Sunday, December 21, 2014

2014 at the Movies: Edge of Tomorrow

Since the couch-jumping drama on Oprah nearly a decade ago, movie star Tom Cruise has drawn much flak from the mainstream and Internet press.  
And yet, objectively, one should also recognize that Cruise has consistently lent his considerable power, influence and resources to the science fiction genre.
Specifically, since 2002 Cruise has headlined four sequel-less, non-franchise-oriented genre pictures: Minority Report (2002), War of the Worlds (2005), Oblivion (2013) and Edge of Tomorrow (2014).
Even depending on vicissitudes of personal taste, you may agree that at least three of those titles are modern-day genre masterpieces. 
We just may disagree on which three...
Another way to put this is that while today’s studios and stars have gone gaga over endless and incestuous superhero sequels and YA franchises in cinematic form, Cruise has purposefully and meaningfully committed his resources to top-of-the-line adult genre imaginings.
Cruise’s newest effort, Edge of Tomorrow (2014) failed rather dramatically at the box office this weekend, and yet it is, by my estimation, just such a modern masterpiece. It is this summer’s John Carter (2012): a science fiction effort of exuberance, intelligence, humanity, and tremendous artistry.  It is an enormously entertaining film and more.
Yet for reasons that likely have nothing to do with the Doug Liman film -- and much to do with the demands of modern mainstream audiences -- it has not yet caught fire as it should.  To me, that fact suggests that the American box office is perhaps hopelessly broken, a place where only “brand name” sequels, prequels, re-boots and remakes can thrive.
For Edge of Tomorrow isn’t just an enjoyable sci-fi film, it is perhaps the best “altered states” or “mind-fuck”-type science fiction venture since The Matrix (1999).
And if audiences aren’t interested in seeing something so good, so powerfully-wrought…the question must become: why?
But hopefully it isn’t too late for strong word of mouth to get out about Edge of Tomorrow, and if you haven’t seen it yet…go.
Edge of Tomorrow proves triumphant on three creative or artistic fronts. 
First, it honors our collective past by remembering D-Day, and the way that allies across the globe gathered to defeat a threat to our very freedom. 
Much of Edge of Tomorrow’s action concerns an Information Age version of the landing at Normandy that occurred on June 6, 1944, seventy years ago to the date of the film’s release.  This allusion to the past asks modern audiences to remember a time when people were united in a worthwhile cause, not divided by petty differences.
Secondly, Edge of Tomorrow dynamically concerns communication, and tags effective communication as the very thing that can save a world at war.
The film’s central conflict pits an alien hive-mind -- essentially one brain -- against the individual minds of diverse humanity.  By constructing this comparison, the film (based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill) raises significant questions about how humans relate, and more aptly, how they could better relate.
Thirdly, and perhaps most impressively, Edge of Tomorrow more closely approximates the act of playing a video game than any other film yet created.
Old school film critics like to complain vociferously when any movie looks too much like a “video game,” of course, but in the last several years, we have seen just how much video games have come into their own as an art form.  They are now a crucial aspect of modern pop culture. 
Edge of Tomorrow pinpoints valid, pro-social reasons for the format’s existence, and thus speaks to a future in which, I suspect, film and games will grow more closely related than ever before.
I have seen critics describe this film as a kind of sci-fi version of Groundhog’s Day (1993), but Edge of Tomorrow is inventive in a manner all its own. For example, the film plays lightly with the established Tom Cruise persona, and gives the actor his best role since War of the Worlds, where he played a deadbeat Dad trying to make good.  The film is also exciting to a degree we haven’t seen in some time…an action film in which the action looks and feels real, and in which the suspense becomes almost unbearable because we have become so invested in the protagonists’ cause (and their continued survival).

In Edge of Tomorrow, Earth has been invaded by terrifying, hostile aliens known as Mimics.  The vast majority of Europe has fallen to these conquering extra-terrestrials, but the nations of the world, thanks to the introduction of a new fighting technology -- exoskeleton suits called jackets -- are on the verge of winning the war.
Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is a PR flack for the war cause, and is responsible for recruiting hundreds if not thousands of young soldiers to the cause.  But when General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) orders Cage to the front to film the landing of invasion forces at Normandy, Cage has an outbreak of cowardice.  He is not a soldier, and he refuses to fight.  When Brigham won’t back down, he tries to blackmail his superior officer.
Brigham promptly has Cage arrested and sent to the front…as a deserter. 
After one night of basic training with a group called J-Squad, Cage is then dropped onto the beaches of France during the first moments of the invasion.  The bad news is that the Mimics were expecting this move, and meet the invading armies with lethal force.
On the battlefield, Cage encounters a war hero “The Angel of Verdun,” Rita (Emily Blunt), but sees her die in a blaze of glory.  And when he is attacked by a larger-than-normal Mimic, Cage sees the alien blood splattered on his face. 
Then, he dies…
…Only to awake and have the same last day to “do over.”
Cage tries to determine what is happening to him, and relives the day several times, attempting different avenues of escape from the beach.  All fail.
Now Cage must learn about Rita – a person who knows something about his plight -- and figure out not only how to survive the day, but defeat the aliens in the process.
In particular, Cage learns that the Mimics are a hive mind, and that the alien general, called an Omega, is hidden far from the front.  Rita trains Cage to survive the battle on the beach, and find and destroy the Omega, but all that must happen in one day, or the Mimic invasion succeeds and humanity dies.

