Life's A Beach (And Then You Die, Repeatedly)
I am not entirely surprised to learn that all is not well in the state of Tom Cruise: the gleamingly betoothed one is not busting blocks in the way he was wont to do in years gone by – Stateside, at least. Why exactly should this be? Is it a case of audience fatigue? Is it due to the films themselves not being quite up to scratch? Or is it simply that the great American public have, rightly or wrongly, come to the conclusion that, off-screen, Tom Cruise is just a tiny bit weird?
Certainly it seems to me that Cruise is increasingly resembling the great Charlton Heston in his final years, in that the star's creative output has been increasingly overshadowed by his real-life beliefs and antics. His willingness to lend his name and star power to decent studio SF movies adds to this, admittedly: Cruise hasn't made a truly game-changing genre movie like Planet of the Apes yet, but he keeps on trying.
His latest offering is Doug Liman's Edge of Tomorrow, which instantly scored points with me by establishing its scenario without recourse to either expository captions or voice-over. Basically, Europe has been invaded by squiggly space aliens, but their advance has ground to a halt at the English Channel, and a vast high-tech invasion force is massing at Heathrow to drive the gribbly hordes back (insert your own joke about UKIP here, if you must).
Cruise plays Cage, a US Army media relations officer in Britain to document the invasion. A dedicated staff officer, he is therefore not best pleased when commanding officer Brendan Gleeson orders him in with the first wave of the assault (it's basically the scene with Melchett and Darling from the last episode of Blackadder, but with shinier teeth), and his attempts to dodge this backfire and see him busted to private and packed off to the staging area.
The invasion proceeds and is a disaster, with the squiggly aliens slaughtering everyone in sight, including Cruise. Up until now the film has had a general sort of war-movie vibe, cheerily mixing up bits of Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket, Starship Troopers, and Aliens – the movie acknowledges some of these influences, not least by casting the great Bill Paxton as Cage's topkick. Not surprisingly, given that the film is only about fifteen minutes in and everyone has already died, things take a left turn as Cruise finds himself back in the previous day, reliving the events leading up to the doomed assault. Again it happens, again he dies, again he snaps back to the day before. Can he find a way to survive the battle, and perhaps even help win the war? Perhaps the fact this is even happening might offer some kind of a clue...
Well, here's the funny thing about Edge of Tomorrow: one of the reasons I was slightly lukewarm about Cruise's last SF offering, Oblivion, was that it felt rather like a bigger-budget, sexed-up, actioned-up retread of Duncan Jones' first film as a director, Moon. And something rather inescapable about Edge of Tomorrow (for all that it's based on an original novella by Hiroshi Sakurazaka) is the fact that it feels rather like a bigger-budget, sexed-up, actioned-up retread of Duncan Jones' second film as a director, Source Code. Tom, if you want to work with Duncan that badly, there are more straightforward ways of letting him know.
The chief similarity between Source Code and Edge of Tomorrow is the time-resetting gimmick, which of course dates back over twenty years (to Jonathan Heap’s 12:01PM) . I've always said that just being derivative isn't in itself enough to make a film bad, so let's not get too hung up on this. The film does handle the gimmick with a certain dark wit, with quite a few of Cruise's various demises played for laughs – it doesn't have Source Code's oppressive sense of an endlessly recurring nightmare, and it doesn't quite explain how Cruise isn't driven totally nuts by an insanely large number of traumatic demises, but then this is more of a generic action movie anyway. It is very much a movie for the games console generation, and anyone who has found themselves repeatedly slaughtered while trying to get to the next save point on an FPS will probably have some sympathy for Cruise’s predicament.
On the other hand, the film is solidly written, with a due appreciation of how difficult it is to seriously challenge someone who is effectively immortal and able to teach himself any required skill instantly, and so the final act becomes a rather more conventional SF-action movie set piece. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anybody – Edge of Tomorrow may touch on a bunch of different movie genres, and be predicated upon an outrageous bafflegab premise, but it inevitably boils down to being Tom Cruise gritting his extraordinary teeth and shooting at stuff in front of green-screen.
That it succeeds in coming across as something more than that is partly a result of the inventiveness of the script and direction, but also due to the talent of the actors involved. This being a Cruise vehicle, the script has been tinkered with to give the star a chance to do his stuff – there’s an arc about him changing from an unreliable, barely-competent coward to a committed, dedicated warrior which I suspect has been beefed up – but he remains one of those actors with enough presence to prevent watching essentially the same scene four or five times over from becoming a drag. Brendan Gleeson isn’t in it enough, obviously, and the same really goes for Bill Paxton. I expect Noah Taylor fans will say the same (he appears, briefly, as a boffin). This is a Cruise vehicle, and that’s never really in any doubt, but his chief foil on this occasion is Emily Blunt as a ferocious female soldier with whom he establishes a relationship (over and over again). Blunt is a versatile actor and does well in a role which could easily have become a cypher.
Edge of Tomorrow isn’t going to set the world on fire or mark the beginning of a New Golden Age of Intelligent SF Film-making, but on the other hand if this is the worst, dumbest genre movie we see all summer then 2014 should turn out to be a pretty good year. This movie never really succeeds in becoming more than the sum of its parts – so it’s just as well that those were pretty good parts to begin with.