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Entries in Edge of Tomorrow [2014] (1)

Friday
Jul042014

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

A Million Ways to Die on Groundhog Day

Though this Edge of Tomorrow review is nearly a month late, its timing couldn't be more perfect: the film's central lesson concerns perspective--the art of looking back in order to move forward. We moviegoers remain adrift in a particularly bland and fruitless stretch of Silly Season, where the box office is ruled by leftovers (and leftovers disguised as new movies). If you're of the minority who crave at least a nugget of mental stimulus in your multiplex diet, and if Doug Liman's practically forgotten sci-fi comedy/thriller is still playing near you, now's the time to get some of that summer magic back.

You're correct in thinking the latest Tom Cruise vehicle is made from wholly recycled parts: the story is Groundhog Day crossed with Saving Private Ryan; the mech suit designs were last seen in Elysium, and likely pre-date District 9; and, frankly, it's a Tom Cruise vehicle. 'Nuff said.

That's not a knock on Cruise, but it is a reminder of what audiences can expect. In the last few years, he's delivered reliably bombastic, smarter-than-necessary action films that neither push their respective genres to the next level nor make a case for them going extinct. Whatever press or personal issues the actor may wrestle with (or not wrestle with) beyond the silver screen, he's the reigning champion of Watchable Entertainment.

In this capacity, Edge of Tomorrow may be the pinnacle of his career. Playing Major William Cage, the military's most polished propagandist, Cruise exudes sparkly press-junket charm while selling an unwinnable war to a planet overrun by ruthless aliens. He doesn't know things are so dire, of course, and believes that a forthcoming Normandy offensive will turn the tide; he's also perfectly happy to receive reports of the battle, far away from its bloody shores. Unfortunately for him, his superiors have other ideas.

It would be one thing for Liman and screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth to present this preppy fish-out-of-water story straight. But after succumbing to a fatal attack (by impossibly fast monsters who look like a cross between those spidery things from The Matrix and Image Comics' The Creech), Cage awakens to find himself at the beginning of his rushed combat training. He's been given the chance to set things right and save his forces from the attack. Too bad it takes several dozen visits back to square one for him to even master his own weaponry.

Edge of Tomorrow shows us the same day countless times, through Cage's evolving perspective on his situation. He encounters a fellow soldier named Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) whose status as the military's reigning badass has much to do with her own secret history with time travel. Together, they must find a way to thwart an enemy who has already seen their every move coming--while also learning to not hate each other, and avoid going insane from the repetition.

Luckily, Liman and company keep things fresh for viewers. Just as we grow accustomed to an ever-rewinding reality, the next "life" picks up in a spot we've not yet visited--but which the characters have. Instead of being forever ahead of the story, the movie disorients us every once in awhile, to ensure our engagement in unsure developments. Don't worry: this is still a conventional summer blockbuster in many respects, down to an ending that will delight some (myself included) and frustrate others. But the journey to inevitability at least feels like an actual quest, rather than interconnected points on a writers' room white board.

My only real criticism of the film is its supporting cast. While it's always nice to see Bill Paxton on the big screen, his gruff Master Sergeant Farell is nothing more than a comic-relief doofus-cum-hardass whose main characteristic is that he's played by fan-favorite Paxton. The scruffy group of soldiers he leads, and who give Cage a solid hazing on their way to mutual slaughter, was recruited from the Cliche Division of Hollywood ROTC.

From the tomboy to the fat guy to the guy who doesn't talk and the loudmouth who eventually comes to respect the hero, there's not one character in these ranks that we haven't seen before. Worst of all, they're written and performed as second-class objects whose main purpose is to give Cruise and Blunt something to bounce off of--and for the aliens to plow through at the zero hour. For the best possible incarnation of this rabble, please see Aliens (also starring Bill Paxton, in a role seminal to his considerable geek cred).

The off bits aren't enough to kill the movie, however. This is Cruise and Blunt's show, and thank God for that. Blunt, in particular, shines as a no-nonsense warrior in a traditionally male-defined institution, who doesn't sacrifice her femininity in its service (see also her more well-rounded turn in the equally bendy Looper). She cuts a striking figure and wears a beautiful, solemn expression of resignation--which contrasts Cruise's often goofy demeanor as the guy who gets killed five minutes into battle; that he, the alleged hero, requires hundreds of re-dos to even approach her level of competence is one of the film's most satisfying (and funny) insights.

Like Cage and Vrataski, I keep reliving Edge of Tomorrow's events in my head. The movie is an oasis of ideas in the second consecutive summer of colossal multiplex time-sucks. Chalk it up to cosmic irony or alien intervention that a Tom Cruise sci-fi flick, of all things, would give me a modicum of hope for the future.