Home > Reviews > THE TOMORROW WAR – Lorne Balfe

THE TOMORROW WAR – Lorne Balfe

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Tomorrow War is one of those big, eye-popping, spectacular sci-fi action movies that Hollywood does so well. Set a couple of years in the future, it stars Chris Pratt as Dan Forester, a high school science teacher and US military veteran, whose life changes – along with everyone else’s – when time-travelling soldiers from the future appear during the 2022 World Cup final and declare that, thirty years in the future, humanity is on the brink of extinction following an alien invasion. Dan is drafted into the new military and, using a special technology called a jumplink, he and his fellow draftees are transported forward in time to join the battle against the aliens – vicious, carnivorous creatures nicknamed ‘white spikes’. What follows is an all-out action extravaganza as Dan becomes deeply involved in the effort to defeat the aliens. The film is the live action debut of Lego Batman Movie director Chris McKay, was written by Zach Dean, and co-stars Yvonne Strahovski, J. K. Simmons, Betty Gilpin, Sam Richardson, and Edwin Hodge.

Truthfully, The Tomorrow War is one of those leave-your-brain-at-the-door movies. There are contrivances and coincidences and plot holes you could drive an aircraft carrier through, there are lapses in logic that leave you groaning, entire sequences are ‘inspired’ by several other movies, and the character development is limited, to say the least. But that’s not why you go to movies like this – you go for the concept (which is great), you go for the action (which is terrifically staged), you go for the special effects (which are outstanding), and you go for the aliens (which are terrifying and really creatively designed). Chris Pratt does his earnest heroic everyman thing well, Yvonne Strahovski gets a well-needed break to do something other than stand around wearing a teal cloak (qv The Handmaid’s Tale), and both J. K. Simmons and Sam Richardson offer quips, one-liners, and some welcome comic relief. It’s big, it’s dumb, it’s loud, but it looks great, keeps you on the edge of your seat, and provides you with a bucketload of popcorn-munching time-travelling alien-smashing fun. It really is a film that should have been seen on the big screen – it was originally scheduled for Christmas 2020 – but after COVID hit it was moved to July 2021, before eventually moving away from cinemas entirely after Amazon acquired distribution rights, and it premiered on Prime Video over the fourth of July weekend.

The final piece in the puzzle is the score, which was written by Lorne Balfe. The Scotsman has worked with the director before, on The Lego Batman Movie in 2017, and with production company Skydance on some of their big action and sci-fi flicks, notably Terminator Genisys, Geostorm, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Gemini Man, and 6 Underground; so, his hiring to score The Tomorrow War is on-brand. What’s also on-brand is the continuation of what I have recently dubbed ‘the Lornaissance,’ in that The Tomorrow War is another entry into the ever-growing list of excellent Balfe works in a purple patch that stretches back to the middle of 2019 and also includes such titles as Jungleland, Bad Boys for Life, the documentary Rebuilding Paradise, and two seasons of the TV series His Dark Materials.

What Balfe has been doing of late, whether as a result of being given different musical direction by his employers, or by dint of his own volition, is making his music cool and fun and interesting. I often felt that some of his past ‘major’ works were a little safe, and a little hesitant to do anything that brought attention to itself. There were exceptions to this, of course, but far too many of them felt like little more than a collection of basic ostinatos, chugging strings, banks of horns, and electronic pulses… job done, director happy, move on to the next one. To this day you could play me music from scores like 13 Hours, or Geostorm, or 12 Strong, or Hurricane Heist, or Pacific Rim: Uprising, or Gemini Man, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you which one was which. But recently that has all changed, and now his scores are filled with personality, the rhythmic ideas are interesting and complicated, the thematic writing is stronger, and the little compositional touches have flair. It’s all just better, from top to bottom, and I have no idea what changed. Maybe he always wanted to write like this and his directors were stifling that creativity. Maybe he just finally said, “screw it,” and started writing his own music regardless. But, whatever it is, it’s working.

The Tomorrow War is a big score – huge string section, thunderous brass, choir, solo cello by Tina Guo, solo vocals by Tori Letzler, massive percussion, and a bank of electronic enhancements. It was written and recorded during COVID protocols, meaning that everything had to be recorded with each section of the orchestra separated from each other, and then spliced together in post-production, which is no mean feat, and is all the more impressive that it sounds as good as it does. There are several recurring themes, including a heroic anthem for Dan, a relationship theme for Dan and his family, and several musical ideas representing the ‘white spike’ aliens. There are also a ton of stylistic similarities to Hans Zimmer, especially the scores in the Dark Knight series, and to Steve Jablonsky’s early Transformers work, plus some subtle allusions to scores like Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Arrival, among others.

