Friday, June 13, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Edge of Tomorrow is a sci-fi film based on a Japanese novel called All You Need Is Kill, by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. I haven't read the book, but I did see the movie, and it was surprisingly good.

Invading aliens have taken over much of Europe. Tom Cruise plays Major William Cage, sent to the frontline in France, where the fighting (reminiscent of the beach landing from Saving Private Ryan) doesn't go in the direction everyone had hoped. With everyone dying around him, Cage...also dies. The difference is he wakes back up, finding himself stuck in a time loop, repeating the previous day over again until he dies, then repeating the previous day over again until he dies, then repeating the previous day over again until he dies, etc.

Everything I knew about this movie made me not want to watch it. I'm generally not a fan of Tom Cruise. The mechanized suits looked like a lame attempt to shove something resembling robots into the movie. The poster said it was directed by the guy who made Mr. and Mrs. SmithThe movie as a whole looked like a dumb, generic action movie.

But, just like Oblivion (2013) turned out to be much better than the trailers implied, this was actually quite a good movie.

First of all, and most importantly, as it is the focus of more than half of the movie, the time loop aspect was handled very well. To be clear, Cage is in control of himself the entire time, he just keeps waking up in the same place at the same original time. Also, the aliens are inadvertently responsible for the loop, this isn't one of those movies where it just randomly happens.

Usually, a big studio movie like this would dumb things down so much that they didn't even make sense anymore. But much of this movie actually involved the characters using logic to find ways to exploit the time loop. It also did a great job of keeping thing from getting tedious when we are seeing the same events over and over, while at the same time showing Cage's frustration at having to keep going through it. 

I was afraid there would be times when I would say "why would X say/do the exact same thing every time if Cage changed what he did up to that point?" Well, that did happen, but it wasn't bad enough to bother me too much. Cage planning intricate moves during the battle he keeps re-experiencing based on knowing what is going to happen wouldn't work, because every little thing he did differently each time would influence everyone around him in increasingly dramatic ripples. Before he even got to the battle, everyone would be doing everything differently, so the idea that he knows exactly when to sidestep to avoid getting killed once he gets there obviously doesn't hold up. But everything dealing with that is minor enough that, while I would have preferred they handled things more realistically, it didn't detract from the movie too much, and it made for some interesting situations.

It helps that, while unfortunately ignoring logic in that aspect of the time loop, the movie does explore many other interesting angles. This is a movie that will make you think--not in the sense of trying to figure out what is happening, but in an imagination-sparking way. There are so many directions the story could have gone in, and it satisfies in all the directions it does go in. It also exploits the fact that Cage knows what people are going to do, and that he knows he will just wake up again if he dies, to great humorous effect. It was a much funnier movie than I expected.

As I stated before, I'm not usually a fan of Tom Cruise, but I actually liked him here. Right from the beginning, I liked that they made his character kind of a dick. But what made it work was that he didn't phone it in like a lot of actors do in movies like this. He played a character, and maintained that character throughout the movie. Granted, there wasn't a lot for him to do on a character front once the movie really got going, because the focus was just stopping the aliens. But there were enough little moments showing how his character is not the typical brave, ultra-competent hero of most action movies. He's not just a dick, he's kind of a coward too.

Emily Blunt plays Rita Vrataski, a legendary, seemingly indestructible soldier. It's not spoiling anything to say that the reason for her reputation is that she previously experienced a time loop of her own, so she knew exactly what to do to survive an earlier big fight, and she now has tons of experience fighting the aliens. When Cage finds this out, he keeps going to her, first to find a way to get rid of the loop, then to find out how to use it to prevent everyone from being killed by the aliens.

I've only seen Blunt in a few movies, never playing a badass, but she totally pulls it off here. I love the fact that the main character is kind of an ass, and what would normally be a more stereotypical action hero character is a woman (and much more convincing than one played by Angelina Jolie). The relationship between the two of them is very entertaining, and thankfully isn't a forced romance.

