Friday, June 13, 2014

EDGE OF TOMORROW Is This Summer's Blockbuster To Beat


- EDGE OF TOMORROW is the best blockbuster movie of the summer so far. Brilliantly-scripted, directed, and acted, it's an uber-satisfying sci-fi action thriller that takes full advantage of the possibilities inherent in its premise. Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt both bring their A-games in the lead roles. Cruise puts a new twist on his typical ultra-intense and hyper-competent action movie persona, and Blunt fully establishes herself as a real-deal badass for the ages. Meanwhile, director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) returns to film after an extended stay in TV, and completely knocks it out of the park. This is the best thing he's ever done, by far.

What's so cool about EDGE OF TOMORROW is that it takes its Groundhog Day-style do-over premise and melds it with the logic and experience of playing a videogame. In that way, there's a weird kinship between this film and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which also applied videogame logic and methodology in its storytelling.

In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise plays Cage, who begins the film as a snotty PR man working for the military, whose job is essentially to push the military's message out to the public via press conferences, talk show appearances, etc. The military needs all the good PR it can get. In this near-future earth, the planet has been invaded by a horde of conquering aliens called Mimics, whose liquid-metal bodies dart around a battlefield like out-of-control buzz-saws. The humans' new united army is not faring all that well in the battle, and they're gearing up for one last stand - an epic battle that aims to take the fight to the Mimics, all-or-nothing. One of the great heroes of the military effort is Emily Blunt's Rita, affectionately known as "The Full-Metal Bitch." Rita and the rest of the military wage war in mech-like combat suits, stomping around the battlefield adorned with all manner of mechanized heavy artillery enhancements. Cage, however, finds himself unexpectedly ordered by commanding officer General Brigham (the always-great Brendan Gleeson) to head to battle. This big last stand is an all-hands-on-deck deal, and Brigham orders Cage to fight. Cage tries to object, but when he attempts to get out of Dodge, he's forcibly taken to the central army base and inserted by his gruff supervising Sergeant (an over-the-top Bill Paxton) into a ragtag unit of misfits and losers. Soon enough, Cage is on a nightmarish battlefield, fending off Mimics, unable to even properly operate his mech suit or weapons. And then ... he dies.

However, due to a strange set of circumstances that I won't reveal here, Cruise's Cage becomes possessed of a unique ability: when he dies, he essentially travels back in time to a fixed point (in this case, it's the moment when he is first dropped off at the army base), and respawns, videogame-style. When he comes back, he maintains all of the knowledge of his previous "life," and his challenge lies in applying what he learned before dying, to ensure his survival in the next go-round. Soon though, Cage learns that it isn't only his survival on the line. His unique power allows him to use his knowledge of what's to come to warn the military about the futility of the battle ahead. And as it turns out, Rita is aware of Cage's ability, and has been manipulating events in order to fully exploit it to help win the battle against the Mimics. The stakes are high. There is a ticking clock on Cage's ability to respawn, and so he needs to do everything he can to give humans the advantage in the war's looming endgame.

All of this plot-resetting could have easily become tedious and repetitive, but it's handled so cleverly that it actually becomes thrilling. Cage's actions increasingly deviate from their original path from life to life, and seeing Cage essentially piece together the puzzle of what he has to do to change the tide of the battle is fascinating. Moreover, since Cage starts out as sort of a wimp - a pencil-pusher comfortable in front of a TV camera, but totally out of his element in a fight - seeing him gradually transition to a full-fledged badass (under the guidance of Rita) - brings with it a sort of satisfaction that we rarely see in these sorts of movies, where heroes tend to be born and not made. Cruise is excellent in the film - he's always great in these sorts of high-intensity action roles, but this one really stands out since it takes him the entirety of the film to fully become "Tom Cruise: Action Hero." At first though, he's just a guy who's in way over his head. And Cruise does that part of the role as well, if not better, than when Cage is at the height of his powers later on.

Emily Blunt flat-out kicks ass as Rita, who is one of the best female characters in an action movie in quite some time. Rita feels fully-formed - she has a clear inner life separate from her relationship with Cage, and it's her planning, smarts, and badassery that actually drives the plot's forward-momentum for much of the film. Rita is, for most of the film, the one guiding Cage's life-to-life strategy, formulating the game plan as to how he can use his ability to make a difference and course-correct. Blunt previously showed her action chops in Looper, but this is a whole new level of awesome. I actually think that, aside from the wow-factor of seeing Blunt in a high-tech combat suit wielding helicopter-blade weapons, this is some of the best acting I've ever seen from the actress. Her Rita is a fierce, driven, extremely capable soldier who is quite simply a fantastic and memorable character. If you remember one thing from Edge of Tomorrow, it will likely be Blunt as the "Full Metal Bitch."

Blunt and Cruise also work really well together. What's nice is that the film acknowledges some chemistry and builds a meaningful relationship between the two, but romance is not a central aspect of the story. These are two soldiers with big things at stake, and so the bond that builds between them happens organically, and is more complicated and nuanced than in a typical star-crossed Hollywood romance. This again contributes to the strength of Blunt's character - her partnership with Cage is a key element of the story, but the personal relationship isn't what's driving the story. Their shared determination to save the human race is the driver, and that means that the stakes are never undermined by the need for the dramatic kiss or what have you (see: Superman and Lois making time for a dramatic lip-lock as Metropolis burns around them in Man of Steel).

What's also surprising is that amid the darkness and bleakness of this futuristic, war-torn world, the movie still makes time for a lot of lighter moments, and even humor. The movie is actually really funny and witty at times. There's some great playful banter between Cage and Rita. Bill Paxton's corn-fed Sergeant Farell is consistently entertaining-as-hell and funny. And Noah Taylor's Dr. Carter, the slightly-mad scientist who teams with Cage and Rita to discover the alien adversary's weakness, is also a lot of fun. Point being, EDGE OF TOMORROW is far from the grim slog that some of the trailers made it out to be. It's actually a really fun and audience-pleasing ride that balances out its darker moments with good old-fashioned Summer Blockbuster entertainment.

To that end, Doug Liman tears the house down with his direction on this one. The movie moves along at an always-exciting, rapid-fire clip. And the big action set-pieces are some of the best of any sci-fi blockbuster in years. Again, a lot of the reason these scenes work so well is because of the way they're built up. We're not just seeing sound and fury, we're seeing action that continually shows us Cage learning from past mistakes and improving his combat abilities and survival skills. Sure, having already lived out certain moments, he gets to play god and anticipate an adversary's move before it even happens. But more than that, he is self-upgrading, acting out a real-life process of videogame-esque leveling up. And that is thrilling to watch.

The movie perfectly captures the risk/reward process of playing through and advancing through a videogame. Of learning from failures and evolving until one is truly the master of the game - fully in control of its mechanics, able to anticipate obstacles and navigate through challenges with ease. In turn, the videogame-style structure, as in Scott Pilgrim, becomes a way of looking at life. Live, die, repeat, win. Our days, our hopes, our struggles, in microcosm. EDGE OF TOMORROW tells a great story, but the underlying smarts of how that story is presented is what makes it so impressive. Even those who've never played a videogame will, I think, get caught up in the rush of "okay, what now?" logic puzzles that the film invites us to live out alongside Cage and Rita. It all feels so fresh, presented in such a novel way, that I want to say that this is the flat-out best sci-fi action film since District 9. It seems like bland marketing may have hurt this one at the box-office, but the fact is that the movie is one of the more unique and original action blockbuster films in years. Go see it - THIS is the big movie to beat this summer.

My Grade: A

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