FilmWatch Weekly: Hollywood at Home with ‘No Sudden Move’ and ‘The Tomorrow War’

As the movie world opens up, a couple of made-for-big-screen features wind up on home screens instead.

Benicio Del Toro and Don Cheadle in “No Sudden Move.”

Theaters have reopened, with both art house cinemas and corporate multiplexes getting back to doing what they do best. For the former, that means presenting audiences with quality fare such as the uplifting Summer of Soul and the zeitgeist-capturing Zola, both of which we wrote about last week. For the latter, it means bombarding audiences with franchise sledgehammers such as F9 and The Forever Purge. As was the case pre-pandemic, what gets lost in the shuffle of this distribution model are the sort of well-crafted Hollywood entertainments that rely on star power and storytelling rather than brand loyalty to draw crowds.

A couple such movies recently arrived on streaming services, for reasons likely related both to the pandemic and to their perceived lack of marketability. One is a slick, smart thriller, the other a dumb, goofy escapade, and both would be better served on a big screen.

Steven Soderbergh can seemingly make films like No Sudden Move in his sleep, and during its opening scenes, one worries that he might have. In 1950s Detroit, three criminals (Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, and Keiran Culkin) are hired for a seemingly simple job: “babysit” the family of an accountant (David Harbour) who’s been tasked with the retrieval of a document from his boss’s safe. Of course, this straightforward setup quickly gives way to complication after complication, involving multiple MacGuffins, a veritable school of red herrings, and the odd double-cross or three. Initially it feels like a mob caper, but that’s not entirely true, although there is crime and it is organized.

From the silky-smooth prowls of Soderbergh’s widescreen camera, to the presence of laid-back veterans Cheadle and Del Toro (not to mention John Hamm, Ray Liotta, Bill Duke, and—spoiler alert—Matt Damon), this is well-trodden ground for most everyone involved. But as the plot unfurls, issues of gentrification, corporate malfeasance, and government corruption start to pop up, eventually revealing why this story needed to be told in this particular time and place. (Was that cryptic enough?)

Soderbergh, under his nom de cinematographer Peter Andrews, shot No Sudden Move in an extra-wide 2.4:1 aspect ratio that replicates the fisheye effect you see near the frame edges in analog movies from the ’50s and ’60s. It’s a small but evident detail that helps tie the mood to the era.

If there’s a weakness, it’s that both Ed Solomon’s script and Soderbergh’s direction fail to pierce the souls of the movie’s main characters—all that stylish efficiency can’t make room for a rawness or an anger that might have helped some of its later revelations hit home a little harder. Nonetheless, it’s another in the long list of Soderbergh’s triumphs. (Currently streaming on HBO Max.)

***

Less intelligent, more expensive, and louder, The Tomorrow War isn’t going to be confused for the work of a directing auteur any time soon. It is, however, the latest example of a science fiction film that gets short shrift because it’s not a sequel, reboot, or comic book adaptation.

Jasmine Mathews, Edwin Hodge, and Chris Pratt in The Tomorrow War.”

Chris Pratt is oddly cast as Dan Forester, an earnest ex-military high school biology teacher, who’s watching a World Cup match one day with his family when they, along with the rest of the world, see a platoon of battle-armored soldiers plunge onto the pitch, bearing a message from the future. In thirty years, an unstoppable barrage of mindless, deadly aliens has (will have?) humanity on the verge of extinction. Only by recruiting folks from 2022 to jump forward in time to serve as laser cannon fodder does the planet have a hope.

Right away, seasoned genre viewers will throw up their hands. Time travel means paradoxes, which means you spend too much of your time worrying about the effect of all these jumps and not enough worrying about the characters and their stakes. (The Tomorrow War does address one paradox with the fact that the future folks will only take people who die within the next few years, and they’ll only send soldiers back who haven’t been born yet in the present. None of that meeting your future/past self business, at least.)

Forester leaves his wife and nine-year-old science-loving daughter, Muri, behind and heads for basic training before embarking on his one-week tour of duty in the hellscape of tomorrow. The monsters, dubbed “white spikes,” are legitimately scary: pasty blobs with ravenous toothy maws, whip-like tentacles, and an insectoid, swarming single-mindedness. After a disastrous encounter with the things in a ruined Miami Beach, and a brief respite at a human redoubt in the Dominican Republic, Dan ends up at the survivors’ headquarters, built upon a giant oil rig and protected by seawalls (for now) from the hordes.

Along the way, he meets the facility’s chief scientist, Corporal Forester (Yvonne Strahovski)—that’s right, she spells it with one ‘l’ too. This would count as a spoiler if it weren’t foreshadowed with blunt force from the movie’s first scenes. Also, if you think Dan’s estranged, Vietnam-veteran pilot father, played by J.K. Simmons, isn’t going to reappear in the third act, you really need to see more movies.

Speaking of that third act, it takes all the overwrought absurdities of The Tomorrow War’s first 100 minutes, tears them into confetti, and tosses them up in the air, letting them float down and cover everything like so much surreal snow. Our heroes make one terrible decision after another, leading to all-too-predictable mayhem from which they manage to extricate themselves through sheer chutzpah.

The Tomorrow War was intended for theatrical release, but during the theater shutdown Paramount Pictures sold it to Amazon, which opted to give it a solely streaming release. It’s a shame, because even most quality home theater setups can’t replicate the sensory overload that seeing it in IMAX would have offered. One benefit to the home viewing is that you can heckle the actors (and the screenwriters) mercilessly without ticking off the rest of the auditorium. And with a gloriously stupid pseudo-epic like this one, that’s at least half the fun. (Currently streaming on Amazon Prime.)

About the author

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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