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SYFY WIRE The Tomorrow War

'The Tomorrow War' looked at termites and John Carpenter to create 'the ultimate alien'

By Josh Weiss
Executive Producer Chris Pratt Talks 'The Tomorrow War' and Working with Director Chris McKay

Now that it's today, The Tomorrow War has landed on Amazon, so it's time for us to discuss the movie's terrifying alien menace: the ravenous White Spikes. The extraterrestrial horde of quadrupedal and tentacled abominations seemingly appeared out of nowhere one day and started gobbling up humans left and right. With humanity on the brink of extinction, the final dregs of resistance decide to start recruiting able-bodied fighters from 30 years in the past.

***WARNING! The following contains major plot spoilers for The Tomorrow War!***

Leading man Chris Pratt (Dan Forester), who nabbed an executive producer credit on this project, tells SYFY WIRE he was deeply involved in creating a clear distinction between the male and female White Spikes. "I thought it was important to track the female and make her look different from the males," he says. "That was a slight amendment to the creative process that I think I was instrumental in. Just like in the wild, you see a difference between male and female species of animals."

Given that the aliens are so numerous, hungry, and capable of swarming to protect their queen, the production approached the White Spikes as if they were bugs. "We really looked at insects, imagining them like a termite or an ant in their abundance and in their motion," Pratt explains. "They were kind of like part shrimp, part spider, part termite. They were just supposed to be really scary and gross and translucent in how they could communicate."

Co-star Sam Richardson (Charlie) describes them as a combination of dogs, snakes, and bulls. "We also saw an early rendering of what the monsters would look like at the top of filming this movie, so we had an idea of what to envision when you’re shooting at nothing or when nothing is chasing you," he says. "You’re like, ‘Ooo — well, I know what that screech maybe will sound like and I know how they move a little bit.'"

"We got to see what it was gonna look like as they were creating and perfecting it. There was a lot of video reference, which was incredibly helpful. There was a prosthetic alien that we had [which was] true to size. Or like a half [of an] alien head," Yvonne Strahovski (Romeo Command) explains with a laugh. "And that was kind of it, so it was definitely a lot of imagination work, but we were very supported in the material that we had as what it was going to look like."

"For me, most was CGI, but we had to play with the alien head and then also had a big guy on set we had to tie with ropes and pull him," adds Keith Powers (Major Greenwood). "I think that was the closest, for me, it got to being practical.

Director Chris McKay (making his live-action debut on this film) states that he wanted the aliens to "be a character in the movie." Working closely with VFX supervisor Jamie Price and production designer Peter Wenham, the filmmaker set out to provide the White Spikes with an iconic design that not only spoke to their voracious nature, but also to their secret origin. The final product is what cast member Edwin Hodge (Dorian) calls "the ultimate alien."

"I wanted them to feel old, I wanted them to feel ancient, I wanted a lot of texture. I kept talking about how I wanted history in their [design]," McKay says. "I wanted to see beyond the edges of the frame as far as what happened to them. I wanted nicks, cuts, scratches, Psoriasis ... I wanted them to feel hungry at all times. That was very informative to the design. I wanted them to feel like they had an insatiable appetite. I wanted them to have teeth that felt like a dental nightmare, and then I wanted them to have a feral intelligence."

Creature designer Ken Barthelmey states that "the White Spikes had to be a powerful enemy. In our Skype meetings, director Chris McKay described the White Spikes to me as vicious creatures that attack and eat everything they see. He asked for a compelling design that conveyed the hunger and intelligence of these creatures. Additionally, the White Spikes needed to have different abilities such as fast swimming and flying. It was important that they [were] agile and able to move extremely fast. It was my job to translate all this information into one cohesive design."

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That meant looking at insects, marine creatures, and pack animals. "One of the things that I wanted from a feral intelligence standpoint is for everyone to look at coyotes and wolves," McKay continues. "How they hunt in packs and how they communicate with each other and [while] we may not understand exactly what they’re saying, we understand the implication of what they’re saying and doing. That they are communicating with each; that they are using a communication to hunt their prey."

"Because there was no clear description of the White Spikes, I gave Chris a few different options to choose [from] in the beginning. In this early stage, it was all about brainstorming and coming up with interesting ideas," Barthelmey says. "In order to make them more threatening, Chris felt they needed to have some kind of an offensive weapon, and asked for a plausible way of how the White Spikes could shoot at their targets. I came up with the idea of spike-shooting-tentacles and pitched the idea in a sketch. Chris and everyone else loved that idea and wanted me to develop that particular design further. I think it became one of the more memorable features of the design. After that design got approved, I created a 3D model and a few renderings that were presented to the studio."

