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October 08, 2014

Movie Review: Live. Die. Repeat: The Edge of Tomorrow

The Edge of Tomorrow was released at the beginning of the summer and crashed at the box office (only $99 million in the US) despite 90% of critics and 91% of viewers giving it positive reviews.

So they've apparently tried to trick the public into giving it a second chance by giving it the odd title "Live. Die. Repeat. (The Edge of Tomorrow)" on home vide.

You should permit them to trick you. It's a good movie. Its failure at the box office was unfair -- good movies should make money -- and a little bit hard to explain. It's got very good aliens, it's got good battlesuits, it's got a lot of action, it's got a lot of actual laughs, it's got a hot Warrior Woman (Emily Blunt) who actually is plausible as the hero of the resistance. (Remember, soldiers wear strength-enhancing battle-skeletons so the typical objection to Conan-esque female warriors -- they're just not strong enough -- doesn't apply here. In addition, Emily Blunt's character Rita Vrataski has a little somethin'-somethin' extra giving her an edge on the battlefield.)

The opening montage machineguns a lot of Plot Information right into the viewer's face: An asteroid has crashed on earth, pregnant with alien life forms called "Mimics." These Mimics have killed tens of millions of people and taken over all of Europe, which is held as a hostile continent-fortress in very, very much the same way the Nazis held it. Humans have won only one battle against the Mimics -- that victory largely due to a British soldier named Rita Vrataski, who killed "hundreds" of aliens on her very first day of combat, ever.

This is attributed to the technological superiority of the battle-suits the earthlings have developed. This, we will learn, is false. But Rita Vrataski is used as a Joan of Arc like propaganda figure, called the "Angel of Verdun."

The humans are planning a major cross-Channel invasion -- throwing every single living soldier they have at the aliens' Fortress Europe.

We now meet Tom Cruise, playing a Major Cage, who is a very unlikely action hero. He's not a combat soldier at all -- he's a former ROTC student turned advertising executive who was drafted into the Army as public relations officer, speaking charmingly on television and encouraging other people to enlist in the UDF (the combined human army structure).

But now he's informed he will be embedded as a combat journalist in the first wave of attackers to hit the beach.

Major Cage does not like this assignment.

Nevertheless, shipped off to Forward Operating Base Heathrow and embedded with "J Squad," just one of many squads of soldiers slated to hit the beaches of Normandy (well, it's not specified it's Normandy; northern coastal France, anyway).

The next day the invasion begins -- Tom Cruise with absolutely no combat training whatsoever; he doesn't even know how to trigger the weapons built into his battlesuit. In a scene of death and futility deliberately patterned after that in Saving Private Ryan, Tom Cruise literally stumbles around, terrified, confused, and utterly unable to do anything other than gawk at the slaughter and scream.

And then an alien kills him.

And then he wakes up, at yesterday morning, when he was first sent to FOB Heathrow.

And then he's sent into the alien slaughterhouse again, and again he's killed.

And then he wakes up again and once again it's the day before.

Edge of Tomorrow rips off three movies -- Saving Private Ryan, as far as the gritty look and terrifying feeling of the invasion of Normandy (though I suppose someone can say "you can't 'rip off' Operation Overlord"). It rips off either or both Aliens and Starship Troopers as to the basic situation, and the frighteningly murderous and terrifyingly-shaped aliens.

And of course it really rips off Groundhog's Day, in borrowing the central premise of a man living the same day (actually, Tom Cruise lives out two days, but close enough) over and over again, gaining advantages each time he does.

While the film is derivative, I would say that almost every film is derivative, and I don't really care if a movie rips off other movies as long as those movies deserve to be ripped off, and the moving ripping them off justifies the rip off by doing something fun with the material.

I'm not giving this a rave review because the movie isn't actually great. So I don't want to oversell it and have people expecting a level of quality that the film can't deliver on.

Nevertheless, it is definitely a good film, and without wanting to raise expectations, it might even shade slightly into the "very good" range.

