The Tomorrow War: Explained (With Timeline Diagrams)

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Hi, this is Barry and welcome to my site. The Tomorrow War is a 2021 science-fiction action thriller directed by Chris McKay that sports time travel. In the future, Earth is attacked by aliens leading to an extinction-level event of all life on the planet. Future humans arrive in the present asking for military help to win their war, and the present agrees. Getting vibes of Edge Of Tomorrow? The cast has Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski and a very ripped J.K. Simmons, to name a few. Where there is time travel, there is trouble. So, here’s the plot and ending of the movie The Tomorrow War explained; spoilers ahead.

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Here are links to the key aspects of the movie:

The Tomorrow War: Where did the aliens come from? The White Spikes Explained

White Spikes Explained Tomorrow War

The White Spikes are lab-grown mindless planet-cleansing weapons to whom living beings are only food. At some point in time before 946 A.D, an alien race crashlanded on Earth in Russia. The crew died on impact; however, their cargo of the White Spikes survived. These creatures stayed in their cocoons for over a thousand years. Eventually, in 2048, they clawed their way out because the ice around them melted, thanks to global warming. No radars caught the alien ship landing because they got to Earth over a millennium ago.

The Grandfather Paradox

This is one of the oldest adversaries for any time-travel story. Here’s why, if a person goes back in time when her grandfather is a young boy and kills him, this would mean she is not ever born. The paradox kicks in when we ask the question, “so who killed the grandfather? Nobody?” then he must be alive only to be killed by his granddaughter… and so on.

The Tomorrow War introduces the same old classic Grandfather Paradox because of what Dan and Muri do. To avoid that situation, I’m going to narrate the plot using multiple timelines. The movie has primarily two intertwined timelines: 

  1. Timeline-1, with the war.
  2. Timeline-2 without the war. 

The present (as in 2022-23) that we see is Timeline-2, and the future (2050-51) is Timeline-1. Time travel happens between these two timelines. Let’s now go through the story one timeline at a time. 

The Tomorrow War Explained: Timeline 1

While not shown in the film, in Timeline-1, Dan leads an unhappy life. After a few years, he eventually leaves his family, which breaks Emmy’s (his wife) and Muri’s (his daughter) hearts. In Timeline-1, Dan does not go to fight in the future war. I’m sure you’re wondering what on earth I’m talking about. Again, the opening of the movie that we see is from Timeline 2, not Timeline 1. We’ll get to Timeline-2 in a bit; please bear with me.

The Tomorrow War: How does Dan die?

Dan dies in a car crash on October 13, 2030, in Timeline 1, when Muri is 16 years old. Emmy eventually dies of unknown reasons, and Muri grows old to get a doctorate in biotechnology and ultimately creates R-Force. 

The future establishes a wormhole that can transport people over a fixed period of about 30 years. If someone jumps from 2022 to 2052 and stays there for a year and then jumps back, they return to 2023. This is the meaning of the “two rafts” explanation that the young major gives. It’s important to note that these jumps are happening between two different timelines. 

Based on what rules are people selected to go to the future?

The primary selection criterion is that the person travelling should have died before the point of the time jump in the future. This is done to avoid a person running into their older future selves that could cause a paradox. In Dan’s case, he would die in 2030, so he will not be around in 2051, and this is the case with everyone else selected for the mission. The future soldiers who have arrived are very young and are chosen that way because they would not yet be born in the present. 

Fighting the aliens in 2051

fighting the white spikes

The output coordinates are messed up, and instead of the beach, the time jumpers are dropped hundreds of feet over the city. Ouch. Most people fall to their deaths except for a small group that lands in a terrace swimming pool. Had Dan been one of the unfortunate ones to land on the street, it would have been a rather short film.

Colonel Forester reaches out to and tells Dan and team to rescue a team of scientists and fetch a set of vials critical to killing the aliens. They reach the building to realize the scientists have been killed, but Dan locates the vials. The White Spikes attack and only Dan, Charlie and Dorian make it back to the camp alive.

Dan meets Colonel Forester and realizes she is Muri but is emotionally distant. She explains that the vials Dan retrieved are toxins that can kill the male aliens, but the female is resilient to it. They head to one of the locations with a female White Spike to capture it.

Caging the beast

caging the beast

After a lot of struggle, the team, Muri and Dan, manage to cage the female White Spike and take it over to the base. On the way, Muri tells Dan all about how he left and then died in a car crash. 