There’s an old song with lyrics that go “what a difference a day makes,” and Edge of Tomorrow concerns, literally, making the most of one twenty-four hour period.  

If Cage -- a man literally “caged” by fate -- can make allies, gain territory and defeat one enemy, the Omega, he will save the planet. 

If not, mankind will die.

That’s a tall order for any one individual, and fortunately Cage develops some key allies during the film.  His one constant ally is Rita, and I admire how the film visualizes this “Angel of Verdun” as the “glue” in Cage’s stream of endless do-overs and resets.

Specifically, Rita meets Cage while physically training.  We see her stretched out on the floor in a yoga position, a Vinyasa position. 

The vinyasa is a move in yoga that “interlinks postures to form a continuous flow” (per Wikipedia) and creates a ‘movement meditation that reveals all forms as being impermanent.” 

This is very much Rita’s role in Cage’s odyssey, which is why -- no doubt -- we get to see (the splendid...) vinyasa again and again in the march of Cage’s days. 

The vinyasa pose visually implies that Rita is the crucial linkage that allows Cage to move forward.  She is the one who knows what he is going through, because she has possessed the same “gift” or curse he now possesses.  She is also the one who introduces Cage to deeper knowledge about the Mimics, particularly the Omega. 

And finally, Rita is the person who convinces those in J-Squad that Cage is telling the truth about his strange experience, and not just some lunatic.  She is the linkage which not only makes Cage’s journey possible, but ultimately successful.  She reveals the “impermanence” of his efforts, and forms “the continuous flow” of his days, helping him progress.

Because Cage gets just one day to save the world, and is therefore allowed only a limited range of options, he must become the world’s greatest, most economical communicator.  As a former communications student myself, I appreciate this aspect of the film.  Cage very quickly learns how to avoid conflict, and say just the right thing at the right moment.  We see Cage’s trial and error first, and then watch as he aces social situations and hones his communication -- his messaging -- to crystal clarity and sharpness.

Essentially, Cage’s only strength rests with his choice in words. He is not a soldier. He is not trained in combat.  He has no power in the world into which he is thrust.  Communication becomes his spear, or his sword.  The film becomes a delightful dance as Cage must navigate his way through situations using only his ability to effectively communicate.

This proves an ironic and interesting commentary, because Cage is, essentially, a PR flak. He’s a good-looking guy who goes in front of the camera to “sell” the war in hopes of enlisting the young.  He does so based on his charisma and good-lucks. 

But suddenly -- and in a twist worthy of Rod Serling -- this shill for the military, this PR hack, must save the real world, not merely sell a product.  Suddenly, all of his powers of persuasion must be used to remain alive, and accomplish a pro-social goal. 

The philosopher Aristotle believed that rhetoric had to reflect the true nature of the speaker, and not just be an artfully constructed con job.  Therefore, you could “know” a person by his words, by his very arguments, by his cause. 

Again, this is very much the journey that Cage undertakes in the film.  He must convince others – through his words and rhetoric -- of his legitimacy, of his “gift.”

Viewed from one perspective, Edge of Tomorrow is all about answering one question.; how do convince people that you’ve never met before today that you are trustworthy, and more than that, worthy of leading them into battle, and possibly to their deaths?

To get to that place, Cage needs to go from “selling” a message, to internalizing and becoming the message himself.  I admired how the film sees Cage thinking on his feet, figuring out precisely how to say the right thing in any given situation, sitting across from any given personality.  He’s not always successful, but I believe the message is simply that it is effective communication, not weapons of mass destruction, that can wars, or change the world.

Furthermore, I loved that Edge of Tomorrow takes a shill, a coward, and a deserter, and grants him redemption.  As much as I love The Matrix, I am deeply fatigued with all the Hollywood stories featuring a “Chosen One” destined for greatness. 

What about us unlucky, un-chosen ones? Is it possible for us to be heroes too?

In Edge of Tomorrow, Cage acquires his gift through an accident, through a weird twist of fate, not by the auspices of some pre-determined or grand destiny.  And then, delightfully, he must live up to the gift that fate has handed him. The film is not about being pre-destined for greatness. Instead, it is about playing the hand you are dealt, and striving to succeed anyway.

The deliberate comparison to D-Day that the film forges -- creating a visual, futuristic corollary for the visceral beach scene you might remember from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) -- seems to fit well with the film’s musing about human nature.

The visuals remind us that humanity -- when working together-- has accomplished amazing things in the past.  Seventy years ago, during the Allied effort to liberate Europe, ten thousand men died.  They did so because they believed the message, simply, that they were fighting for the survival of the free world.  The cause succeeded, even though so many patriots lost their lives on those beaches, and the course of history was changed.

