Friday, June 13, 2014

Movie review: "Edge of Tomorrow" is a deeper action movie

            I don’t think it coincidental that Edge of Tomorrow was released in the U.S. on the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
            Let me explain: Edge of Tomorrow, adapted from Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s 2004 light novel, All You Need is Kill (I know, weird title), begins with a montage of news coverage—both fake and real-life—of aliens crashing into Germany and beginning a full-scale war against humanity. We’ve only just begun to actually fight back against these aliens, dubbed Mimics, thanks to that well-known sci-fi trope called armored power-suits. By the time the film actually starts, the United Defense Forces have planned an endgame called Operation Downfall, where the UDF will work together to basically box in the Mimics in Europe with the aid of Russian and Chinese forces.
            Now think about it: an enemy from Germany that completely sweeps most of Europe and has been unstoppable. To continue the WWII parallels, the plot really begins in London, where the UDF is holding the Mimics at the English Channel. The UDF is supposed to invade France, and to top it off even further, the battle itself strongly resembles the Invasion of Normandy; establishing shots have airships flying over a gray beachfront, dropping soldiers into the thick of it. We follow the soldiers as they fall to earth and as they march into a hellish crossfire against a faraway enemy. Foxholes also appear as precious cover against the merciless onslaught.
            If nothing else, these opening scenes are a nice little homage to one of history’s most famous battles and a great visual touch. But beyond that, Edge of Tomorrow fights its own very different war. That war is fought by Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), an American officer and UDF spokesman who has never seen a day of combat in his life. That doesn’t stop General Brigham (a literal stiff-upper-lipped Brendan Gleeson) from sending him to the front lines to cover the invasion. One ill-attempted escape later and Cage is sent to Heathrow Airport under the command of Master Sergeant Farell, a funny-as-all-get-out Bill Paxton. Seriously, you can’t help but laugh every time the dude shows up.
            Despite his best efforts, Cage is sent to the front lines, and director Doug Liman treats the battle as a losing affair: Soldiers die frequently, many from the gyrating masses of tendrils that are the Mimics. The musical score and the shaky camera reflect Cage’s confusion and the soldiers’ desperation. Cage manages one kill before a blue-hued Alpha Mimic assaults him. A quickly-grabbed mine kills the Alpha but also Cage. The camera lingers on his burned-out face covered in Alpha blood…
            …and then jump cuts back to Cage waking up at Heathrow Airport the day before the invasion, screaming. He figures out that he’s stuck in a time loop that resets his day every time he dies. He eventually grows into a better soldier going through the loop. Then he encounters the highly-decorated Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), also known amongst soldiers as the “Fullmetal Bitch” (Dang). Turns out she went the same thing that Cage is going through and together, they resolve to decide make Cage even better so that they can escape the loop and end the Mimic threat.
            This is actually a deviance from the original novel, which was more of a character study of the two warriors. The film probably would have been more interesting if it centered more on Cage and Rita’s relationship than on them trying to escape their fate. Still, the script is a fine one, not slowing down because of the loop and even surprising when it becomes clear that Cage has already experienced the events unfolding. To give the writers further credit, they give Cage and Rita a few quiet moments in-between the fights to further develop them. Which is good, because Rita struck me as a flat character in contrast to Cage, who goes slowly from a smooth-talking coward to a tenacious and confident warrior.
Cruise handles Cage's character development very well while not rushing it, and Blunt embodies Rita’s extreme toughness very well while giving us subtle hints at a much more sensitive interior. Together, they form an unrelenting team in some slick and thrilling action scenes, with Rita brandishing a sword that will be familiar to Final Fantasy VII fans.
            With all this dying going on, you might think Edge of Tomorrow is too serious for its own good. Fortunately, there’s enough comedy peppered here and there to balance it out. In addition to Paxton’s one-liners, Cruise keeps Cage just green enough to warrant some funny reactions. This, when paired next to Blunt’s Rita, leads to one hilarious conversation between the two. One of my favorite moments is after Cage has looped a few times. He’s getting the hang of his suit, he’s courageously running toward the enemy, the music swells to that victorious heroic tune…and then Cage gets run over by a truck! (He does learn, of course.)
            While the writing is good throughout the film, I had mixed feelings about the ending. I won’t spoil it, but I will say it is a happy ending. And that’s the problem. On the one hand, after what Cage and Rita go through, you might think they deserve a happy ending. On the other hand, I felt that the ending devalued everything the story was about, which is perseverance, maturing into a better person, and overcoming great odds. And frankly, I also thought the writers (or the studio executives) just pulled it out of their rear ends. I’ll leave that up to the viewers to judge.
            In the end, Edge of Tomorrow did something I thought I’d never do: Call an action movie “heartfelt”. It didn't exactly tug at my heartstrings, but I found myself actually becoming more attached to the characters and their struggle. And in an age of bigger and flashier blockbusters, characters you can feel for are a rare and welcome thing.

Final rating: 8 bags of popcorn out of 10. Director: Doug Liman. Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth. Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, and Brendan Gleeson.