20 June 2014

First Impressions: Edge of Tomorrow

There aren't a lot of Tom Cruises left in the world. Specifically, there's one, but despite every other up and coming young white male actor trying to repeat what he's done for the past thirty years, so many random white dude action stars are instantly forgettable. They're the Taylor Kitsches, Garrett Hedlunds, and Charlie Hunnams of the world. How the hell did Tom Cruise take off?

Watching Edge of Tomorrow (2014) helps elucidate this concept. It helps that he's earned his mega-ultra-megastardom by now that an entire movie can be structured around him, but it's a testament to his skill as an actor and his dedication to a role that as he surges into his 50s he can still pull this kind of thing off. Tom Cruise is why you see this movie but it really has so much other great stuff going for it. Let's start with that. Obvi, SPOILERS abound from here on out, so only continue if you'd like to read about and discuss the merits of this whole film.

This is a pretty rare sci-fi film these days - it's based on a book! Hiroshi Sakurazaka's 2004 Japanese light novel, All You Need is Kill. The film Americanizes the protagonist but keeps a lot of it similar, until the ending, which I think was a little botched, but we'll get to that later. It's got plenty of elements of a classic sci-fi flick, a really reliable high concept, mech suits, monstrous looking aliens, and lots of death, action, and slightly future tech. All that junk is done really well, which helps support the story. Every bit of technology feels particularly lived-in and desperate, which may be a call to Aliens (1986), in addition to Bill Paxton's presence as a stingy Kentucky Master Sergeant.

The high concept is a twisted version of Groundhog Day (1993) where the protagonist, Tom Cruise, relives the same events over and over again stuck in a seemingly infinite loop. Groundhog Day by far isn't the only time loop movie, though (indeed, a more apt high concept comparison is surely Source Code [2011]), just the most popular and easily summarised. Whereas Bill Murray seemed to elude death in Groundhog Day, it's pushed farther here where death is essential to the continuation of the loop, which is also essential to the story. See, what Edge of Tomorrow does best is explain away tropes like this in ways that don't really feel forced, clichĂ©d, or clunky. It creates this hero's journey that really makes sense, like, of course this newbie dies his first time out. Every hero should die their first time taking the classic journey. Luke, Frodo, Don Quixote - all these idiots with no combat experience should have been killed immediately. And that's what happens to Tom Cruise. But he comes back again and again, due to the film's core conceit of the time loop.

This becomes this convenient way to express his awesomeness. He's only an incredible hero because he's had hundreds of tries to perfect the run. It's like when Cruise blows the helicopter in Mission: Impossible (1996) - wouldn't it make more sense if it was his 10th or 20th run at that and not just luck? You could say the same for any action sequence anywhere, but Edge of Tomorrow provides this neat basis for these idiots actually being capable of ridiculous feats. It actually all feels much more grounded than some other action films, possibly because there aren't any character shields anywhere - anyone can die at any time, which places this much more realistic focus to the battle scenes, where chaos rules.

This also makes the final sequence where Cruise loses his time warping powers pretty tense-ridden, although a fair criticism is how much it still resembles the choreographed runs that came before it. And this is an interesting theory that basically states that Cruise is lying to both Emily Blunt and the audience. It's a plausible  reading, but too far outside the text given to really be treated more seriously than speculation. There's a way that the film continuously tends to have its cake and eat it too - it can feel perfectly comfortable killing all its grunts and wrecking the entire world to just push reset later. Perhaps you could read it as a statement about blockbusters in general - no matter what city is destroyed, Chicago, New York, or San Francisco, there's always a reset button for the next big film. Whether it be Dark of the Moon (2011), The Avengers (2012), or Pacific Rim (2013). Speaking of The Avengers, at least the hive mind deal with the aliens makes a little bit more sense, although that's still sort of a lazy screenwriting trick. But that's neither here nor there.

Shall we go back to Tom Cruise? He's actually playing a very un-Cruise-like role, in its own way. He starts as this sort of overconfident, smug, and slimy ad exec who has somewhat unwillingly helped the Army's war effort, although he has no combat experience or training himself. He's like Jerry Maguire or Frank T.J. Macky in that he's really just a good-looking blowhard, but unlike those characters threatened with existential or family crises, he's thrown into battle and killed. It's not a role that many actors of Cruise's stature would be comfortable with - Bill Cage is a coward and frankly, a bit of a little bitch, but then he's slowly morphed, after much reluctance, to become the ultimate badass that's more in line with his image.

