Monday, June 16, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014)

Edge of Tomorrow Poster

Edge of Tomorrow, about a future soldier who finds himself endlessly reliving the same hopeless battle against a race of aliens dubbed "Mimics," effectively plays out as a cross between Groundhog Day (1993) and Starship Troopers (1997). Well, the visuals, composed of shots of soldiers in armored battle suits running and gunning across desolate arenas, borrow even more directly from sci-fi shooter games such as Halo and Gears of War than from Starship Troopers. And the video game-like aspect to the film runs deeper than just the visuals. As protagonist William Cage (Tom Cruise) is repeatedly killed by the Mimics, only to "reset" after each death again to the previous morning to give it another go, the process resembles the experience of playing a classically challenging video game.

Lately, I've been playing Konami's Otomedius Excellent (2011) for the Xbox 360. A spin-off of the Gradius series of horizontally scrolling shooters, it is not an especially difficult game on the shmup spectrum, yet it is nevertheless unfair, in the way that all shmups are. Lives are fragile; unless you have a forcefield, a single hit of any kind will be enough to destroy your ship. Yet there are enemy attacks that, I contend, cannot possibly be evaded on pure reaction. And even if you could move out of the way on reaction, if you were to fail to evade it in the "correct" direction, you might just end up cornering yourself with no chance whatsoever to dodge the next attack. But, of course, the game has no expectation that you will be able to avoid everything on reaction, nor that you will be able to perform well at all on your first attempt. This style of game demands rather that you learn through repeated play and repeated failure, only prevailing after having committed to memorizing all the enemy patterns, so that you can always position yourself in the right place to dodge an enemy attack before it even happens.

Likewise, in Edge of Tomorrow, Cage fails repeatedly, but each time he learns, and the next time he is able to exploit that knowledge when everything resets. When eventually he starts gunning down Mimics before other soldiers can even spot them, it may seem to everyone else that he has the reflexes and battle instincts of a god of war, when, in reality, reflexes and instinct have little to do with it. He is indeed able to hone his abilities to expert levels through the unspeakable number of hours that all his resets come to comprise, but, more than that, he knows the future, because he has already lived it (having also died many times to make it this far), and so he knows what the enemy is going to do before it even happens. This ability is, in fact, the only thing that permits him to even survive, let alone win, a battle against the Mimics. Although Cage begins as a common man with no combat training, the truth is that even humanity's most decorated soldier, Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), stands no chance trying to fight the Mimics without the advantage of foresight, and seeing her fall repeatedly, always suddenly and rather feebly, reaffirms the disheartening fragility of life and the fundamental unfairness of the reaper.

Edge of Tomorrow is based on a screenplay adapted from the Japanese light novel All You Need Is Kill (2004), whose author, Hiroshi Sakurazaka, has stated that video games were indeed his inspiration for the story. Based on the movie's early trailers, I honestly expected (and hoped) for the video game connection to be actually made explicit in the plot. I had this theory, actually, that Cage and Vrataski were unknowingly video game characters, who somehow became aware that they were being made to play the same brutally themed game over and over again, though still with no understanding of why or how to stop it. Basically, I was hoping that it would be like that classic The Onion story about Solid Snake pondering the meaning of the endless loop of his video game existence.

I was disappointed that there wasn't more of a twist to Edge of Tomorrow's story. The "time loop" plot device has already been done several times in fiction, perhaps most famously in Groundhog Day. The concept was also similarly handled in the greatest episode of Stargate SG-1, "Window of Opportunity" (Season 4, Episode 6), which I feel actually treated it more purposefully. In Edge of Tomorrow, there is no great explanation behind the time loop, nor behind the existence of the Mimics, who really are just malicious alien monsters.

The pleasure of this movie is in how it spends the loops. Cage, not a soldier at first, though luckily already in peak physical shape within the window of the loop, has to learn clumsily and comically the hard way through trial and error how to progress inch-by-inch toward victory. The movie perhaps returns too often to the same joke of Cage almost wearily informing other characters (and the audience) what's about to happen, to their astonishment, with such exact attention to detail of someone who must have lived these moments hundreds of times already, far beyond what is depicted. But it is cleverly constructed to keep viewers on their toes, as they realize that their first time witnessing a scene may be Cage's thousandth time experiencing it.

Where Edge of Tomorrow actually differs from other time loop stories, such as Groundhog Day, is in Cage's consistent earnestness. Rather than getting bored to numbness, he's more just saddened by the Sisyphean futility of it all. He has moments of exhaustion. He gets demoralized at times and has to take the occasional break. But he never really "has fun" with his ability. The movie forgoes the obligatory moment when the looping protagonist decides just to lay a kiss on an unsuspecting female, knowing that, when they reset, she won't remember. Cage never takes the opportunity to tell other characters how he really feels about them, whether positively or negatively, knowing that there will be no one to hold him accountable. On the contrary, the most compelling aspect of the film may actually be the way Cage's relationship with Vrataski continually deepens, but only on one side, because she can never remember the experiences they've shared. On the one hand, he surely appreciates how profoundly he comes to know her life, her mind, her spirit over the, for all we know, hundreds of years that he is able to spend with her. On the other hand, it must also be somewhat of a torment for him that she can never have more than a day or two to develop any emotions for him before her regard resets back to zero.

What we learn about Cage is that, at his core, he really is a good person—someone who does the right thing when no one is watching. I don't personally read this as any kind of redemption story a la Groundhog Day. As the story begins, Cage is a coward, who hopes to avoid combat any way he can. His spinelessness is good for a few laughs, but, honestly, I was totally on his side, and I think maybe the writers were too. The film provides a none-too-flattering portrayal of the military, which is at least a sub-antagonist in this story. In truth, even today's weapons would be enough to annihilate the Mimics several thousands of times over. Yet the military repeatedly dooms humankind in the movie, because its leaders are inflexible and preoccupied with schlong-wagging. Only a crazy person would willingly follow such command. If the time looping in Edge of Tomorrow has any allegorical dimension, it must relate to the tedious and inert bureaucracy of the military machine.

One last thing I appreciate about Edge of Tomorrow is that it evinces a sincere affection on the part of its cast and crew for the main characters, who are fun to follow along with and easy to root for (even when Cage is being a coward). Contrast this with current hot blockbuster screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, Star Trek Into Darkness, The Amazing Spider-Man 2), who, for all their success, seem to write always as though with limited respect for their own work, resulting in movies that degenerate from promising components into cheap stunts done for their own sake. Edge of Tomorrow, meanwhile, although it borrows its aesthetic from some of the most violent video games on the market, is good-humored and surprisingly gently themed. If the ending wraps up the war a little too neatly and easily, still its final shot, one of the more applause-worthy in recent memory, feels earned, not through manipulative stunts, cheap romance, or overly clever plot twists, but simply through respectfully and honestly written characters who are cool and admirable.

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