I also can't talk about too many specifics. It's not that the plot can really be spoiled -- this movie is so clearly Groundhog's Day mixed with Aliens or Starship Troopers with a sprinkling of Saving Private Ryan that there really isn't a lot here that's unexpected.

But the movie does do somewhat different things here and there. Little things, mostly. And if I tell you about these Little Different Things, then these Little Different Things would be spoiled, and you'd pretty much know everything that's going to happen -- you'd know most of it from the films it echoes, then I'd ruin the little things that are semi-original by telling you "But it offers a small twist on Aliens by doing [X]."

So below are some vague, unspolierish observations, Good and Bad.

Good: Tom Cruise's character, and, I don't want to admit this, but Tom Cruise as an actor. Screenwriters give characters flaws to make them seem real. But especially in action movies, action heroes are given the same three flaws, over and over again:

1. He's a Loose Cannon Rebel who Plays By His Own Rules and Has a Problem With Authority.

2. He's a young man between the ages of 16 and 21 who just won't accept his Destiny of Being Awesome.

3. He's a weary, jaded veteran of war and/or intelligence operations who shows how jaded and weary he is by an unwarranted asocial hostility to everyone who so much as asks him what time it is. In other words, he's a borderline-sociopathic asshole who is a "hero" because the film says he's a hero. See, he's "gritty" and "dark." And you show how "gritty" and "dark" you are by being aggressively unpleasant.

Well, Tom Cruise doesn't have one of those Fake Movie Flaws. He has a flaw that's both realistic, given the context, and real, in the sense that it's a real flaw that will tend to make you not like him. He plays this flaw with humor and charm so that you do sort of like him, but his flaw is fairly serious. Strip away the Tom Cruise charm, and he's just a douchebag.

Good: The Alien design. The aliens appear to be a central mass surrounded by dozens of whip-like tentacles. They move fast and look right in doing so. (I often find that when large CGI creatures move fast in movies, they look fake, and don't seem to have the weight that a real creature would. These monsters look pretty plausible in their movements. And fairly scary.)

The other thing the aliens do is... I'll be vague here, but they have one strange movement they do from time to time, where you wonder: What the hell did that thing just do? I won't say more about it, as this falls under the category of Little Tiny Things you weren't expecting. I'll just say it's a small detail that isn't explained and that you might bother to actually wonder about. (And it's nice to occasionally wonder about a sci-fi movie, isn't it?)

Very Good: The camerawork. Those who hate shaky-cams and spastic chops in editing will find this movie to their liking. The action is frenetic at times, but you can actually follow it -- at least you can follow it to the extent you should be able to follow it. Tom Cruise shows up on the battlefield with no training and is disoriented and confused, and while the camera work suggests that, it does not just use palsiated shaky-cam and spastic editing to disorient you, the viewer. It is more subtle in its technique, and it better earns that feeling of disorientation.

Bad: You know how every alien movie since Independence Day features that Central Super Boss Alien where if you just take him out, every single alien solider either dies or simply stops fighting due to lack of direction? Yeah.

I'm telling you this as an anti-spoiler-- this is annoying and cliched, and completely expected, so you might as well know going in that this movie has an "Omega" alien hive-queen. You're just going to have to accept that.

Bad, or maybe not really "bad" per se, but a defensible artistic choice that might disappoint some viewers: the film makes a promise it never quite delivers on. As you almost certainly know from having seen Groundhog's Day, a man who lives the same two days will get better and better at those two days, to the point at which, as Bill Murray said, "Maybe I'm God."

In the film, Tom Cruise goes through actual combat and then hardcore, seriously violent training (yes, in that inverted order: combat first, then combat training) to the point where he becomes a very, very good soldier indeed.

I don't think that's a spoiler. Come on, what were you expecting?

But here's the weird thing: Once Tom Cruise is at his pinnacle of combat performance, you'd expect the movie to have That Scene, the Scene Where Neo Shows Just How Powerful He Is. The scene were he reveals he's The One by his total and complete awesome badassery.

The movie doesn't have That Scene. In fact, when Tom Cruise becomes ultra proficient with his battlesuit, the plot then mostly starts putting him into situations where he doesn't even have his battlesuit.