The first cue, “Multiply,” is actually rather eerie and unsettling, comprising a series of layered, interlocking, mournful vocal textures and breathing sounds, similar to the aforementioned Arrival. This idea slowly comes to reveal itself as one of the two motifs for the ‘white spike’ aliens, especially before they are revealed and they are still seen as a sort of hidden, looming abstract threat, rather than an in-your-face drooling bag of teeth and spikes threatening to rip you limb from limb. This motif crops up later in cues like “The Whitespikes” and “Test Tubes,” but beyond that the aliens are instead mostly accompanied by a dark, menacing, descending brass motif that first appears in “Spikes Attack”. This second motif – which tends to be heard when the aliens are actually there, primed to attack – leaves an impression similar to the descending brass ideas Jerry Goldsmith used in scores like The Edge, The Thirteenth Warrior, and others, and when Balfe layers complicated clattering percussion riffs underneath all the orchestral chaos, the effect is excellent.

All the other thematic ideas seem to orbit around Chris Pratt’s character Dan: his complicated relationship with his father, his even more complicated relationship with his daughter, and the heroism he shows in the face of impossible danger. There seem to be at least three or four different recurring melodic ideas here and, truthfully, it’s never clear which one is which, so I’m going to cheat and call it all ‘the main theme,’ and assume that all the big flashes of thematic glory are statements of the main theme’s A-phrase, the main theme’s B-phrase, or a variation on one or the other of them, depending on context and which character is being brave and stoic at the time.

The title cue, “The Tomorrow War,” is a knockout statement of several of these thematic ideas, and for me is the best cue on the entire album. It opens with a thrusting Tina Guo cello ostinato, before being joined by the first statement of the warm theme at 0:20, where it is carried by rich and sonorous strings. Balfe augments the theme with some interesting electronic textures in the background, and for a while you think ‘ok, this is going to be like Journey to Earth from Transformers,’ but then a set of tremendous militaristic percussion licks and earthy brass chords kick in, and the whole tone changes. The orchestration in the cue is especially outstanding – listen for the flighty woodwinds which add a great deal of depth and texture after the 1:40 mark. A second motif for brass emerges just before the 3:00 mark – dominant, heavy – to which Balfe adds a series of fantastic, anarchic trumpet textures in the background. These trumpets almost have an unexpected touch of jazz to them, while their spiky, jagged tone and octave-leaping antics are really creative. A stirring brass variation on the theme emerges during the cue’s rousing finale, and the whole thing ends with a huge, forceful Zimmer chord. It’s exhilarating, breathless stuff.

Everything else is basically a variation on these core ideas: one or more of the different aspects of the main theme arranged in a range of aggressive action settings, each featuring driving string ostinatos and dense percussion patterns, different creative electronic tonalities, and motivic references to one or both of the White Spike ideas. It’s relentless, sometimes quite brutal, sometimes rousingly heroic, and to be fair some may find it heavy going. Balfe certainly isn’t going for subtlety or nuance here, and he lays on his music thickly at every opportunity. Nevertheless, within this musical onslaught of monsters and mayhem, several cues stand out, often for an interesting texture in the orchestration, for a new and cool percussion pattern, or for an especially anthemic thematic statement.

I really like the call-and-response percussion writing between drums and anvils in “Who’s With Us,” as Balfe’s constant shifting between tempos and lead percussion instruments enhances the overall feeling of there being an intense, sinister threat. The brutality of the brass writing in “The Whitespikes,” especially when it is heard in combination with dense tribal percussion, really lends itself to the idea that the aliens are relentless killers, single-minded and with no purpose other than to eat you alive. There’s a similar intensity to the opening moments of “The Draft,” before it eventually gives way to a passage of horror suspense, and then finally explodes into a chaotic collision of shrieking strings, immense percussion, and guttural horns.

