Friday, June 6, 2014

And I'm hanging on a moment with you


Groundhog Day meets Aliens meets Saving Private Ryan meets the parts of the Halo games where I got frustrated and went back to headshotting n00bs with my BR in multiplayer.  But this is, with some caveats, very good.

Directed by Doug Liman
Written by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth (based on the novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka)
With Tom Cruise (Bill Cage) and Emily Blunt (Rita Vrataski)

Spoiler alert: high

Okay, I'll go ahead and cop: I was a strike commander.


Anyway, here's Edge of Tomorrow, and I'd love to say the worst thing about it is the unforgivable decision made by Warner's soulless executives to change the name from the wonderful All You Need Is Kill to a title that could only be more blandly generic if it were also less prosaically descriptive.  All that title is good for is tenuous puns based on Lady Gaga lyrics; not bad, but we can all agree it's less than compelling.

Unfortunately, that isn't the worst thing about Edge of Tomorrow; the worst thing about it is that the title stops being descriptive with thirty more minutes of movie yet to go.  But that's getting ahead.  When you relive this review, it will make more sense.

Despite some outward appearances, Tomorrow is not the long-awaited Halo movie, although it might as well have involved the Flood: in the not too distant future, an alien species with perfectly adaptive tactics, dubbed "Mimics," have landed in Europe.  The death toll is probably extremely high, since we don't hear tell of any German, French, or Italian soldiers in the United Defense Force, the world army raised to retake the infested continent with their brilliant combination of senseless human wave attacks and more senseless human wave attacks.

Obviously, the one single thing that you must forget when going into Edge of Tomorrow is that nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, and airplanes exist, and are more effective in cursing any chosen patch of Earth than however many thousands of individual guys and gals suited up in power armors that give them each the firepower, mobility, and protection of approximately 1/10th of a main battle tank.  This is important, because otherwise you don't get to enjoy a movie about folks in robot suits shooting the squids from Europa Report.  And that would be a shame.

Not that you'd ever be able to tell, but the novel was Japanese.

Tom Cruise plays a character not named Jack for once, but could be: he's Major Bill Cage, a smooth-talking coward from media relations, whose reaction to being sent to the front lines is so panicked and insubordinate he finds himself delivered to Heathrow in chains and busted down to private, just in time to take part in the invasion of Normandy (bon anniversaire).  Since the UDF is run purely on the basis of spite, they gussy him up with his own suit of multi-million dollar armor that he has not the first idea how to operate, and in short order he's dropped onto the beach.  It's a massacre.  He dies.  Then he wakes upyesterday.

Numerous obvious and terrible reference jokes suggest themselves, but suffice it to say that the part of Andie MacDowell is played by Emily Blunt.  However, instead of a reasonable human being perceived by our sociopathic protagonist as a bossy bitch, Blunt's Rita Vrataski is a murder machine.  Her statuesque, easy-to-Photoshop good looks, along with her many killing frenzies, have led to her face and be-meched body being plastered over every available surface for recruiting purposes.

And still, I'm not seeing it.  That's cross-cultural adaptation for you, I guess.

In a fortunate twist, however, her martial prowess was itself a cheat: when Cage, on his nth day on the beach, saves her, she recognizes his powerthe power she once had, stolen from the Mimics when she bathed in one's blood, but lost when her blood was drained, her life spared only by a transfusion.  (Do not think about this for a second, because it makes less than no sense, in the same way that antimatter is not just the absence of matter.)

"But if his time power is in his blood, and he goes back to yesterday, when he doesn't have time blood, then"
"I said don't think about it.  You will explode."

Vrataski trains Cage in the finer points of combat, he uses his clairvoyance to keep her alive from surprise threats, and they team up to find and kill the Gravemind.  (Not even, really, a joke.)

Cruise has been widely praised for having an actual arc in this movie.  Rightly so: though Cage's evolution from zero to hero is simple, as given form by Cruise it is also impeccable.  Cage starts with nothing but Cruise's charm, now emptied of any charisma, until the endless crucible of combat and the hammer of Blunt's warrior woman forge him into the superhuman he was always destined to be.  The miracle of the time loop is that Edge of Tomorrow can do this without the faintest hint of any vile Chosen One nonsense in the story itselfat least once past the unequivocal metanarrative fact that the protagonist is, after all, Tom Cruise.