Edge of Tomorrow is very much concerned with the same idea, of people acting by choice as a unified force for good.  And again, this is a deliberate comparison to the Mimics, invading hordes that operate as one by nature, not by conscious selection.  This fact of alien biology makes the war all the harder for the humans.  For Mimics, working together is literally second nature.  For humans of different political, religious and ethnic stripes, it’s more like herding cats. 

And Cage is able to do that herding (for the most part) because of the friend he has in Rita, and because the “do overs” grant him the opportunity to understand what people want, and communicate with them effectively and economically on that particular basis.

All these ideas combine admirably with the video game-like nature of the film’s core structure.  Cage dies again and again, then resets and must start over.  This act of dying and getting a second, third, fourth, and fifth chance reflects the gaming process to a remarkable degree.  In video games, your avatar dies, and you then start again and your avatar gets a little further.  You die again, and then you inch forward even more. 
Eventually, through these fits and starts, you accomplish your goal, which is the game’s completion. 

Accordingly, Edge of Tomorrow very amusingly accounts for the fact that in some game resets are very brief and unsuccessful, and all the knowledge you gained leading up to your death doesn’t necessarily get used. 

For instance, at one point, Cage is treated to an almost instant, involuntary do-over when he tries to save a fellow soldier’s life, and gets crushed by a falling transport plane instead.  We’ve all had the experience in which a video game sortie goes wrong in the first few minutes (or seconds), and we don’t get to top our previous threshold.

Likewise, the film is structured a bit like a typical survival video game, with particular “arenas” that need to get defeated before the player can progress to the next level.  Mysteries must be solved and battles must be won before matriculation can occur. 

The stages or levels here might be termed, “The beach,” “the parking lot,” “the farmhouse,” and “the dam.”  

And then of course, there’s the boss battle at the Louvre, in which a more dangerous enemy -- the Omega -- must be brought down so the game can be won.

What’s the point of structuring a film in this video-game friendly fashion?  Well, a generation is coming up that doesn’t view video games as the terrible “addictive” things that many of our parents worried about.  In fact, I know I am grateful for the fact that my seven year old son plays some (age-appropriate) video games, like Minecraft because they hone his thinking, his reflexes, and encourage patience.  A good gamer -- much like Cage in Edge of Tomorrow -- demonstrates flexibility, imagination, and tenacity.

The same skills that get us through a video game get us through the hazards of life, essentially.  Games make us think about pursuing different options. They make us imagine new answers and new avenues.  And they reward discipline and patience. 

And if you quit, you don’t win, either in life or in video games.  The only difference is that in life there are (good) cheat codes.

Edge of Tomorrow is very intriguing in the way it ties these three elements -- our historic past at D-Day, efficacy in communication, and video games -- into a coherent and artistic argument about human nature. 

Through these three aspects of the film we see man’s capacity, in the past, to join in common cause.  We see, in the present, his ability to bridge gulfs and bring people together.  And through the video games, we see what could be the future of warfare. 

And really, are flexibility, imagination, and tenacity so different from the qualities those brave men had on those beaches 70 years ago?  The video game concept crystallizes these qualities but they have always been humanity’s greatest virtues.

As we move into the unbound future, those qualities will be reflected in different ways. Warfare will be different.  Space travel too.  We will learn from our failures as much as we learn from our victories, and that, in some crucial way, seems to be a key leitmotif of Edge of Tomorrow.  One brilliant moment in the film sees Cage attempt to escape from basic training by rolling under a truck.  He times it just right…he thinks.

But the scene plays out in an unconventional way that elicits laughter and also provokes thought. He doesn’t time it right at all, and the results are terminal.

Imagine how much we could achieve -- and how much we could learn -- if we could relive every day a hundred a times?

That idea represents more than enough intellectual fodder for a great science fiction movie, but Edge of Tomorrow takes that idea and runs with it, connecting it to a video-game savvy generation, and the need for common cause unity in broaching world events and global crises.

I’m certain that entertainment reporters are wasting ink (or keystrokes, I suppose) right now about how Edge of Tomorrow is a bomb, and about the downfall of Tom Cruise as a marketable star.

Well, I hope that this review can rewrite that narrative, at least a little, because Edge of Tomorrow doesn’t merely repeat old victories in the genre, it treads new ground in the same way that The Matrix did in 1999, and is a stimulating, engaging summer movie of the highest order.

Like I said, go see it.  And then experience some déjà vu and see it again. 

1 comment:

  1. Tom Cruise has made some really good movies over the past decade. "Minority Report", "War of the Worlds", "Jack Reacher", "Oblivion"...the guy is taking chances on mostly original stuff...BIG, original stuff.

    "Edge of Tomorrow" has some very exciting combat scenes, and even though many are repeated, different angles and camera perspectives keep them fresh. The movie progresses much like a video game. Cruise and Emily Blunt steadily progress through "levels" of battle and even make their way to "boss" level. But this is not a tired movie based on some popular video game of the past. This is a fresh take that feels like there should be a video game based on it.

    Not only are Cruise and Blunt excellent in the film, Bill Paxton is awesome as the sharp-tongued, quick-witted Master Sergeant Farrell.

    More people need to check out non-sequel, non-prequel, non-superhero movies like this one. It will be a damned shame if this film falls quietly by the wayside.

    This is my favorite film of 2014.