Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

“Through readiness and discipline we are masters of our fate.”

A staccato of television news clips and grainy video shows that central Europe has been overrun by a sudden and fast-spreading alien invasion of “Mimics.” When comfort-loving media relations officer for the United Defense Forces Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) reports to western command, he is assigned without reason and despite a lack of specific combat training to take part in the front wave attacks on the French coast. The optimistically-named Operation Downfall is a total failure: the highly adaptable Mimics, several millions of brute many-tentacled creatures with the speed of striking snakes, engulf the legions of soldiers, decimating them. Major Cage’s unit is hit while still in the air and before the troops have drop-landed; the falling hovercraft crushes a war-hungry fellow GI; the soldiers stumble disorientedly through the surf and dunes; and Cage himself is immediately confronted by the Mimics. Scrabbling to the ground, he clumsily manages to set off a personnel mine, surviving only scant seconds on the battlefield before blasting the nearest Mimic into a gory explosion of blood that snuffs out his own life as well.

Then he wakes up, to a nightmarish repeat of the catastrophic day. Every insignificant event unfolds exactly as before—the master sergeant’s monologue on the power and beauty of war, the interrupted poker game of the J Squad, his introduction to the soldiers, the deployment and drop—until the bewildered major lands again on the beachhead to helplessly witness the slaughter of his comrades and lock in mortal combat with the inescapable Mimics.

Again, again, and again the day repeats, until Cage knows the rhythm of every movement and moment like a macabre choreography, can predict with precision each Mimic as it mechanistically appears and is mechanically mowed down by his weapons, each time surviving a few seconds longer before inexorably falling in the unmitigated massacre. In this hellish cycle of life and quickened death, he comes across the war heroine and mascot of the unified resistance, Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), and endeavors to extend her life with his short-lived omniscience. But when the shocked Vrataski sees his abilities, she stops fighting and throws her weapon to her feet; above the chop of the hovercraft and the scream of artillery, she shouts out to Cage—“Find me when you wake up”—and is consumed in an explosion.

Edge of Tomorrow’s premise invites comparison to other time loop films, like Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day (1993), but beyond the motif of the repeated day (and a supporting heroine named Rita), similarities are scarce. Groundhog Day suggested a cosmic concern with the protagonist’s self-centeredness and ends redemptively as he finally saves lives and shows genuine concern for others. Conversely, Edge of Tomorrow portrays a naturalistic, uncaring, and almost rigidly deterministic world devoid of any butterfly effect and where every step and misstep can be precisely learned and eventually predicted. Cage’s selection as unwilling hero is pointedly random, and the army’s portrayal as supersoldiers suggests both futuristic power and transcendent impersonality. While Cage does overcome his initial cowardice (“there is no courage without fear,” claims his master sergeant) and dutifully devotes his repeated lifetimes to the salvation of his race, his character only barely evolves rather than experiencing some single moment of metanoia.

The film is careful not to repeat sequences unnecessarily, avoiding irritating predictabilities and constantly upending the pace and direction to keep action and plot at a run. The warzone scenes are rapid but not erratic, raining destruction on man, machine, and Mimic alike in a blaze of explosions and rifle fire, but largely avoiding gratuity in the carnage. Cruise is characteristically delightful in both the high-action sequences and in his conversational quips, while also capable of showing a more humane side as Major Cage learns abouts and attempts to save his quirky (and sometimes unlikeable) squad mates, or cares for a wounded Vrataski before sorrowfully failing to shield her, yet again, from a death only he will remember.

In a reversal of tradition, it is Vrataski, the female soldier, who fills many of the typically masculine roles in the film: as armored war hero, leader, mentor, protector, and (late in the movie) romantic initiator to the combat-shy media relations officer. When Cage is wounded, Vrataski emotionlessly (and repeatedly) “resets” her acolyte’s day with a bullet—in a manner harshly dissonant to Cage’s later tenderness in her final moments. But the contrast is often subtle in the overall desperation of the film’s war; Vrataski is not the only woman in the predominantly-male military forces, and her relentless warrior ethos perhaps reflects only the dehumanizing potential of war.

In any case, the film does not mire in questions of the human condition and our response. In true Cruise fashion, it is fast-paced, exciting, and gloriously (some might say mindlessly) entertaining. While the picture and score engage, it is the plot and characters that drive the story. Only the echoes of its running theme—of a random Joe plucked from the humdrum and suddenly required to weigh questions of age-defying importance—might yet ring in our ears and bid us look beyond a rapturous two hours, past the edge of tomorrow.

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