No, being an action hero in Tomorrow is hard work and, like the Mavericks and Cole Trickles of old, Cage earns it.  In this regard, it's just likeand I'd love to avoid saying it again, but it is impossibleGroundhog Day itself.  Thanks to Cruise, and to Doug Liman's deliberate pace, we can feel the days of Cage's years shaping him into something differentbetterthan he ever could have dreamed of being before.

And, having seen Bill Murray's 99.4% explosion-free comedy, Liman and his writers have not forgotten that time loops are also inherently hilarious.  This holds true, even in the midst of an apocalyptic war.

Tomorrow even comes close enough to matching the black comedy of Phil Connors' endless attempts at suicide with its scenes of Vrataski shooting Cage in the head whenever it's convenient (or whenever she's bored).  These scenes would probably work without any help from the director at all, but Liman and editor James Herbert must be applauded for a montage that is simply expertly-timed, killing Cage twenty times in a row, faster and faster, moving inexorably from humor to something approaching outright horrorwith not a single discordant note.  This sequence is the film's signature triumph, but its subtler achievement is even more startling: Liman and Hebert manage to convey confusion and desperation without ever forcing either onto the audience.  This is no mean feat in any modern action film, but it's especially credited here (though that credit must be shared with the screenwriters), as we see but the minutest fraction of Cage's never-ending battle.  It could have been easy to get lost in it.

Tomorrow could, therefore, wind up being the single best-edited big action movie this year.  It's only in the climax, when everybody seemed to have stopped caring, that cognizable geography and elegant composition in time finally go out the window.

Before we get into that, let's jump backha-hato Blunt.  Against any lesser actor she would absolutely own the movie; she still winds up dominating half her scenes with Cruise.  Not just emotionally.

Cruise is probably the easiest male star in existence for an actress to equal (or exceed) in stature, but you'd only occasionally guess it from the way his movies are shot and staged.  If Cruise ever returns to his customary control of the vertical upon the completion of his hero's journey, I missed it; Blunt, who at 5'7" is not a giantess, yet demonstrably Cruise-sized, is permitted to tower over him in frame after frame.

Sometimes it's not very subtle about it.

This is canny filmmaking: since our conditioning makes us perceive Cruise as much bigger than he really is, it's natural to perceive Blunt here as a genuine colossus.  Costume design plays its part as well.  In actuality, Blunt is emphatically no Zoe Bell.  Nonetheless, thanks to good costuming decisions, she fills out a military uniform in a properly physically menacing way.  (And fair is fair: she appears to have beefed up considerably for the part.)

Rita Vrataski is not a role for the agesit's largely anger alternating with stoicism, with notes of humanitybut it is the quintessential stuff of action heroism.  Short of three seconds' worth of an out-of-the-blue romantic gesture that feels just as forced as it really, really is, Blunt sells it completely.  And with few exceptions like that one, Tomorrow lets her sell it without undermining her with needless sexualization.  The other big exception is, obviously, her first meeting with Cage, which comes distressingly close to reading less as the interruption of a workout routine and more as a failure to respect wartime masturbation etiquette.

And we get to see it three times, wherein it shifts from admittedly hot, to unintentionally funny, to just awkwardly weird.

Also I'm not terribly keen on the fact she exposes her face in combat, while her anonymous extra squadmates get to wear really rad helmets with freakin' skulls on 'em.  Of course, this is just the same see-the-actor-act bullshit you've been inoculated to by thousands of exposures to the same dumb trope.  (They even make a joke about it in this very movie.)

So, I've not had a real unkind word to say about Edge of Tomorrow... but, then, we just got to the third act.  Cage bleeds too much magic blood, and with the loss of his power the movie bleeds out right along with him.  Though the stars' acting carries the day, you do realize how vitally this movie depends on the gimmick.  Without that gimmick, the realization hits you how schematic and kind of dull this alien war story otherwise is.  But it gets a bit worse than that: other than Cruise and Blunt themselves, the final battle loses everything else that had made the beach landing so cinematically stimulating.  Note especially a botched pair of shots that portentously reveals the unpinned pins of a half-dozen now-active grenadesthat we've already seen be armed and dropped.  Who does that?

Then there's the actual ending of the film, which I presume everyone involved would really like to loop back and try to get right, because even if it is the best-played possible version of itselfeven if it is, in its own way, adequateit is also the biggest, stupidest cheat ending I've seen in recent memory.  This contemtible rook is all the more galling because it was only one revision away from the bleakest Goddamned thing you would have ever seen in your life.

In other words, a great ending.  Edge of Tomorrow has no such thing.  As it stands, it's well worth experiencing in the theaterbut, unfortunately, not time and time again.

Score:  7/10