Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Ad Nauseum: Edge of Tomorrow

Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow

Summer blockbuster season is a polarizing time – movies showing in June and July tend to be either incredibly well-received or universally reviled. It’s difficult for a film to quietly exist in this climate, like an interesting person who goes unnoticed at a party because everyone is busy shouting. Seems as though everyone is talking about Edge of Tomorrow right now – it’s currently riding a massive wave of good press that feels amazingly at odds with its advertising, which promises a ferociously forgettable experience to any discerning moviegoer. Turns out the reality is somewhere in between: it’s nowhere near as good as you’re hearing, but it’s not as bad as you’d expect, either.

The plot is Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers: Tom Cruise plays Major William Cage (a hearty action hero name that smacks appropriately of the 1980s), a military media liason who is sent to the front lines against his will when an invading alien force annexes Europe. During the storming of a French beach, he is killed in action, but wakes up at the dawn of the previous morning. He continues to relive the same battle over and over, until he finds a legendary soldier, Rita Vratasky (played by a very taciturn Emily Blunt), who demands that he “find her when he wakes up.” Turns out this ultimate distaff supersolider, known as “The Angel of Verdun” by the media and “Full Metal Bitch” among the ranks, was afflicted with the same time-looping curse, and they must now team up to stop the alien invasion from ever occurring. If this synopsis is making you yawn, you’re not alone. The trailers for Edge of Tomorrow do an excellent job of encapsulating the aggressively formulaic plot, but they undersell the film’s real draw: a genuine sense of fun.

Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow
Edge is packed to the gills with every sci-fi trope you could name: a time-loop story, powered metal exosuits, aliens with a hive consciousness, a team of one-dimensional ragtag soldiers with one foot in the grave, an obstinate jingoistic military general, etc. etc. etc. Even the casting is uninspired: need a sci-fi action hero? A big name that’ll put some butts in some seats? Get Tom Cruise on the horn! The strength of the movie, and what I believe is generating the aforementioned praise, is that it manages to engage with humour and energy despite this complete lack of originality. The dialogue is quick and biting, and the way Cage deals with reliving the same day over and over leads to some very satisfying (if predictable) hijinks. Unfortunately, it doesn’t distinguish itself in any other notable way. Elysium (2013) was a film with many of the same elements (SF future, big name star, powered metal suits, etc.) that, while hobbled by a sophomoric script, justified itself through some careful world-building, a strong supporting cast, gut-punching action, and indelible visual imagery. Edge has these things, but when watered-down to a PG-13 their effect is tepid. At least Edge doesn’t include an inexplicably awful Jodie Foster, who marble-mouths her way around awkward, moustache-twirling dialogue. I am in fact rather thrilled that Edge’s screenwriters resisted the urge to include a comically-malevolent villain; some species of psychotic in a well-cut suit played by Jeremy Irons or the like. There’s no real antagonist at all to speak of in Edge, except for the invading aliens and the time-puzzle at the centre of the plot, and that level of focus is refreshing.

Tom Cruise is being lauded for his performance here, and rightly so: he can absolutely still carry an action feature on his own, largely due to his willingness to embrace self-referential humour (and the fact that Cage is a fairly ageless character – it doesn’t matter to the plot if he’s 22 or 52). He continues to display the earnest enthusiasm and hard-working attitude that have become his trademarks, performing – as he almost always has – all of his own stunts. Emily Blunt is earning praise for her turn as Vratasky, mostly because she fills a role that would traditionally be written as male (the supersoldier: heroic, invincible, and legendary for their prowess in battle, used as a propaganda vehicle by the government, and inevitably jaded as a result; an SF variant on the Living Legend hero trope – see The Hunger Games, Pirates of the Caribbean, Up, True Grit, The Wizard of Oz, etc. ad nauseum). She does strike a few Ellen Ripley poses in the first half, giving me hope that Vratasky might turn out to be an actually valid or interesting character. But in the second half she’s reduced to “Tom Cruise Love Interest #482” and her chances at establishing a sense of independence or legitimacy as a character are halved, if not obliterated entirely. Her storyline is hitched to Cage’s once she begins training him and she follows along from there like a well-armoured puppy in his action-hero wake. Disappointing, to say the least, and disconcerting when taken alongside the positive media attention this role is attracting. Blunt looks undeniably cool slicing up aliens with a giant Final Fantasy-style sword, though, I have to give them that.

Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow
I wondered at multiple points if the movie would work better in literary form, because I think the shift from screen to page might lend some visceral oomph to the time-looping gimmick (what would it really feel like to die, over and over again?), and probably give Cage’s character some vulnerability and distinctiveness. Unfortunately it’s pretty much impossible for Tom Cruise to believably play anything other than This Summer’s Action Hero Protagonist, which is due more to his super-stardom than his actual talent (of which there seems to be untapped reserves yet to burn). To my surprise, it turns out that Edge is indeed based on a Japanese novella called All You Need Is Kill (which was the film adaptation’s original title, discarded in favour of Edge of Tomorrow for WASPish paranoia-related reasons). I haven’t read it, but I can only imagine that these elements are more fleshed-out on those pages than they are onscreen – in the film, they’re just another sci-fi trope the filmmakers would rather we not think about too closely.

I think the outpouring of support for this film – the same huge volume of word-of-mouth buzz that eventually pushed me through the box office doors – is a symptom of relief. People seem to be amazed that this film, which looked utterly mediocre in the trailers, isn’t actually terrible. I wonder, though: is that enough? In the tepid heat of summer blockbuster season, is a movie being “not terrible” enough to completely validate it (or if not that, at least generate the kind of positive scuttlebutt Edge is currently enjoying)? With films this formulaic you expect a certain level of lassitude, but Edge can’t be called lazy, whatever its faults. I’m happy that it wasn’t bad, but I’m still disappointed that it wasn’t more than that. So take the gossip with a grain of salt: Edge isn’t the Oblivion you expect it to be, but it’s not the Aliens you hope it would be either. It’s just a perfectly palatable way to waste a beautiful summer afternoon.

Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently working as a Development Tester at Ubisoft Toronto.

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