Jasmine Mathews (Lieutenant Hart) calls the aliens "so cool and original; unlike anything I’ve ever seen before."

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By the movie's third act, the audience learns that the White Spikes had actually been on Earth for several millennia before they showed up out of the blue. For centuries, they were trapped inside a crashed spaceship buried deep within the harsh Russian tundra until climate change thawed them out. Things are left rather ambiguous about the aliens' original purpose, but it's heavily hinted that they were a Prometheus-esque biological weapon capable of clearing planets of their native species.

In any case, the idea of a hostile entity from another world escaping its icy prison and wreaking havoc among humans who need to kill it before it can reach a heavily populated area is something that should be familiar to all John Carpenter fans. McKay counts himself among this group, citing 1982's The Thing (whose tagline was "the ultimate in alien terror") as one of his all-time favorite movies.

"I could probably argue that it’s his best movie," he tells us, our interview fortuitously taking place on the 39th anniversary of the beloved Carpenter film. "I was constantly thinking about The Thing, especially shooting on a glacier, much like they did for The Thing. And even just staging things … when you have eight people on a glacier and thinking about the way you stage them in the frame, I was definitely thinking about The Thing."

Filming for the more frigid sequences took place in Iceland and as fate would have it, they were the very first days on set for J.K. Simmons, who plays Dan's estranged father, James. "J.K. was a dream," McKay says. "J.K. is such a lovely human being and a real generous actor and I want to say his first day was up on the glacier and so, you’re running around in the snow and he hadn’t met anybody. He literally had just met me a few times and stuff like that, so his first day is humping up a glacier.

"There is a really funny take… I wish I had put music to it or something because it’s a wide shot of Chris and J.K. jumping and rolling in the snow," McKay continues, remembering the moment. "There’s nothing else there but the two of them [and] it’s them jumping, rolling around, fighting something invisible, pretending to get knocked down, throwing themselves back down in the snow. It’s just like kids playing [and] to me, that’s what filmmaking is all about. No matter how or not serious the movie is, it is like being a kid again and playing cops and robbers or something."

The Thing Stills

While poorly received upon its original theatrical release, The Thing is now recognized for the sci-fi/horror masterpiece that it is — thanks, in part, to the chilling practical effects of Rob Bottin. McKay embraced that philosophy on The Tomorrow War and tried to shoot as many things in-cameras as he could. It's a simple formula: the more physical objects and locations your actors can react to, the more believable performances you'll get out of them.

"Whether it’s practical sets or practical locations, I like things that give actors — and the crew even — problems to solve," he says. "It’s nice to have your actors have to step around pieces of the ship ... We deliberately made it difficult for their path to walk through the ship. When you look at Alien or you look at The Thing, there’s lots of stuff like that that you can see in those movies, where you’re giving the actors some incredible set to work off of."

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McKay, whose film career up until this point has largely been working in Warner Bros.' animated LegoVerse, thinks that every filmmaker should tackle at least one animated project. 

"Animation is storytelling in slow-motion. You’re in complete control of every single thing and you work on every single frame of every scene," he says. "So it really helps you slow down and look at how to build a story ... Obviously, there are lots of levels of focus when you’re making a movie in live-action and in any sort of creative endeavor. But I think that animation focuses you very, very much on moment-to-moment decisions that your character is making, or the character’s external story meets his or her internal story. That to me is a great tool as a learning exercise for you to take into going into a live-action film. Previsualization, animatics, all of that stuff is all part and parcel for animation.

"So, in a movie like this when you have any number of visual effects in any shots — whether it’s the White Spikes, or whether it’s Miami, or whether [it's] a water tower I wanted in the background of the neighborhood that Dan lives in — being able to pre-visualize all of that stuff and understand how it’s gonna work together is a big part of making a live-action movie like this work," the director concludes. "That really helped me have a leg up."

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Betty Gilpin (The Hunt), Keith Powers (Before I Fall), Ryan Kiera Armstrong (Firestarter), Mary Lynn Rajskub (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), and Mike Mitchell (Doughboys) round out the cast.

The Tomorrow War is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Click here to check out an exclusive clip from the movie. John Carpenter's The Thing is available to purchase on digital, DVD, and Blu-ray from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.