want to play, but they’re all always there. These tracks are like time. Synchronic is the needle.
Steve knows he has a non-calcified pineal gland because his neurologist told him. Now that Brianna seems to have disappeared into the past after taking the tab at some goth girl gaudy night, he has incentive to try it himself, and so his room fades out in to the Louisiana swampland of ~500 years earlier. An armour-clad “conquistador” appears to attack him, but he luckily fades back to the present.
Soon Steve has done a lot of basic empirical research on how the drug experience operates, and recorded himself so his discoveries can be known to others.
Travelling in to the past of course brings him into encounters with Klansmen and other horrors of American history. Talking to Dennis gets the pair finally on track again after some misunderstandings, and they figure out the way to attempt a rescue of Brianna. It turns out she was back at the Battle Of New Orleans in 1815.
Near the end we have a silent reference to “taking the knee” which puts it back in context of the history of slavery and oppression.
The notion of time-transporting drugs was used by Philip K.Dick in Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said although in that story the movement was lateral, not forward or back. We never find out if any of the times Steve witnessed were in the future, though they could have been. Time travel as a form of psychic projection also appeared in Brian Aldiss’s story Cryptozoic! and it didn’t make a lot of sense there either. Synchronic is alluding to ideas that “primitive” lore or mythologies may encode testimonies of witnessing time travellers, and perhaps secrets of how to acheive it (with the fruit of the rare desert flower) but it wisely avoids having anyone saying it out loud. Nor do any of the characters remind us that the pineal gland was the notional location of the soul for Descartes and related 17th century gentlemen, at least according to our current lore about them.
I can overlook all that bits that don’t make sense because the core of this narrative is a solid time-travel structure, as well as being a much better domestic story about dads and daughters. A solid time-travel story is a story set in a block universe: what has happened to X at t1 and t2 will be remembered at t3 and t4. We do not allow that X travels from t3 to t1 and then moves back from t2 to t4 to discover that what was past at t3 is no longer past. Films that break the rule, and are garbage: Looper, The Caller. Films that are good because they stick to the rule: Primer (but it’s a bit dull) and Cronocrimenes (which is fabulous). The joker is Sound Of My Voice, which I interpret as a story of a clever hoax to pretend that time travel has occurred. Coherence is a good story about cross-lateral mixing of alternative timelines, what a pity they include the nonsense about a comet causing it all. It was really a J.B.Priestley time play.
If you really need a film that’s “Iraq, but fighting aliens in America” then Battle Los Angeles did it very well a decade earlier. Fables Of Aggression was the title of a book by a guy who also wrote something about “mythologies of the future”, but it wasn’t so good. It’s a nice title to use for stories about expectations of other times and places, and the persons best able to deal with them and the threats they may include. The best scientist in these films is the guy who figured out the geometry of time travel in his living room, without using a Magic Answer Machine.