This is a defensible choice, I guess, because it keeps the tension up. Tom Cruise becomes a super battlesuit warrior, but never actually gets to dominate his enemies with his awesomeness; as soon as he becomes You Are Ultimate Champion, he's put into situations where he's not able to use his Super Powers, and he becomes a very vulnerable underdog again.

Still, it's just a little odd. I kinda wanted That Scene, where Tom Cruise just friggin' goes banana-sandwiches all up and down these aliens' asses. I wanted him standing upon a pile of alien bodies twenty feet high screaming "I am 80th level, bitches!! POWER UP!!!"

You don't get that. It's more like he hits 30th level, but then is stripped of all his Magic Armor and so basically finishes the movie as a competent but not overwhelming 4th level Fighter.

Bad: Tom Cruise never once says "Come get some." A movie is always more awesome when the hero says, "Come get some." This movie is less awesome for not having him say "Come get some."

That doesn't make it a bad movie. Just a lesser movie than it might have been.

Good: The Groundhog's Day jokes still work. It's still funny. It's still funny to see the difference between Tom Cruise, who's lived these days many times before, and everyone else he meets, who's living the day for the first time.

Slightly Bad: The movie tosses out a couple of Plot Premises I didn't really need. Some plotting problems are covered over with dubious explanations rendered in dialogue.

Not Actually Bad, but Some Might Think It's Bad: The explanation for time travel is, well, whatever. I don't think there is a good explanation for time travel; I think in these movies, you just have to accept that it's Magic, though the writers will toss in some glib scientific-sounding explanation.

This explanation really doesn't matter because it's Magic anyway.

This movie bothers less than other movies to explain how time travel is possible, or why this is happening. Yes, they "cover it with dialogue," but it's probably just best if you just accept it as a Writers' Conceit that you have to accept to have the movie exist at all.

Bad, or Questionable: The ending. Many movies will cut out or simplify plots on the theory that the viewers don't care about the actual logic of the plot; they just want to see how it all turns out.

I believe this movie decided that about the viewers, and changed the ending of the movie, to the point where, in terms of the logic established over the course of the film, it doesn't really make sense, or at least falls into the Unexplained Mysteries category.

I actually think the ending does make sense, or can be gamed out (by adding additional explanations involving actions that were not actually show in the movie to the point where it does make sense, and actually is sort of interesting.

I think they wanted the explanation I have in mind -- but then cut the dialogue that would have established it, figuring "Eh, the audience doesn't really care about the logic here."

That's a mistake in time-travel movies, because time-travel movie audiences are extremely interested in nit-picking the movies' logic and implications. Some of the longest plot-related movie discussions I've had are about time-travel premises and logic.

Geeks love chewing over time-travel stuff.

Anyway, the ending either doesn't make sense or involves some New Premise the movie never hinted at, at least on a superficial level, so time-travel nit-pickers will have plenty to nit-pick about here.

But I actually think that if you nit-pick it even more -- that if you don't stop with the superficial nit-picks, but really get deep into the core with your nit-pickery -- you can come up with a plausible explanation that makes sense in terms of the movie's logic.

Which is something.

I guess this part is just a "meh" to me either way. I guess I'm one of those audience members that actually doesn't really care about the plot logic terribly much. And also, if a movie was satisfying and entertaining for two hours and seven minutes, do I really care that the last three minutes weren't perfectly explained?

Oh, let me add: Despite the fact that this is a violent movie and sometimes scary and grim, there's actually not much gore at all. Characters tend to be killed by being blown out of screen (so you don't see their ultimate demise) or are killed with a Black Screen Cut.

There's also very little cursing. Tom Cruise has one foray into the F-word but he's killed before he can finish it.

There's no nudity and no sex.

That doesn't mean it's appropriate for younger viewers, because you can film violence very intensely without gore. (See The Dark Knight or The Conjuring -- the latter earning a R rating for "terror" despite having no cursing or gore whatsoever). I'd say minimum age 14 or so.

Overall, a good movie. Recommended. Three stars.

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posted by Ace at 01:00 PM

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