Tuesday, May 27, 2014

'Edge of Tomorrow' (2014) directed by Doug Liman

I bet every review of Edge of Tomorrow is going to mention Groundhog Day, but the comparison is irresistible. The blood of the Bill Murray classic has been transfused into the still warm body of the Starship Troopers franchise and the resulting film is a bit of a Frankenstein's monster.  But instead of Punxatawny Phil we have Tom Cruise in science fiction hero mode, Andie MacDowell is wielding a giant sword and the cute groundhog is replaced with a horde of bloodthirsty tentacled monsters.

I've got a pet theory that Tom Cruise works best in a film where he plays a smarmy bastard that gets taken down a peg or two, and at the beginning of Edge of Tomorrow he's rarely been smarmier.  Faced with a somewhat generic alien invasion of Europe, he's Cage, a former advertising executive turned military PR man with designs on staying as far away from any actual fighting as possible.  His oily cowardice angers a General (a largely wasted Brendan Gleeson), who promptly pressgangs him into the front lines of an upcoming invasion of Europe.  Sweaty, terrified and miserable as hell, Cage is strapped into a clunky robot exoskeleton and tossed into the beach sequence from Saving Private Ryan.  He dies horribly.

Then he wakes up.  It's the same day all over again.  Once again he's thrown onto the battlefield, but this time survives a little longer before once more biting it.  As he undergoes this endless cycle of death and rebirth he gradually becomes a better soldier, learning how to fight the monsters, use his equipment and stay calm on the battlefield. The problem is, no matter how hard he fights, the monsters always win.  Enter the Full Metal Bitch (Emily Blunt).  She knows exactly what's going on with Cage's time loop, and the two resolve to use it to end the war once and for all.

Tom Cruise is about to die horribly.  Again.
Very quickly it turns out that the concept of being trapped in an endless time loop is intrinsically pretty funny, even if the human race is on the brink of destruction.  Liman can't resist working through a series of extremely Groundhog Dayish time travel gags, the highlight being a short montage of Tom Cruise dying in various silly ways which amused me no end. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Cruise: while I can't deny his supercharisma and basic everyman likeability I take a sadistic pleasure in watching horrible things happen to him.  Whether he's getting his face ripped off in Vanilla Sky or murdering clones of himself in Oblivion I'm enjoying myself, so any film where the most expedient way out of a sticky situation is to shoot Tom Cruise in the head (thus resetting the timeline) is a-okay in my book.  

By quite a wide margin Edge of Tomorrow boasts the highest Cruise-deaths-per-minute in cinema to date, and I'd recommend it for that alone.  Fortunately it's also got more going for it.  Emily Blunt is quietly excellent as the buttoned down supersoldier, a warrior that's precisely as robotic and precise as the exoskeleton that powers her.  Initially she seems a bit flat, but quickly you realise her emotional numbness is the logical psychological result of dying thousands of times and ultimately failing.  She's so impressive as a cold-blooded monster-murderer extraordinaire that it becomes a bit disappointing when she begins to thaw and show her true personality.  But Blunt keeps a tight leash on the character and Liman never quite lets Cruise overshadow her in the badass stakes.

Similarly impressive are the robotic exoskeletons.  Though they must be computer generated they have an utterly believable clunky weight to them, the soldiers fighting and moving like Ripley in the Power Loader in the climax of Aliens.  We're never quite allowed to take them for granted, and with weapons bristling out of them like a Swiss Army Knife designed by 2000AD they serve to keep the action sequences full of surprises and neat moments right up to the climax.

Unfortunately the same can't be said for the rather uninspired alien designs.  They're essentially a blob of tentacles with a mouth in the middle, and though they move in a disarmingly quick manner the film never quite shows what they do to kill a man.  Paul Verhoeven in Starship Troopers knew enough to show them disembowelling a man in the opening sequence, immediately underlining how dangerous his bugs were.  By comparison, Liman's monsters are a bit bland and chew their way through the soldiers in a boringly antiseptic manner.

They've basically got to get a doohickey to find out where that space onion lives.
The screenplay also has a worringly tendency to dip into  clunky exposition and technobabble to the point where characters look like they're trying not to crack up at the rubbish they're forced to say.  Harold Ramis and Bill Murray knew better than to explain the 'how' of their time loop, but as science fiction Edge of Tomorrow seems to feel obliged to try, leading to some largely tedious scenes where characters stare at spinning holograms and blithely spout a load of portentous sounding drivel.

That all said, Edge of Tomorrow is inarguably a superior summer blockbuster.  The time loop gimmick is a beautiful, if unoriginal, storytelling tool and Liman exploits the possibilities of it to the fullest.  The whole thing falls apart like a house of cards if you think about it too much, but though there's the odd creaky moment the whole affair just about hangs together.  Much as I hate to admit it, science fiction Tom Cruise is a safe bet right now.  After all, the man enjoys silly alien stories so much he literally made it his religion - what finer recommendation could you ask for?


Edge of Tomorrow is on general release from May 30th.  Don't bother with 3D on this one.

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