Friday, June 6, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow: Sharp sci-fi thrills

Edge of Tomorrow (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for intense sci-fi action and violence, profanity and fleeting nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.6.14

Think Groundhog Day on steroids.

This is slick and suspenseful action sci-fi, fueled by an intriguing premise and pulse-pounding momentum courtesy of director Doug Liman and editor James Herbert. Veteran scripter Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Jack Reacher) and colleagues Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth clearly have shaped their narrative to fit star Tom Cruise’s outsized presence, but not in the way that one might expect (at least, not until the final act).

As Cage (Tom Cruise, center) listens, his confusion mounting, Carter (Noah Taylor) and
Vrataski (Emily Blunt) explain that the thousands upon thousands of ferocious "Mimic"
warriors should be regarded as mere appendages of a single controlling hive-mind. Well
and good, but where does that leave our outnumbered and overwhelmed Earth forces?
Like many action stars before him, Cruise has been “handling” his advancing age — 52 and counting — by ignoring it completely. In fairness, he has done a pretty good job of that, relying on muscular feats such as scrambling up the side of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, with the élan of a stuntman half his age.

Cruise also has a couple of signature stunts that apparently get written into all of his scripts: You can always count on at least one scene where an explosion savagely hurls him from one end of the screen to the other; and another scene that involves surviving a lengthy fall and a bone-crunching thump as he lands on his back, his pain-contorted features conveniently facing the camera.

You’ll find both stunts in this film, as well.

But I come not to bury Cruise, but to praise him; the march of time notwithstanding, he makes such brawny hokum work. More to the point, Edge of Tomorrow plays against Cruise’s usual role as the smartest and most capable person in the room, in this case making the signature ear-splitting grin and Mr. Slick aura work against the character in question. That’s both unexpected and clever, not to mention rather savvy on Cruise’s part; it makes both him and the film that much more interesting.

Edge of Tomorrow started life as All You Need Is Kill, a 2004 sci-fi novel by Japanese author Hiroshi Sakurazaka and illustrator Yoshitoshi ABe. The futuristic setting finds Earth under siege by an invading alien armada of ferocious biomechanical “Mimics” that seem able to overcome anything we can throw at them (and, rather unfortunately for this big-screen adaptation, bear a striking resemblance to the nastier Decepticons in the Transformers movie franchise).

Sakurazaka’s protagonist is a ground-level grunt in the United Defense Force. Taking an entirely different approach, Cruise stars as Maj. William Cage, a smooth-talking military glad-hander who has called upon his previous experience as an advertising exec, to orchestrate the gung-ho PR campaign that has made so many young men and women eager to don battle armor and die for the global cause.

Cage has been careful, however, to ensure that dying is something for other people; he wants nothing to do with the front-line assault that has been mounted against the otherworldly invaders that have captured all of Western Europe. Unfortunately, Cage unwisely irritates a four-star general — Brendan Gleeson, perfectly cast as the dour Brigham — who has no patience for smug “bystanders.”

Next thing Cage knows, he has been branded a deserter, sent to the aforementioned front lines — in handcuffs — and assigned to the dysfunctional J Squad overseen by spit-and-polish Sgt. Farell (Bill Paxton, deliciously, mockingly stern). Things go from bad to worse the very next day, when Cage and the rest of J Squad get dumped into the thick of battle.

A battle that the United Defense Force clearly expected to win, but — to all appearances — the aggressive Mimics are ready for the assault. More than ready, actually; they somehow seem to have positioned themselves to inflict maximum damage to the human warriors.

Cage, not having the slightest idea how to use or even properly wear his weapon-laden exo-suit, doesn’t last long. Ironically, he perishes fairly nobly ... but he does perish.

And then wakens with an adrenaline-laden shock on the previous day, once again getting humiliated by the oh-so-insincerely patient Farell. Everything unfolds as before, Cage submitting to his approaching demise with dread, too baffled to do otherwise. And things end just as badly, and he once again wakens the previous day.

This time, however, he begins to notice that different actions can lead to subtly different results.

Eventually, Cage’s behavior catches the attention of Sgt. Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a seasoned warrior dubbed the “Angel of Verdun” for her Mimic-defeating heroics in previous battles. Truth be told, Vrataski prefers the cruder moniker — Full Metal Bitch — by which fellow grunts know her. To Cage’s astonishment, Vrataski apparently understands what he’s going through.

