Monday, June 09, 2014

Scientology versus the Flying Spaghetti Monster
("Edge of Tomorrow": review)

My first thought, when I saw the preview trailer for Tom Cruise's newest sci-fi actioner "Edge of Tomorrow," was that the punchline to this movie would be that all the characters in the story are actually characters in a video game, forever perishing and "respawning" in a sort of "Tron" meets "The Matrix" scenario. The movie shows a cycle of life, death, life, death, life, and more death—all in a tightly whirling samsara of action in which a single day restarts over and over for Tom Cruise's character, Major (then Private) William Cage, every time Cage dies.

Earth is at war with an alien race called the Mimics. In a welcome departure from the usual sci-fi tropes, the Mimics have focused their lust on Europe instead of on America. The militaries of the North Atlantic countries have coalesced to form the UDF, or United Defense Force; the UDF has suffered major losses since the beginning of the invasion, but when humans invent a robotic battle suit called a "Jacket," the tide suddenly turns, and the humans win a major victory in Verdun, France, thanks in large part to a Rambo-like female warrior: Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), the fabled "Angel of Verdun," also known colloquially as the "Full-metal Bitch." Vrataski's weapon of choice is an enormous sword that seems to a repurposed helicopter blade. With the sword and her Jacket, she mowed down hundreds of Mimics in Verdun, thus gaining her fame.

Major Cage, meanwhile, is the opposite of a warrior: he's a PR guy with no combat experience who prefers to sit in front of a camera and deliver heartening propaganda to the masses. The European commander who has assumed authority over Cage, General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), wants Cage at the battlefront for Operation Downfall, a deep strike into enemy territory that aims to decimate the Mimics. Cage shrivels in fear when he discovers he's to be on the front lines; he attempts to shirk his duty, and when that fails, he attempts to blackmail General Brigham. This results in Cage's arrest and automatic demotion to private, and instead of being sent to the front as a PR guy to promote the war, he's suited up with a Jacket and sent in as a combatant.

The next morning, the commencement of Operation Downfall turns out to be a slaughter: the Mimics have anticipated the attack, and they ambush the arriving humans on the beach. Cage is air-dropped with a platoon; he manages to kill a large Mimic before being killed himself... at which point he wakes up and finds himself reliving the previous day. Cage dies again and again, and part of the film's mystery is why this keeps happening. Cage discovers that Vrataski once had the same time-looping ability, which explains how she became such a fearsome warrior. Vrataski becomes Cage's trainer and mentor.

Since the movie has only just come out, I don't want to spoil the plot by revealing too much, so let's talk about various aspects of "Edge of Tomorrow."

First, we'll note the movie's derivative nature. The Mimics, violently flailing tentacle-beasts that look like mechanized versions of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (sex among Mimics must be exciting and raunchy), remind me of nothing so much as the Squiddies from "The Matrix." "Tomorrow" also evokes "Starship Troopers," although it largely lacks Paul Verhoeven's blood-and-gore aesthetic. The time-looping calls to mind the "temporal causality loops" that were such a feature of the "Star Trek" TV series, as well as Bill Murray's "Groundhog Day," which is more of an axiological causality loop (Murray can't leave the loop until he becomes a good person). Then there's the video-game aspect: "Tomorrow" looks and feels a lot like an exhausting bout of Halo: die, then retry, and improve your skills with every go-around as you learn to anticipate the enemy. On top of all this, the movie is itself based on a Japanese novel, with the Japanglish title All You Need is Kill. But this seems to be the way of so much American science fiction: it's all derivative these days.

Other aspects of the movie are generally up to snuff. The special effects in "Tomorrow" are impressive, although the video-game nature of the action does drain some scenes of emotional impact. The acting, even from Bill Paxton as Master Sergeant Farrell Bartolome, is good and believable. At first, I was convinced the soundtrack was yet another cookie-cutter Hans Zimmer affair, but the composer, it turns out, is Canadian Christophe Beck, about whom I know nothing.* Beck does a convincing Zimmer impression for most of the film.

The story is also surprisingly simple, despite all those time-loop epicycles in the plot. Essentially, the plot is like that of a video game: there's a hierarchy of aliens, and the heroes have to find the "boss" alien and kill it. I don't know why so many book and movie aliens are hive-minds with a "queen" that, once killed, renders all the drones useless (cf. Ender's Game), but that's the scenario we're given in "Tomorrow."

As with the recently reviewed "X-Men: Days of Future Past," "Tomorrow" has some metaphysical problems. Here's one: what happens to a timeline when Cage dies? Does it continue on without him? One scene in "Tomorrow" makes me think the answer might be yes: in this scene, Cage has already died and respawned several times, and he's trying to get away from his platoon, which is in the midst of doing pushups as punishment. Cage executes a roll away from the platoon, hoping to time his roll so that he travels under a passing truck and out the other side. He mistimes the roll, and the truck crushes him to death (we hear the sickening crunch of bone). Sergeant Bartolome then turns around and sees Cage's corpse (still off-camera), exclaiming, "What were you thinking?" Question: why would Bartolome still be around long enough to exclaim that? The implication is that that timeline continued without Cage, which makes it fair to ask whether Cage's other deaths have resulted in other alternative timelines, each as fully existent as the original one. Is this a frothing multiverse? If so, I've discussed such metaphysics before elsewhere. I often think that Hollywood scriptwriters don't think much further than the ends of their noses when it comes to dealing with time paradoxes and other weird ontological phenomena.

All those complaints aside, I enjoyed "Edge of Tomorrow" for what it was: good, mindless entertainment that, like "X-Men," delivered on the action, even if it was a bit short in the brains department. Tom Cruise, warrior for Scientology, once again does his own stunts, and given the knocking-about he receives, I'd say he gave this one his all. Emily Blunt was surprisingly convincing as an action heroine; given her delicate presence and her ubiquity in romantic comedies, she wouldn't have been my first choice as the inheritor of the Sigourney Weaver/Linda Hamilton mantle. Still, she did yeoman's work in this film, so hats off to her. "Edge of Tomorrow" contains plenty of action, plenty of spectacle, and just a tantalizing hint of some Big Ideas. The plot, despite involving so many causality loops, isn't particularly complex, and the time will pass quickly.

*A Wikipedia search reveals that Beck scored "Bring It On" and "We Are Marshall," as well as several seasons of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."



John from Daejeon said...

Can you imagine Bob Hoskins as Wolverine and Angela Bassett as Storm? The definitive writer of The X-Men and Stan Lee tried to get James Cameron and Katheryn Bigelow to do exactly that.

Anyway, I haven't seen this flick yet, but it looks like Chloe Grace Moretz has grown up and doing something a bit different.

John from Daejeon said...

It was actually an entertaining film until Tom Cruise cruised on by on his motorcycle (a la "Top Gun") and then it got more ridiculous as it progressed to its David v. Goliath showdown.

This Fall, I think you might find The Equalizer quite interesting for both Chloë Grace Moretz and the choice of music. However, it looks like Chloë Grace Moretz could have been cast in Denzel's part, and the film could have been called "Kick-
Ass 3." You'll see why once you watch the trailer.