This is all unraveled by the ending, though, which probably should have been nailed down prior to production starting. Cruise is essentially looped one more time to the very beginning of the film, before he was demoted or met all these people spent cumulative years with learning and training. He smiles at Emily Blunt, and maybe she's the only one who would believe his story, but you've got to think that he hasn't really learned anything by zapping back to the point before he was humbled, even if his memory of becoming less of a douche is intact. His physical position in the UDF remains unchanged, which is problematic from an arc standpoint.

There's a lot more to get into conceptually here. The best the film's structure may be related to is that of a video game, which essentially resembles the "live, die, repeat" mantra of the advertising. Any video game is really a "perfect run" if you take out all the deaths that you, as the character, must face and that's really what is going on here. Let's go back to Bill Paxton - "Game Over, man!" It's an ultimate testament to the screenwriting, actually, that this instrument is very very clear, and plenty of clues are sprinkled throughout the repeated scenes so that we know exactly where things branch off and where we are without it getting too repetitive or boring. The character work in this regard is good, showing how the same characters react to slightly different or altered similar circumstances is a tough feat to pull off, and the flick rolls at an excellent pace.

I was also curious about the nature of the Mimics. One gripe I have with the direction is that you can never really get a good grasp on them and their fighting style. I'm sure that was on purpose to emulate the incredible fast, frantic nature of actually confronting these monsters, who seem to exist without any normal plane of interaction, but from a visual standpoint this simply made the fight sequences difficult to follow visually. Part of the general dimness didn't help things. But beyond the visual design of the aliens (which, even though it was hard to pin down, was certainly original and interesting), they also have these weird properties that influence the film.

The use of Alpha and Omega is obvious. Alphas are one step above the footsoldiers, and killing one / getting covered in its blood will usher in the beginning of the loop. The Omega signifies the end - the end to the war, the end to the loops, the end to the Mimics, everything. It's with some irony, then, that the destruction of the Omega sends Cruise back to the beginning of the film, although this time without the Mimic presence, so ends the narrative when it becomes devoid of conflict. It's fairly unclear how the Omega works save for "It controls time sooooooooo Cruise goes back in time different." This isn't really important to the story, though, and it's not the Omega's fault that its ending pulls the final arc out from Cruise's character development.

The visual and mechanical similarities between the UDF and Mimic forces also contain pertinent themes to discuss. It's clear that the UDF mechs, with their pop up, tentacle-like guns, increased speed, and dark coloring, resemble the Mimics they were designed to fight. It's also clear that the Mimics only win battles (or indeed, only create their entire war strategy) through a trial and error day by day fight led by their Alphas. This is also the only way that the humans win their battles, by stealing the Alphas' power. I'm not sure Emily Blunt's statement that "they let us win" was necessary to infer that the Mimics are trying to inspire hope to ensure the UDF expends all their resources, but whatever.

The point is that, only when the humans become more Mimic-like (mimic the Mimic!) is when they are successful. The perfect, adored UDF Warrior is for all purposes, a Mimic (Emily Blunt, later Tom Cruise). There's something to be said for that - that the UDF and the Mimics essentially end up with the same ideology, which ends up shifting perspectives in interesting ways. If UDF eventually copies Alpha technology (which they are on the right track to do so, thanks to that scientist dude's invention), what's to stop them from becoming the Mimics of the future and conquering subsequent worlds? Perhaps that's the true goal of the Mimics, which is to say that these things weren't even the first Mimics - the ideology of constant fighting survives and in the end, the humans aren't really different from these monsters. Dat's some shit.

The only other thing I'd like to note is that it's awesome to see one of the kids from Attack the Block (2011) show up here. Here's to John Boyega's Star Wars. Edge of Tomorrow is worth it for its humor, coherent screenplay, great acting, and lots of cool sequences. Its ending and themes may be problematic, but it certainly inspired a lot of thoughtful discussion on my part, which is more than I can really say about anything else I've seen this summer. Go for it!

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