Saturday, June 21, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow (2014) suffers from what I think is a lame, generic title that gives very little information or clues as to what the film is actually about; it could really be applied to any story in which the passage of a day occurs. Frankly, I would have used the movie's tagline, "Live. Die. Repeat." as its name; it establishes the sci-fi element and is a more intriguing phrase.

Edge of Tomorrow is the splicing of Groundhog Day and Halo (or a science fiction war story for those of you who don't know much about video games). In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray played a cynical TV weatherman who found himself reliving the holiday over and over in Punxsutawney; as he repeated Feb. 2, encountering identical scenarios, he gradually underwent a change, becoming a better person. Here, Tom Cruise plays a military officer who finds himself repeating the same battle over and over again against alien invaders; each time he's killed, he learns something new to help him in his fight to save the world.

Directed by Doug Liman and based on the Japanse Manga All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Edge of Tomorrow centers on Major William Cage, a public relations officer with the U.S. military on the eve of a multinational counter-invasion of Europe to drive out a mysterious alien race known as the Mimics, who landed on Earth five years ago. After trying to blackmail his superior officer, General Brigham (Brendan Glesson), to avoid having to go in with the troops, Cage is labeled a deserter, demoted to private, and dropped in with the rest of the grunts. The battle is a complete disaster for the humans, who are almost completely wiped out, and Cage is killed only minutes into the fight. But somehow, he wakes up the day before the battle, the clock reset. Somehow, he has acquired the ability to reset time from the aliens (hence why they've dominated the war so far). Teaming up with war hero Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who once had the same ability, Cage needs to figure out how to win the war in a single day.

Tom Cruise playing a handsome, charming shirker who tries to get out of his duty and ends up finding the strength and courage to be the hero? I've never seen that before (except in A Few Good Men, War of the Worlds, Top Gun, Rain Man). Cruise catches a lot of flak for personal and professional reasons, but to his credit, he demonstrates here, as he has in his past, a willingness to add his star power to more thoughtful and original blockbusters, films that combine big special effects extravaganzas and action with more intelligent scripts and concepts, such as Minority Report

Edge of Tomorrow has the requisite action and imagery for the genre. The human offensive resembles  a futuristic D-Day, with thousands upon thousands of troops in high-powered and heavily armed suits dropping onto a French beachhead from the sky. The Mimics, which we learn little about apart from how they operate and what they look like, kind of resemble the Shadow Beast creatures from another video game, The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess. They're quick and mean, they burrow through the ground to spring up and surprise the confused humans, and they have deadly tentacles. Most importantly, they're convincingly alien and dangerous. And in true video game fashion, the big bad Alpha, like the final boss of a game, is a leviathan of a challenge.

Comparisons to video games are actually a compliment in this case. After all, any player who knows the challenge and frustration of having to replay the same level over and over again, making a incremental progress, will recognize and understand Cage's plight. To the movie's credit, the scenario never becomes tedious and explores different avenues for it, including humor, tension, excitement, and drama. In each battle cycle, we become invested in seeing how far Cage is going to get, and the movie does a good job of depicting his progress, both on the battlefield map and as a better soldier. The humor arises from his interaction with his fellow humans who aren't in tune with his knowledge, such as the Good-Old-Boy sergeant played by Bill Paxton, who assumes Cage is deserter, and Rita, who, recognizing when they've reached a dead end or Cage is too injured to continue, shoots him in the head to start over.

The movie also generates some poignancy in Cage's plight. There are times when he becomes convinced that no matter how many times he repeats the day, he won't learn how to win, so he becomes torn between giving up and letting the Mimics win or continuing to die day in and day out. There's also the relationship between Cage and Rita, with Cage falling in love with her during his repeated interactions with her but has to start from square one each time (it's probably no coincidence that Rita was also the name of the love interest played by Andie McDowell in Groundhog Day). Fortunately, the movie doesn't become sappy in this regard, and Rita, in a convincingly tough and no-nonsense performance by Blunt, never becomes the cliched damsel who needs to be rescued. Cruise, to his credit, is also pretty good, and I don't know of many stars who would play such as cowardly sleaze ball; true he becomes more heroic as the film progresses, but even then, Rita remains the better, tougher, more determined fighter who has to drag him along.

Clever, exciting, intense, and funny, Edge of Tomorrow is one of the better sci-fi films to emerge out of Hollywood in recent years. In a genre that's become dominated by explosions and special effects, Edge of Tomorrow demonstrates how far a thoughtful script and well drawn characters can go a long way toward making those elements all the more meaningful and memorable.

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