Back at the lab, they sedate the alien, and Muri draws samples from it to synthesize a toxin that can beat the female immune system. This toxin can potentially be weaponized and used to kill all the White Spikes. However, given there is hardly any access to factories, Muri doesn’t know how to mass-produce and administer the toxin to all the White Spikes in the little time they have left. 

Change the past!

Muri tells Dan that the only hope is for him to take the toxin back with him to 2023 and give it to the authorities, who can weaponize it and be ready when the aliens land. Dan says he’ll do it and protect his own timeline, but he also promises he’ll bring back stock to Muri’s timeline and save her too. 

Before anything, hordes of male aliens attack the base to save their queen. Muri and Dan make a run for it, but Muri gets stabbed and taken down by a White Spike. Dan jumps in a desperate attempt to … I’m not really sure what he planned to do after leaping off. Lucky for him, his time runs out, and he jumps back to the present to his own timeline (Timeline-2). 

The Tomorrow War Explained: Timeline 2

Right, so this is where the movie begins. In 2022, Dan is in a teaching job he considers to be a dead-end. His applications to other jobs don’t pan out. At the 2022 Football World Cup, future soldiers from Timeline-1 show up asking for help fighting the aliens. The world agrees, and they set up Jumplinks to get people over to the future to help with the war.

Dan’s turn eventually arrives because, according to the future people’s information, Dan dies by 2030. But the information they have is on Dan from Timeline-1. This is Dan from Timeline-2, not the same guy. Anyway, this doesn’t matter much.

After working with Muri in the future of Timeline-1, Dan returns back to the present of Timeline-2 with the toxin. But the Jumplink is destroyed and no one can go back to Timeline-2 again. In any case, Muri was consumed by a pack of hungry White Spikes.

The Tomorrow War Ending Explained: Saving The World

The Tomorrow War ending

The ending of The Tomorrow War reveals that the White Spikes didn’t land on Earth in 2048 but arrived over a thousand years ago when they were trapped under the ice and eventually surfaced when the ice melted in 2048, explaining why no radar or satellite imaging caught their arrival.

By analyzing the claw that Dorian has, they find out there is volcanic ash from China on the claw even though the aliens showed up in Russia. They talk to the volcano-kid from Dan’s boring class to learn that a volcano once erupted in 946 A.D. that was so tremendous that the ash spread all the way to Russia, amongst other parts of the world. They follow the ash trail to a glacier in Russia. 

The government refuses to help, and just like that, Dan’s dad loads the team and flies them undetected into Russian airspace to the glacier, where they find the ship’s location after their compasses go crazy. They blow up the ice and descend to find the spaceship. They take matters into their own hands and almost unleash Armageddon in the present time by trying to inject and kill a few of the White Spikes in their cocoons which causes the rest to wake up and attack. Dorian blows himself and most of the team to take out all the male aliens, but one female makes a run for it.

Dan and his father find it, and after a lot of bullets, toxin vials, impaling, fist fighting, and requesting it to die, they successfully get the alien to fall over and become mulch. The world is saved, Dan goes back to his family and promises he’ll never leave them. The alien war in Timeline-2 is averted; sadly, Timeline-1’s humans do perish.

The Tomorrow War: Timeline Diagrams, Paradoxes and Plot Holes

The Tomorrow War Timelines Two Timelines small
Two Separate Timelines (click to enlarge)

I’ve taken the liberty to claim that there are two timelines simply because we’re told of two totally different sets of events that cannot coexist. While movies like Avengers: Endgame and Primer explicitly call out multiple timelines, The Tomorrow War does not. I believe, according to the filmmakers, there is just one timeline. The first time around, there was a war, and Dan returns with the toxin to stop that from happening. And that is where the Grandfather Paradox would swoop with a cinematic belly-punch.

Tomorrow War Timelines Single_Timeline small
One Surviving Timeline (click to enlarge)

Here’s the problem if we have only one timeline. Dan goes to the future and shows up with a Toxin. He and his team then use Dorian’s claw to find and take down the entire species of the White Spikes. No war, so in 2050, no time-travellers would need to go back seeking help. Dorian’s claw belongs to a White Spike from the future, which now would not exist. Muri doesn’t grow old to become a soldier who experiments with White Spikes to synthesize the toxin. So, the boxes of toxins can’t exist because they were never synthesized. See what happened there? The Grandfather Paradox.

That’s all I’ve got. What did you think about The Tomorrow War and its ending? Drop a comment, let’s discuss.