Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow (2014) – Review

Review: Edge of Tomorrow is a very engaging and thrilling sci-fi actioner.

The film is about Major William Cage, a media relations officer charged with selling an invasion to the people of the world. Backtracking for a moment for context, the world has been forever changed, embroiled in a war for the very survival of humanity after an alien race crash lands on Earth and begins eradicating all life. Most of continental Europe has fallen. The allied forces of Earth see this invasion as their best chance at winning the war. Cage is just an ad man, not a real soldier. He believes he has no place in actual combat, and thus when he is given a combat assignment he tries to talk his way out of it and is labeled at deserter. Now, forced to take part in the invasion as a grunt with no training, Cage will surely die. The invasion is a complete disaster, as the aliens appear to be waiting for the allied forces. Everyone around Cage is dying as they try to make their way off the beach in France. Cage too dies, but is able to kill one of the aliens, its blood absorbing into him. He awakens again on the military base, staging point for the invasion, the day before. Somehow, by taking in the alien blood he has the ability to live the day over again. He must now live the same day over and over until he can figure out how to win the war. He is helped by Rita, a great warrior and hero of the allies’ only victory over the aliens.

There are a lot of elements of Edge of Tomorrow I really enjoyed. It is chiefly still a typical Tom Cruise action film, but what works particularly well is that in this film Cruise’s character Cage starts out as a coward, completely inept at fighting. He is not especially cool or bad-ass. He is just an everyman. This pulls the audience in and makes him relatable, which is greatly beneficial to the narrative overall, as director Doug Liman also presents this film as a character piece of sorts.

Ultimately, the film is essentially a combination of Groundhog Day and Starship Troopers. Liman realizes the brilliance of Groundhog Day is the character work involved with Phil coming to terms with the bizarre situation he finds himself in, as the film works as an existential piece about the meaning of life (to some extent). Liman is not nearly as ambitious with Edge of Tomorrow, but even so he allows Cage to cycle through many emotional states as he comes to terms with what must be done – the big difference is that in Edge of Tomorrow there is actually a known end point and out for Cage (while in Groundhog Day there is not).

The character of Rita (the Angel of Verdun) is also fantastic. It is nice to see a female hero (and not just a hero, but humanity’s greatest warrior) in a big blockbuster. She is also not sidelined once Cage becomes an equally capable fighter; if anything, she remains the film’s chief bad-ass throughout. But what works best about Rita is that she is tough as nails, but not at the expense of her femininity, which is a nice breath of fresh air in the action genre (although, the sci-fi genre does feature a long line of great heroines).

What also worked really well for the film is its similarity to the allies’ struggle in WWII against the Nazis, and particularly Operation Overlord. The Mimics (the alien race) in the film are essentially Nazis – their rapid expansion across Europe mirroring the Blitzkrieg invasion and domination strategy of the Nazis. The invasion by the allies to try and defeat the Mimics also happens along the Northern coast of France (just like Operation Overload). In this way, Edge of Tomorrow is able to pay tribute to many great WWII films while still feeling fresh and sci-fi cool.

Liman succeeds as well in creating very entertaining action set pieces that while feeling a little video-game-like do completely enthrall and excite the audience. They are fast paced and involving, and most importantly backed up by the strong character moments that Liman has throughout the film – both for the main and supporting characters. Edge of Tomorrow also features a fair about of humor that serves as a break from what is otherwise very intense. Again, like Groundhog Day, Liman finds the humor associated with being able to relive the same day over and over; and, Cruise’s charisma is used to fantastic effect.

The film is not without issue however. The ending is fairly abrupt and feels a bit cheap, not giving proper closure to the characters (but hopefully there will be a sequel). The overall narrative also suffers from the problem of there never feeling like there are any real stakes. Yes, the film is very fun and entertaining; but by the very nature of the narrative, the stakes are weak. If Cage or Rita dies, it is fine because the timeline just resets. The film is never able to create a strong sense of suspense, which leaves a lot on the table in terms of involving the audience emotionally. The film thus works as light entertainment, never garnering any real gravitas.

And yet, overall, Edge of Tomorrow is one of the best sci-fi action films to come out in the last five or so years. It is innovative, very entertaining, and features fun characters. It is well worth seeing for fans of the genre.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Doug Liman furthers his reputation for making highly entertaining action films with Edge of Tomorrow (finally following up on his strong work on The Bourne Identity). I do also like his less actiony films Swingers, Go, and Fair Game as well. Edge of Tomorrow is Liman’s best action film to date, and it seems to have reestablished Liman as one of the genre’s marquee directors. I look forward to seeing what he does next.

Composer Christophe Beck’s score is solid and perfectly matches and supports the style of the film and the dramatic action onscreen. Dion Beebe’s cinematography is top class (which comes as no surprise). The film feels richer and more colorful thanks to his beautiful and crisp lighting. Oliver Scholl’s production design is also very good. He finds the right balance between futuristic-feeling technology and a look that also feels grounded in reality. I also enjoyed the visual throwbacks to iconic images from WWII throughout the film.

Edge of Tomorrow features a good cast, many of whom do great work in small supporting roles. Jonas Armstrong, Tony Way, Kick Gurry, Charlotte Riley, and Noah Taylor stand out among these small roles. Brenden Gleeson plays the commander of the allied forces General Brigham and does so with aplomb. Bill Paxton, however, is the real standout among the supporting cast, playing Master Sergeant Farell with a wonderful mix of comedy and intimidation. The breakout star of the film is Emily Blunt. She has established herself in period dramas, light comedies, and romance films, but here she really emerges as an action heroine (building off her character in Looper – which is sort of a riff on early Sarah Conner). She exemplifies all the characteristics usually reserved for male action stars. She is tough, cool, and in command – even to a greater extent than Tom Cruise’s Cage (even though it is primarily his character’s story). She is fantastic, and I hope to see her in future action films. Tom Cruise plays his typical action-film self, which works well as that character is highly enjoyable given the context of the genre. But, what is different here, as stated above in the review, is that he starts off as the opposite of his typically bad-ass self-confident hero. The audience gets to see him grow into the role, and Cruise plays this wonderfully, and it is this element that makes the film so effective.

Summary & score: Edge of Tomorrow is a very enjoyable and exciting sci-fi action film, built on great action scenes and fun characters. 7/10

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