The mech suits actually felt practical in the movie, and were just another interesting element to the story. Before the time loop came in, the military angle, mech suits, and deployment/dropship scenes gave me a strong Starship Troopers vibe (the book, not the movie), which is cool. In print, I'm a big fan of military science fiction, but this is the only movie in the sub-genre that I've liked since Aliens, which was itself heavily influenced by Starship Troopers.

The aliens are interesting at first because of how they move and fight, but once you get a good look at them, their actual design is very disappointing. They look far too similar to Earth creatures and simply aren't interesting visually. They use projectile weapons, although we only actually see them firing them in a couple of shots, but I also would have liked to have seen them use some kind of ships or vehicles during combat. I suppose it is true that they probably couldn't have brought any with them based on how they arrive, but it would have been easy to come up with a solution to that problem story-wise. It doesn't make a ton of sense that their main tactic is to fight up close.

There isn't much to say about the technical aspects of the movie. Apart from some of the action toward the end, everything is shot pretty clearly and competently. There are a couple of long shots of the repeating battle that are visually interesting but distract from the flow of the movie when everything else is focused on Cage. The only time I noticed the music it was a bit groanworthy, but otherwise completely inconspicuous.

The CGI was surprisingly well handled. Usually, big movies like this end up looking like cartoons (I'm looking at you, Godzilla). While the all-CG creatures still don't look great, and there are a few shots toward the end with a clearly CG Tom Cruise, this isn't one of those movies where you stop caring about what's happening because none of it feels real. For the most part, Edge of Tomorrow holds to a sense of realism and keeps things believable. It also shows a pleasing restraint when it comes to how the camera is used in the big action scenes. When everything is CGI, filmmakers all too often break the film's hold over the viewer by suddenly making the camera do ridiculous things that don't add anything to the movie and yank you right out of it. This movie thankfully retains the same style used in all the other scenes.

Once the time loop came in, the movie became very engaging and thought provoking, but of course it couldn't last forever or I would still be there in the theater watching it. It was interesting how, once Cage was out of the loop (which we realize when it happens), the tension heightened. He had died so many times already, but death not being the end, there was nothing to really worry about. But once he's out, he only has one more chance to get things right. And after seeing him die so many times, we know how easily it could happen, and it feels like he could die again at any moment.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn't maintain its level of engagement after that point. The story goes from the characters trying to figure out how to use the time loop to stop the aliens to just the characters trying to stop the aliens. Since we're still following characters we have grown to like, the movie should still be interesting, but the tension it built up is quickly diminished by action scenes that are too over the top compared to what's come before, and a shift from character focus to plot focus. The aliens were always more of a background threat up to this point, with the time loop itself being the problem the characters needed to solve and manipulate. The aliens don't have anything in the way of personality, so it's much less interesting when everything about the story starts to revolve around the characters reacting to the aliens instead of reacting to each other. It would be going to far too say the movie falls apart, but it does lose its momentum.

As if that weren't bad enough, the ending is by far the worst aspect of the movie. I won't give it away, but I will say that it doesn't make any sense. At first I thought maybe I just missed something, but from talking to people about it and reading people's reactions online, it seems it was exactly what I thought. I've read explanations that could make sense, but all of them involve people bringing in information that wasn't in the movie to find a way to explain it. The ending doesn't make sense based on what is in the movie. Even worse, the way it plays out suggests so many preferable directions they could have chosen.

And then the end credits play over an absolutely terrible song choice.

Apart from some minor things, the ending is the only thing keeping me from loving this movie. Even so, everything that did work was so good that I still highly recommend this movie. I would compare it to Inception in many ways. Both are action movies with plots dependent on the rules of a sci-fi scenario. Both explore different aspects of their scenarios in intriguing ways that make you think about what else would be possible within those scenarios. Both aggravatingly break the rules they have set up at some point, but everything else works so well that that doesn't become a dealbreaker like it would in most movies.

It's a shame that good, standalone scifi movies like this and Oblivion get overshadowed by sequels to big franchises that almost inevitably end up disappointing. If you like science fiction that doesn't pander, do yourself a favor and check this one out.

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