Saturday, June 7, 2014

In Theaters: EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Doug Liman. Written by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth.  Cast: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Noah Taylor, Kick Gurry, Charlotte Riley, Jonas Armstrong, Tony Way, Franz Drameh, Dragomir Mrsic, Masayoshi Haneda, Terence Maynard. (PG-13, 114 mins)

Admittedly, the trailers for EDGE OF TOMORROW didn't look promising. Based on the 2004 novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, EDGE appeared to be another chance to show Tom Cruise running around and saving the world, this time in a GROUNDHOG DAY-meets-STARSHIP TROOPERS scenario.  Yes, that's part of the plot, and the film makes no secret that it's a mash-up potpourri of other military sci-fi films. But even before it establishes its central conceit, EDGE is subverting your expectations in creative and unpredictable ways.  Yes, it fuses GROUNDHOG DAY and STARSHIP TROOPERS, and also ALIENS and WWII movies and video games and Tom Cruise running and feels like the kind of movie James Cameron might've made in the late '80s and early '90s before he publicly unleashed his inner Insufferable Asshole for all the world to see.  But it takes those elements and sends them in an unpredictable direction, and when Cruise runs, he doesn't run like a hero saving the world.  He stumbles and bumbles like a guy who's skated by on his personality and just likes wearing a uniform and whose grinning visage is all a show for the cameras. Cruise has some fun toying with his screen persona here, and that's just the beginning of the unexpected highlights that this furiously-paced, surprisingly inventive, and often quite witty sci-fi actioner has to offer.

Set five years into a Europe-based war with an alien race known as Mimics, EDGE opens with military media liaison Major William Cage (Cruise) being ordered by United Defense Forces commander Gen. Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) to act as an embedded correspondent with forces launching a massive invasion of France to hold off and defeat Mimic forces.  Known as a ubiquitous presence on cable news as the chief UDF spokesperson and PR/propaganda flack, the arrogant Cage objects to being sent into combat, and ultimately tries to blackmail Brigham by threatening to publicly blame him for any casualties in the next day's attack. An enraged Brigham has him arrested and branded a deserter, and the next day, Cage wakes to find himself on a military base, stripped of his rank, busted down to Private, and being read the riot act by gung-ho Sgt. Farrel (Bill Paxton, whose presence is an obvious nod to ALIENS).  Cage, despite almost no training and with the extent of his service being a smiling face on TV encouraging young people to join the fight, accompanies the troops on the invasion, which immediately ends in disaster:  the Mimics knew they were coming and wipe out the UDF in five minutes, including Cage and legendary warrior and the heroic face of the UDF, Sgt. Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), aka "Full Metal Bitch" and "The Angel of Verdun" after leading the first UDF victory against the Mimics at Verdun.  But then something funny happens:  Cage wakes up, back on the base, at the same starting point as the previous day.  He goes through the same botched attack again, and each time he's killed, he wakes up at the previous original point. His ability to finish everyone's sentences and predict the outcome of the UDF invasion are summarily dismissed as parlor tricks and the ravings of a coward trying to get out of military action, but during one time loop, Vrataski tells him "Find me when you wake up."  Only she knows what he's talking about and how he's reliving every day once he's "killed," and together, they try to devise a plan of attack, based on their previous failures, of defeating the Mimics in France and finding the truth behind what they are, what they're capable of doing, and why only they have experienced the time loops.

Like Sakurazaka's novel, EDGE is essentially intended to be one long video game, and it's one of the very few instances where that's meant as praise. Witness the constant "resets" from the same starting point each time Cage is "killed" and the way he and Vrataski strategize and memorize every Mimic movement during the failed invasion in order to survive and "get to the next level." Director Doug Liman (SWINGERS, GO, THE BOURNE IDENTITY) and editor James Herbert handle the potentially unwieldy time element in expert fashion.  Most impressive is the way time loops come to shockingly abrupt ends when Cage is unexpectedly killed and how, when the time loops seem to stop, we only gradually realize that Liman is only letting us see certain developments for the first time.  In other words, we discover that Cage has been living these time loops for an undetermined amount of time, and there's a subsequent implication that even the precise starting point is something that's questionable in the context of the narrative. Liman holds it together in masterful fashion, but EDGE OF TOMORROW could've easily been an incoherent mess considering the committee of writers involved and the fact that it didn't even have a finished script until shooting was about to start.  The screenplay is credited to Christopher McQuarrie (who won an Oscar for his USUAL SUSPECTS script) and Jez & John-Henry Butterworth (FAIR GAME), but the initial work was done by Dante Harper, whose original script was reworked by Joby Harold (AWAKE).  Liman tossed out most of the work done by Harper and Harold and brought in the Butterworths, whose work was then revised by Simon Kinberg (SHERLOCK HOLMES, ELYSIUM). Kinberg departed the project and Cruise pal McQuarrie (who worked with the star on VALKYRIE and JACK REACHER, two of Cruise's most underrated films, and is set to direct the next MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE entry) was brought in to write an ending and give the script one final polish.

EDGE OF TOMORROW's seemingly frozen-in-time Europe looks terrific (I skipped the 3D version) and the CGI creatures are very well-done.  It never pretends it isn't constructed on a foundation of great films that came before it, but it wastes little time in becoming its own beast. Going in expecting a by-the-numbers CGI blur, you may come away pleasantly surprised at the relatively old-school feeling of the whole thing. But that may just be part of the Cruise experience at this point.  Yes, he's a crazy Scientologist, but he's one of the few genuine movie stars left who can still draw huge audiences just on the basis of his name. For all their accolades and media ubiquity, how many blockbuster mega-hits have guys like George Clooney or Brad Pitt had?  Not many.  People don't go see "Brad Pitt movies." They go to "movies with Brad Pitt," and often, mainstream audiences don't like them (THE TREE OF LIFE, KILLING THEM SOFTLY, THE COUNSELOR). People still go see "Tom Cruise movies" regardless of what they're about. Sure, one could argue that the 51-year-old Cruise is entering the self-deprecation phase of his career with the way he slyly mocks his image here (the patented "Cruise running" shot comes very early, and it's clumsy, awkward, and hilarious), but the guy's still got it. Sure, EDGE OF TOMORROW has a couple of plot holes (at the point in the time loop where Cage and Vrataski's Jeep runs out of gas, why doesn't Cage ever consider taking some gasoline cans along with them on the next loop?) and it may suffer from coming so closely on the heels of another Cruise sci-fi epic with last year's visually stunning but somewhat empty (and seemingly already-forgotten) OBLIVION. That was another film that stood on the shoulders of giants, but unlike EDGE, didn't take things to the next level. Contrary to the ho-hum trailer and TV spots we've been seeing, EDGE OF TOMORROW is incredibly entertaining and far better than it has any right to be, and it may very well be the summer's biggest surprise.

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