Sunday, June 15, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

Alternate Title:  Groundhog D-Day

One sentence synopsis:    A rear-echelon soldier must find a way to single-handedly defeat an alien menace when he gains the ability to relive the same day over and over again.

Things Havoc liked:  Make all the Scientology jokes you like, I've always liked Tom Cruise, ever since I first watched Top Gun as a kid.  He may actually be insane, but he knows how to carry a Hollywood film better than almost anyone else active today.  What issues lead most people to dislike Cruise I can only guess at, but that guess revolves around an aura of smugness, warranted or otherwise, that he often projects through his roles.  Fair enough.  But bear in mind that Edge of Tomorrow is a movie where the filmmakers decided to deal with that problem by simply spending the entire movie killing him off in brutal, cathartic ways.

Directed by Doug Liman, a director I have had strictly no use for in any context previous to this one, Edge of Tomorrow is, by one measure, probably the best possible film that could be made out of its premise.  That premise, for those nine of you who have missed the trailers, is that aliens have invaded the Earth, and Cruise is tasked with slaying them, thanks to his (nearly) unique ability to "replay" the day of his own death every time he dies, going back with perfect foreknowledge of what is to transpire and changing his actions to do things differently.  We've seen Cruise save the world many times, in various, violent ways, but this movie, by nature of its premise, deals in no small part with repeated, horrific violence enacted against Cruise's person for the majority of its runtime.  His character, Major William Cage, is a marketing director pressed into military propaganda service, who manages through mischance and his own big mouth to wind up on the front lines of a D-day style assault on the beaches of Northern France to take continental Europe back from the alien foe.  Explicitly not an action hero of any sort, Cage spends his time on the beaches of France screaming in incoherent terror before being violently murdered by an alien monstrosity, and waking up once more to do it all over again.  It is only through many repeated attempts (and deaths) that he begins to learn the rudiments of the combat he is forced to undergo over and over again, while overcoming his terror of the enemy through sheer, bloody-minded familiarity.  The effect is like that of a video-game player who must reload from a checkpoint every time he dies, and the film showcases the sheer frustration that soon replaces the terror of his surroundings, and the exhilaration that comes with having gotten further than he did before.  In consequence, unlike so many other action films where the hero is simply assumed to either possess lethal combat skills or manifest hidden ones when the occasion becomes sufficiently dire, when by the end Cruise is facing down alien hell-beasts with aplomb and skill, we actually believe that this schlub is perfectly capable of doing so, due only to sheer, bloody-minded repetition.

Cruise is excellent in this role, a cocky, slick bastard who transitions to a panicked rookie and then to a hardened veteran over the course of the film.  And yet Cruise himself is not alone in this regard.  Emily Blunt, of The Adjustment Bureau and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, plays Sgt Vrataski, a veteran in her own right, hero of the war effort (the propaganda stills make her look like a Warhammer Space Marine), who owes her success to having once experienced the same sort of abilities that Cruise is manifesting.  Given that Blunt's job is to play the exact same day over and over again without any knowledge of what's coming, she does a fantastic job, laying out rather than spelling out the terrible trauma that actually comes with being brutally murdered three hundred times in succession, or for seeing those around you killed repeatedly with equal aplomb.  Brendan Gleeson (of a thousand things including Braveheart) plays the iron-faced General Brigham, with whom Cruise must deal repeatedly (of course) like a pastiche of Lord Mountbatten, rigid and unbending, even when confronted with some of the strangest evidence ever laid before anyone.  But the best of the lot is unquestionably Bill Paxton, playing Master Sergeant Farrell Bartolome like a cross between Full Metal Jacket's Gunnery Sgt. Hartmann and Aliens' Sgt. Apone.  Filled with marine corps (and southern) aphorisms about the purity of armed combat and its capacity to work redemptive miracles on the characters of fallen souls, Paxton here might as well be playing some thirty-year-older version of Private Hudson, and is plainly having the time of his life in a role that is truly riotously funny.