“So It Begins” starts out with some EDM-like electronic textures, but eventually becomes one of the few cues to feature the full choir, and is a standout for that reason alone. “Fight” revisits the brilliant jazzy trumpets from the second half of the title track, while in the cue’s finale Balfe brings a Dark Knight-like intensity to its rhythmic underbelly, blending the percussion with anguished-sounding hints of the main theme offset against the White Spike textures. “The Nest” is just violent, musical carnage, throaty and dissonant, and sees Balfe doing some horrific, Penderecki-style things to his brass section. “The Cube” is one of the few cues to prominently feature a piano, its dark chords giving the piece a sense of depth and determined, powerful intensity. “Pushing” is just relentless, a hypnotic rhythmic ostinato around which all manner of fascinating and bold instrumental textures are layered.

The two outliers from this style are “Back to the Past” and “Message From the Future,” which are slower and more intimate, and tend to deal with more internal emotions like regret and remembrance. The former features a dreamlike, sentimental melody, but surrounds it with unusual grinding, ghostly electronic textures in the background, which make it feel distorted, and give the scene of Dan’s return home a sound like musical shellshock. The latter is similar, and initially has a warm and nostalgic sound, but gradually becomes a little detached from reality through its off-kilter horn chords and string harmonies.

The final three cues are all quite similar in approach, containing statements of one or more of the main theme variations, arranged mostly in anthemic ways. The differences between them are subtle but not unnoticeable; “Colonel Forester” is honest, forthright, purposeful, and heroic. “Dan Forester” has more electroacoustic textures, some of which enter EDM/sonic manipulation territory, but by the end of the track the theme has gradually emerged and become bold and epic, strings and brass underpinned with dramatic percussion. The conclusive “Homecoming” almost sounds relieved, and has just the right amount of emotional pathos offset against heroic determination to be very satisfying.

The Tomorrow War is an excellent score, combining strong thematic content with a great deal of creativity in terms of orchestration, innovation, and extended compositional techniques. The title track, “The Tomorrow War,” is a genuine triumph, but the rest of the score has plenty to recommend too, especially if you are a devotee of Hans Zimmer’s darkly heroic Batman action, and want to hear that blended with some sophisticated contemporary abstraction reminiscent of Jóhann Jóhannsson. Some people will undoubtedly still dismiss this as nothing more than the same old ostinatos and the same old ‘horns of doom,’ but it’s really not: there is way more going on than that, and you only have to take the time to actually sit down and listen to realize it. Lorne Balfe looks set to have a strong 2021, with this score just released, and with the Marvel movie Black Widow and the Ralph Fiennes/Jessica Chastain drama The Forgiven ready to come down the pipe. Based on his recent work there is plenty to be excited for in these scores – long may the Lornaissance continue!

Buy the Tomorrow War soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Multiply (2:54)
  • Spikes Attack (1:57)
  • Who’s With Us? (4:04)
  • Reunited (3:07)
  • Back to the Past (4:03)
  • The Tomorrow War (5:33)
  • The Whitespikes (4:01)
  • The Draft (4:41)
  • Goodbye (4:15)
  • So It Begins (8:21)
  • Fight (2:47)
  • Message from the Future (2:28)
  • The Nest (2:08)
  • Test Tubes (3:19)
  • The Cube (2:51)
  • Pushing (6:24)
  • Miami Dolphins Still Suck (1:52)
  • Colonel Forester (5:09)
  • Dan Forester (3:16)
  • Homecoming (2:17)

Running Time: 75 minutes 37 seconds

Milan Records (2021)

Music composed by Lorne Balfe. Conducted by Jasper Randall. Orchestrations by Adam Price, Gabriel Chernick, Harry Brokensha and Luigi Janssen. Additional music by Peter Adams, Steven Davis and Stu Thomas. Featured musical soloist Tina Guo. Special vocal performances by Tori Letzler. Recorded and mixed by Scott Michael Smith and Seth Waldman. Edited by Maarten Hofmeijer and Alex Gibson. Album produced by Lorne Balfe.

  1. Michael
    July 6, 2021 at 4:13 pm

    Good review, Jon. Ironically, while mentioning Geostorm, Balfe actually reused the main theme from that score in The Tomorrow War, even the way it plays at the beginning of the movie is just like it did on the previous one.

    Also, the end credits of the movie actually lists the orchestra performers (no woodwinds and choir, so these might have been sampled).

  2. Peter H
    July 7, 2021 at 3:30 pm

    Great review and it’s a fantastic soundtrack.
    But his Black Widow soundtrack beats it hands down.He should he an Oscar for Black Widow.

  3. Matthew McKinnon
    July 14, 2021 at 1:38 pm

    Is this really a good score? It sounded utterly, utterly generic during the movie.

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