Sunday, June 8, 2014

Instant Replay: EDGE OF TOMORROW

Edge of Tomorrow is an action movie with an irresistible sci-fi hook. It’s the near future and humans are fighting a war against aggressive alien invaders. The creatures are fast, brutal, and seemingly unstoppable. Europe has fallen, occupied by the spindly, insidious beasties. The forces of Earth are mobilizing for a last-ditch effort to beat back the extraterrestrial beings before it’s too late. This is all laid out for us in one of those rapid-fire news footage montages that feature real anchors delivering this fictional news with grave sincerity. One of the army’s top public relations men (Tom Cruise) is asked to chronicle the impending attack. When he’s told it’s not a request, but an order, he tires to run. He’s branded a coward and a deserter. His punishment: a spot on the front lines. It’s there that he experiences first hand the carnage of the conflict. He’s killed in action and is surprised to wake up the day before. He’s caught in a time loop.

The rest of the movie features Cruise’s fearful, inexperienced soldier gaining strength and smarts by reliving the battle over and over and over. He repeats the day, getting a better grasp on the situational tactics and big picture with each replay. He’s like a gamer getting better and better each time through a level. The invasion is a chaotic sci-fi version of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Humans wear mechanized battle suits as they land on the beach, firing off into the distance at an unseen enemy as they trudge forward. The aliens burrow under the sand, then burst forward grasping, blasting, chomping. They are biomechanical, multi-tentacle beasts that look truly otherworldly, incomprehensibly strange and self-evidently dangerous. It seems mankind’s only chance is the trial-and-error suddenly available to this one man. Again and again he dies only to be born again, ready to fight the same fight once more, but this time with a slightly better idea of what he’s in for.

Cruise is a perfect actor for this kind of role. He not only has the sympathetic hard-charging action hero role down to a science, he makes it look new each time. As a movie star who has lived through action movie carnage that’d kill a real person dozens of times over throughout his career, it’s a shock to see him die, let alone in a context that’s quickly edited for an almost comic effect at times. At one point, there’s a training montage of sorts in which he’s killed with every edit. He’s shot, stabbed, exploded, run over, squashed, chopped, and otherwise destroyed, but still he bounces up again, waking on the day before. Here his professionalism and determination grow steely through a sense of discovery that’s fun and tense. A lesser actor might let the whole project grow repetitive or wearing, but Cruise charges forward, all energy and willpower.

He meets one person who believes him, a tough soldier (Emily Blunt) who once got caught in a time loop herself a few battles back. She immediately recognizes the symptoms in him and agrees to help him. Too bad he has to reintroduce himself every day after his every death. He gets her up to speed and they set out to plan their attack like two kids who’ve lost each time through a multiplayer level and are sure this is the time they have enough information to win. They look at their blueprints and diagrams like it’s a strategy guide.

The screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, from the novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, constantly resets. Each repetition brings with it a new understanding of what needs to be done, or at least a reframing of what approaches won’t work. It’s cleverly plotted, if thinly developed. There’s not a lot to it, but what’s there is competently told. It’s all forward momentum, with the reason for the time loop tied inextricably to the way to win the war. It’s tightly wound and briskly told, no time spent on treacly backstory for our main duo, defining side-characters (played by good character actors like Brendan Gleeson and Bill Paxton) beyond their mere presences, or providing humanizing families back home. It’s lean and straight to the point.

Director Doug Liman, who, with the likes of The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, is no stranger to staging fun action scenes, gets to riff on one setpiece in a variety of ways. He moves through the hectic, gray, and muddy alien D-Day sequence multiple times from an assortment of angles. Cinematographer Dion Beebe finds fluid and exciting images that are cut together by editor James Herbert in a propulsive pace. It’s not a great action scene – it’s indistinct and often incomprehensible in its fog of war – but the variations develop smartly. I didn't feel it in my gut, but my head enjoyed the ride.

We get a little farther with some repetitions, and as the movie progresses we jump into the action at later and later points. We know Cruise and Blunt can fight their way so far. They’ve done it hundreds of times. No need to repeat every beat of the action when we can skip to right where they left off. The action is digitally enhanced rattling and battling with characters able to leap and shoot, running and gunning. Aliens flip and scuttle about, popping up and spinning around in a dance of death with the humans who slowly learn to anticipate their moves.

The movie makes smart use of its time travel mechanics. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Cruise takes advantage of his ability to predict behaviors simply because he’s quite literally been there, done that. There’s some wit in his knowledge of a multitude of possible events for any given scenario. At one point late in the movie, Blunt says, “What now?” Cruise responds, “I don’t know. We’ve never made it this far before.” Like most time travel movies, push a little and it doesn’t quite add up. But Edge of Tomorrow moves so unrelentingly quickly, features a pair of solid star performances, and features a plot-heavy script a tad smarter than you’d think. It’s a fine popcorn entertainment.

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