Thursday, June 5, 2014

Film Review: Edge of Tomorrow

Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once." -William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

I remember last year going in to see World War Z with low expectations and coming out incredibly satisfied.

Edge of Tomorrow is this year's World War Z.  Both movies have A-List movie stars in an action-intensive non-sequel unlike anything in theaters at the time.  I've written before about the diminishing power of the movie star, but Cruise shines brightly in this film.

The story takes place in the next few years.  An alien race we've deemed the "mimics" have invaded Germany and have been moving outward ever since.  After a victory at Verdun led by Rita Vratski (Emily Blunt), Earth has rallied together a global defense force to invade France and hold them off.  Tom Cruise plays Major William Cage, a slimy PR exec who got called up to duty and has been doing propaganda for the human army.  When he is ordered to film the invasion from the front lines, he tries to escape like the coward that he is.  As a result he is forced into a forward division to fight where it is worst.  He is thrown in with J-Squad, a group of losers and misfits that hate the deserter Cage.

I don't want to give away too much more, but something happens to Cage during the invasion that causes him to die and awaken a 24 hours earlier to relive the day again.  And again.  And again.  Rita Vratski is also at the invasion and when she figures out what is happening to him, she tells him to "Find me when you wake up."  After dies and is reset he finds Rita where she reveals that the same thing happened to her, but she lost the power.  She then is determined to use Cage's ability to destroy the alien threat.

Movies with repeated scenarios are not that easy to pull off.  Do it wrong and the audience will get bored and frustrated, like many were with the movie Vantage Point.  But director Doug Liman knows how to give you enough of the same visual repetition to get the feeling across without it feeling like you are just spinning your wheels.  He knows when to repeat the formula and when to change it up.

Another advantage the movie has is its visual spectacle.  I don't simply mean the special effects.  But I very much enjoyed the style and look of the movie.  It was filmed like a World War II film but with super-mech suits and aliens, like a Saving Private Ryan feel populated with Starcraft tech.  Liman was smart to make the human technology awesome and exciting but feel worn and lived in.  The aliens are devoid of any real personality, which many see as a drawback in movies like The Avengers.  But while they are not personal, they are fascinating.  I loved the ideas about why the mimics have such an easy time defeating us and how they are connected to Cage.

Perhaps smarter viewers will have an easier time seeing the turns that the story takes.  And sadly some of the nicer surprises in store are placed front and center in the trailers.  But I found the shifting directions quiet delightful.  Liman and his screenwriters understood that a clever plot device is not enough to carry a movie.  He slowly ratchets up the stakes and the tension.  As the movie progresses, the challenges get heavier.  By the time he got to the 3rd act I was truly nervous for the characters.  In most movies, it is easy to doubt that any real harm will come to the main heroes.  But Edge of Tomorrow puts them in such peril that I really didn't know as we went into the home stretch if anyone would make it out alive.  

The performances were also excellent.  I refuse to believe that Tom Cruise is 51.  He plays the part with the energy of a man decades younger.  He also wisely uses his trademark charm in the beginning make his Cage feel like a slick, glad-handing, con man.  Emily Blunt deserves to be a top billed star.  Her Rita is at once determined and depressed.  She resigns herself to continued failure for just the smallest possibility of victory.  Her performance lacks sentimentality but still has a lot of heart.  And I could not pass by mention of Bill Paxton as Master Sgt. Bartolome.  As a huge fan of the movie Aliens it I got such a kick out of seeing Paxton go from Hudson to Apone.

But what I found most satisfying in the movie were the themes.  In the end, the story is about the nature of courage.  Cage is a selfish coward who does not believe in his own propaganda.  He spends most of the movie seeking only his own gain.  Even when you think he's grown, you can feel him still using what he can to his own advantage.  But courage is about sacrifice.  Cage has to come to learn real courage, and that only happens when he comes face to face with horrible fear.  Real courage also comes from fighting for something other than yourself.  

The biggest drawback for me is that there is a lack of character development beyond Cage and Rita.  J-Squad particularly is filled with very colorful characters, but I could not tell you any of their names off hand.  Going back to the movie Aliens, I can still remember Hicks, Vaszqquez, Drake, Gorman, and Spunkmeyer.  That's because they were real 3-dimensional people and I cared about their fate deeply.  When J-Squad figures in more prominently, I had no real connection to them and so the drama lost some of its flavor.  

Of the summer movies I've seen thus far, Edge of Tomorrow has been the most satisfying.  

4 and 1/2 out of 5

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