Sunday, July 20, 2014

Death on the Installment Plan

Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow

It would be a mistake to think of Edge of Tomorrow (2014, directed by Doug Liman) as a mere rip-off of Groundhog Day filtered through Starship Troopers. I mean, sure. It is exactly that. Its just not only that. I'm probably going to regret saying this, but it seems to me that director Doug Liman is an auteur in the classic sense of the word, and that this film, one that plays around with both identity and cinematic chronology is very much of a piece with films like The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Go. Oh, Liman is an entertainer first and foremost, but like other "entertainers" I could name, he seems drawn back to the same themes again and again, much like the hero in this film is drawn back to the start of his sojourn as an unwilling soldier over and over and over. Edge of Tomorrow might be Liman's magnum opus. Whatever it is, it's a lot of fun to watch, and not only for the dubious pleasure of watching Tom Cruise being horribly killed on repeat. Though that's fun, too.

The "hero" of Edge of Tomorrow is one Major Cage, a PR in civilian life whose career in the military following an alien invasion finds him working as a propagandist. The aliens have been kicking the ass of humanity ever since they landed in Europe, and humanity has had but a single victory in the war. That victory provided the world with a much needed war hero in the "Angel of Verdun", a woman Cage's division has turned into an almost mythical figure. Cage is brought in on the eve of an invasion of Normandy to lead a documentary unit. Cage, callow and cowardly, balks at the assignment, Blustering General Brigham busts him down to private and puts him in a punishment unit where he'll lead the beach landing instead. Untrained and embedded in an unreliable unit, his life expectancy is short. Something odd happens to him, though. He's killed, sure enough, but in the instant before he's killed, he's drenched in the blood of an "alpha" alien, and that breed are the secret to the aliens' lethal military efficiency. They manipulate time. Having been drenched in the alien's blood, Cage finds that every time he's killed in action, his timeline resets to the moment he wakes up with his new unit. This happens again and again and soon, Cage realizes that this might be a key to victory. He seeks out Rita, the Angel of Verdun, who he soon learns had the same thing happen to her. She lost the ability when she was wounded and had a blood transfusion. Together, they probe at the aliens' defenses looking for a way to pull victory from the jaws of defeat. Unfortunately, the aliens are playing the same game...

Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow

It should be immediately apparent that the war with the aliens in Edge of Tomorrow is an allegorical version of World War II. Normandy invasion? Fortress Europe? Yeah. As a moral problem, World War II is relatively uncomplicated: it's the "good war," the war where America gets to be the Good Guy. So naturally, if you want to make a war film but don't want to trouble the audience with politics or moral ambiguity, it's the go-to event, even as fiction. The aliens in this are as faceless as the Nazis in all those classic war films from the 1950s and 60s. (I say "relatively uncomplicated, because there's really no such thing. Look at the war films made by Japan or Germany in the post-war years if you want an example of this. Tom Cruise himself made Valkyrie a few years ago, which is as morally ambiguous a film about the war that America has ever made). Framing this as a "good war" lets the filmmakers turn the whole thing into a sci fi adventure film without any responsibility to verisimilitude or moral behavior. As an abstract, it's liberating for the storytelling, but there's part of me that's still troubled by the subliminal jingoism at the heart of its premise. Except, of course, that it doesn't. It's still war rehearsal. It's still a film that clings to ideas of valor and redemption under fire and all the other cultural signifiers used to convince the world that martial virtue is distinct from the obscenity of the activity that enables it. Edge of Tomorrow's enemy is faceless and inhuman, standard orcs in a videogame. We aren't invited to understand the aliens at all. We're put in the role of the humans at the end of Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters, vowing, "...the free men are coming to kill you. Death and Destruction!"

It's deeply problematic in spite of the license to thrill it grants itself. It's the same thing that troubles me about the Call of Duty video games, too, and videogames are a singular touchstone for this film.

Fortunately, I can compartmentalize this. I can be a sport and play along. I actually like war films, for the most part, in spite of my dislike of war and all its impedimenta. Like most genres, war films provide a crucible for their characters. This film goes that one further: it provides a crucible for the Tom Cruise movie star persona itself. Cruise has always been a brave actor, but during the last ten years or so, his choices of roles have tended to be conservative, generic heroes. This film postulates Cruise as a coward. It takes Cruise's film image and pummels it. Not only that, but Cruise's character isn't even the most competent soldier once he begins to accrue experience point after a few hundred deaths. He has a foil in Rita, who in every conceivable way is a superior hero, and that's a seriously new thing in a Tom Cruise sci fi actioner. Oh, sure, the film is about him, but it could just as easily be about her. I often found myself wishing it was about her while I was watching it, with all due respect to Mr. Cruise and the conviction of his performance. Emily Blunt's Rita, the Angel of Verdun, is an absolute badass of a character and in the absence of a Wonder Woman movie, I'll take all the women as superheroes I can get. She's this film's equivalent of Mako Mori from Pacific Rim, the character everyone in the audience knows that the film should be about, but isn't because she isn't a straight white dude.

Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow

As a cinematic structure, this is nothing but fun. It would be easy to ladle on the grim and gritty dark future where there is only war, but Liman has always been playful with the toybox of cinema itself. This way the film resets the narrative every time Cage dies lets the film wander pretty far afield with its ideas, moving its characters around the battlefield like chess pieces. The obvious model for this, as I've said, is the videogame first-person shooter, in which you get to reset the game every time your character dies and work through the narrative to the boss at the end. Liman goes off model about two thirds of the way through the film, though, as Cage walks away from the battlefield and goes looking for answers elsewhere, though the first time he does it, he does it to go get drunk.

I wish the aliens were more defined as a design. The film doesn't let any of them stop long enough for the audience to get a good look at them. Part of this is a function of the Saving Private Ryan-style chaos cinema the film uses for its battle scenes, but I suspect it's also a choice by the filmmakers to avoid allowing the audience to wonder too much about their motives or biology or possible, er, humanity. As it is, they're a Maguffin. Indeed, they're an atavistic horror, pulled whole and pulsing from Japanese hentai (though without the propensity for tentacle rape).

Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow

I also wish that the peripheral characters were explored in more than a superficial way. Bill Paxton as Cruise's condescending good ol' boy commanding officer makes an impression, in part due to the actor's own cinematic anima. The movie has flipped the script on him by casting him as the by the numbers superior while Cruise gets to play the kind of coward that Paxton played in Aliens. But the other members of Cage's platoon? Not so much. They seem like fertile ground for exploration in a much longer film. I haven't read All You Need is Kill, the book on which the movie is based. For all I know, this is explored in the book. Brendan Gleeson is criminally underused as General Brigham, as is Noah Taylor as Rita's scientist accomplice and exposition machine, Doctor Carter. This is a two person show. Good as Cruise often is--and he gets a broad spectrum of emotions to play--he's often blown off the screen by Emily Blunt. Liman understands movie star charisma and he deploys it to maximum effect here.

I considered skipping Edge of Tomorrow in theaters. I skipped Cruise's last sci fi epic and don't regret that. I would have regretted missing Edge of Tomorrow. At its core it's a popcorn movie, sure. It doesn't think deeply about its story beyond the game-playing of its form, but that game playing is fun. The medium is the message here. I've seen plenty of more serious films that aren't nearly as pleasurable to watch. I don't underestimate that.

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