Cue the obligatory Scientific Explanation — as the same previous day once again unfolds, but this time quite differently — when Vrataski takes Cage to a “disgraced” military physicist (Noah Taylor) who explains that the Mimics have been so successful because they have the ability to manipulate time: just a little, but more than enough. If they lose a key battle, they reverse the clock 24 hours, now knowing what to expect, and thus do better the next time ... and better still, the time after that.

As many times as it takes.

Through sheer caprice, Cage has “inherited” this ability, and the time-loop now is his to control ... although — and here’s the grotesque detail — this “instant replay” kicks in only when he dies. Vrataski knows this, because she previously held the same talent — until losing it just as mysteriously — and it allowed her, for awhile, to become unstoppable in battle.

All well and good, but so what? Unlike Vrataski, Cage is the world’s least likely warrior, a former white-collar twit who’d faint at the sight of a paper cut. Even granted an endless loop of 24-hour days, what can he accomplish in so short a time ... particularly when he knows that he must die, invariably in agony, in order to start anew?

The resulting narrative plays out with an engaging blend of action, tension and gallows humor, with Sakurazaka’s core narrative lifting elements from all sorts of sci-fi and fantasy predecessors: the aforementioned Groundhog Day, Starship Troopers, TV’s Falling Skies, Orson Scott Card’s short story “A Thousand Deaths” and Ken Grimwood’s novel Replay (and I recommend investigating the latter two).

Cruise is terrific as the terrified protagonist, the actor’s smarmy polish utterly useless in these horrific surroundings, as Cage’s feeble attempts at self-preservation serve only to annoy everybody in his orbit. We chuckle despite ourselves, almost (almost) forgetting that our entire planet is at stake, as this poor guy tries to make sense of his ghastly situation, invariably getting skewered, strafed, squashed, shot and otherwise slaughtered.

Blunt is persuasive as the tough-as-nails Vrataski: no small feat, since the diminutive actress’ slight frame — she shares her 5-foot-7 height with Cruise — makes her an unlikely match for such formidable adversaries. Blunt nonetheless carries it off, Vrataski’s cool-headed battle expertise and impatient irritation a droll complement to Cage’s frantic anxiety.

Paxton is a hoot as the patronizing, heard-it-all-before Farell, and Taylor makes the most of his disheveled theoretical physicist persona. The J Squad half-dozen don’t get much of a chance to establish distinct personalities, and therefore are known mostly by appearance, such as the overweight Kimmel (Tony Way), who takes the phrase “going commando” a bit too seriously; the defensive Ford (Franz Drameh), likely a “reformed” street thug; and the token women, Nance (Charlotte Riley), with broken nose and browned teeth.

The flat-out-scary Mimics come courtesy of visual effect supervisor Nick Davis, whose team makes them impressively nasty. And relentless. And seemingly unstoppable. And damn sneaky, with an ability to pop up unexpectedly, which Liman utilizes throughout the entire film, leaving us viewers a quivering mass of nervous tension, while waiting for the next sound effects-laden gotcha to send us clawing for the ceiling.

That said, Davis may have done his job too well. As presented, the Mimics really do seem unbeatable and invulnerable, not to mention so numerous as to render any resistance less than futile. They’re simply too fast and too powerful: far beyond the speed of human reaction, particularly within the bulky, clunky confines of an exo-suit.

So, OK; we gloss over that little detail. Liman, Cruise, Blunt and the scripters build up enough good will to earn forbearance.

I’m less willing to tolerate a climax and epilogue that are ... well, unsatisfying. I shall refrain from specifics, not wanting to be found guilty of spoilers; I shall instead refer the curious to William Goldman’s marvelous 1983 dissection of Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade, and specifically to pages 30-38 of the first-edition Warner Books hardcover. The message therein is as relevant today as it was when written, 30 years ago, and 30 years before that.

To a degree, we can excuse these issues as endemic to sci-fi blockbusters, while also acknowledging that it’s difficult to keep a firm hold on time-travel plots; pesky inconsistencies invariably get caught by Those Who Watch Carefully. Credit Liman, then, with doing his best to conceal such problems with his patented momentum; this is the guy who re-ignited the Jason Bourne franchise, not to mention selling the often silly spy hijinks of Mr. & Mrs. Smith. After the latter, getting us to accept this futuristic thriller is a walk in the park.

Edge of Tomorrow is audacious, impressively mounted, well cast and choreographed with energetic snap: a perfectly reasonable recipe for a solid summer hit.

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