Indeed, one of the great surprises (to me) of Edge of Tomorrow was just how funny the film actually is.  The repeated deaths of Tom Cruise become so over the top and ludicrous that they actually become flat out hilarious, with orchestra stings (and misdirection) that left me, at least, nearly falling out of my chair.  Groundhog Day, the obvious point of comparison for any "live the same day over and over again" movies, was a comedy after all, and while Edge of Tomorrow is not, it does understand the absurd side of Cruise's situation very well.  It also understands the human touches that underlie the best action films (I cite Aliens once again).  Cruise's squad of misbegotten lowlifes is drawn in a beautifully human way, with each character feeling just right for the task at hand, be it the gruff delinquent or the imbecilic sad-sack.  Despite the seriousness of the situation, the film understands the limits of anyone's attention or endurance, including for instance a sequence midway through where, tired of being eviscerated repeatedly, Cruise spends one "cycle" by stealing a motorcycle, driving to London, and having a beer.  The aliens, meanwhile, though their motivations and characters are not exactly well established, do at least serve to present a credible threat to an army armed with powered exoskeletons and automatic grenade launchers.  They are frenetic, violent tornadoes of death, so fast as to present difficulties for even the audience to keep up with, with the result that when they attack and slaughter entire squads of troops, our reaction is not to laugh (as it was in Starship Troopers).  This allows the action to actually do what it is intended to do, showcase the hero's skill and bravery by putting him up against something that the audience believes to be a credible threat.  All in all, the film is simply well made from start to finish, understanding precisely the sort of story it is telling.  After all, Cruise, by virtue of his reset button, is physically invulnerable.  The alien army is therefore less of a threat to be feared than a puzzle to be solved.  This too the filmmakers' understand, and they do not bore us with over-repetition of the same horrific points but move on with alacrity to the next attempt to solve the puzzle.

Things Havoc disliked: There are very few things that Edge of Tomorrow actually does wrong, and most of them, unfortunately, come near the end of the film, involving revelations and plot events that I would not dream of revealing to you, my valued readers.  Suffice to say that the film's style and production was so engaging that I will confess to a bit of disappointment when, for the last half hour or so, it decided to shift somewhat into a more conventional sort of action movie.  Not that this shift is done poorly, it isn't, but the world does not lack for standard hero-against-aliens action films, nor even for ones starring Tom Cruise.  I reviewed one just last year after all.  I won't pretend that this undoes all of the good work that the film had previously undertaken, but it is simply disappointing that instead of finishing out with the creative premise that they had previously been using, the film decided to pull such a switch on us.

That said, there's not much else for me to say against the movie here.  Oh I could get pedantic about military tactics and equipment (the wonderful Osprey seems to have become the primary military conveyance of the future, and the navy is conspicuously absent for an amphibious assault on France), or about the exactitudes of the plot (it's time travel, holes happen), but the only real issue the film has besides the one I cited above is that the need to tell a story like this limits its horizons somewhat.  This is not a film destined to become some kind of cross-genre classic remembered throughout the ages, like The Wild Bunch or Godfather.  It was not intended to be.

Final thoughts:  And that, really, is it.  Edge of Tomorrow is not a classic of the silver screen but it is basically everything else that one could ask for, funny, inventive, well-characterized, well-acted, well-written, and thoroughly, thoroughly entertaining.  As popcorn summer blockbuster action flicks go, indeed, this is one of the best I've seen in years.  I had my doubts coming into the film that it was going to be of any use at all, exoskeletons with alien-fighting badasses in them do not have a brilliant track record at the movies after all, but this film is pretty much the best possible result you could get from a movie with this premise and this cast.  It is significantly better than I expected it to be, and considerably better than basically every non-comic-book action film of its sort for the last decade.

And if that isn't enough to get you to go see it, then I suggest you simply wait for my next review, because plainly the entire genre is wasted on you.

Final Score:  7.5/10

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