Saturday, 19 July 2014

"What I am about to tell you sounds crazy. But you have to listen to me. Your very lives depend on it. You see, this isn't the first time..."

On the face of it, there is nothing particularly original about Edge Of Tomorrow. Brush your hand across its gritty surface and you'll smear the thin layer off a number of influences. Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day (1993), perhaps the most obvious for its time-loop plot engine – and by extension Source Code (2010) – Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998), for its Omaha beach brutality; plus Aliens (1986), Starship Troopers (1997) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) for its bombastic portrayal of large scale hi-tech conflict with multi-limbed, biomechanical extraterrestrials. It's exquisitely apposite that, if you're coming to this film from a healthy upbringing on action science fiction cinema of the 1980s and 1990s, you'll experience a throbbing sense of déjà vu – only made more acute by the film's shared chromosomes with Elysium (2013) and that other Tom Cruise science fiction outing, Oblivion (2013).

None of which is to diminish our recommendation. Director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) and his screenwriting trio of Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) and brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (Fair Game) wear all these influences well, and with pride. Why else enlist the ever-reliable Bill Paxton as a puff-chested, adage-chewing sergeant if not to wink at his past life as a colonial marine? Ultimately their adaption of Hiroshi Sakurazaka's light novel All You Need Is Kill, may be hugely familiar, but welcomingly so. And it also proves to be whole lot of fun.

This is in no small part to perhaps the movie's most significant influence of all: video games. While we still await an even remotely decent video game-to-movie adaptation, Edge Of Tomorrow provides the perfect substitute. It may not have spawned directly from any console based IP, but it is thoroughly steeped in gaming culture and logic – mainly via Sakurazaka himself, who is also a programmer. Lay the film's plot over a game design template and you'll find a pleasingly neat match. When Cage (Tom Cruise) awakens into the first day of his enforced demotion, he is effectively starting from a save point. When, eventually, a close encounter on that bloody beach with a tentacle flailing, blast furnace mouthed alpha – the 'end of level' boss – causes his health bar to retract to zero, we snap back to that save point, and he must 'play' the two days again. With each replay, he must learn how to survive to reach the next 'level' (to ultimately meet the 'end of game' boss), although, paradoxically, just as we learn from our mistakes in life, he must learn from his deaths.

Part of this is through his power of recollection, plus development of muscle memory: step left to avoid explosion here, shoot right to eliminate incoming mimic there – every repeated battle is pre-programmed, so he just has to learn the patterns. Then part of it is through a more straightforward regime of personal improvement – or 'levelling up' if you will – which comes via Cage 'unlocking new content'. Having mastered the timing of a roll between a truck's wheels in one amusing and novel sequence, he is rewarded with access to a trainer (Emily Blunt as seasoned soldier Rita Vrataski) who not only provides him with the necessary information to progress to new 'levels', but also enables him to 'spend' his 'experience points' in her automated dojo.

If this all sounds as mechanical as the exo-suits Cage and his comrades wear, don't be put off. McQuarrie and the Butterworths have crafted a rich and drily witty script that ensures each rewind veers into territory as unexpected as it is familiar. Seemingly throwaway lines accrue layers of meaning as Cage relives, and relives, these two days. "Battle is a true redeemer," barks Paxton's sarge at his men; "tomorrow morning you will be baptised. Born again." A little later, just before being dropped into the hot zone, a fellow grunt yells at Cage, the raw recruit, "I think there's something wrong with your suit... Yeah, there's a dead man in it!" So true.

The writers have fun with the whole death-to-progress concept, too. Once Blunt's combat hardened Rita joins Cage in his quest, it becomes her job to 'press quit' when things go wrong – by shooting Cage through the head. Also, after the plot's loopy logic is firmly established (which, like any time travel movie, raises more questions than it provides answers), they employ it to maintain tension: how much does Cage know? Has he been through this scenario before? It's deliberately never clear just how many lives he's already gone through to get to any given scene. It is a shame that the deaths themselves aren't allowed to have more impact. In a previous era, this would have been a 15 to 18 certificate movie that would not have shied away from presenting Cage's many and varied demises, gore and all. But the commercial pressure to audience broaden has required Liman to cut away as much as possible, and a visual sense of trauma is lost.

Still, Cruise sells it brilliantly. Indeed, this is his strongest performance in some time and he revels in the character's development. He starts out as a smug, smirking, weaselly coward, not above trying to blackmail an implacable general (Brendan Gleeson); Cage is so ineffectual, he can't even switch off the safety on his exo-suits hand cannons. During his first drop he stumbles lamely about, watching his comrades die in the dirt, doing little useful to help them. But battle is a true redeemer, of course. So slowly but surely the weasel becomes a lion. Although not without a self-serving detour or two along the way.

This itself is a clever spin on Cruise's frequent journey as a leading man: instead of going from cocksure to compassionate hero via a crisis, he here travels from coward to compassionate hero via the mother of all crises.

Blunt, too, is on strong form, exhibiting a steely poise that makes her comfortably believable as a war propaganda poster girl known simultaneously as The Angel Of Verdun and Full Metal Bitch. She is less a romantic interest for Cruise than she is his mentor, and his foil. Doug Liman has always been an astute, experimental chemist, and while this isn't quite the Brad Pitt and Angelina Joile lab explosion of Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), it's at least as strong a pairing as Matt Damon and Franka Potente in The Bourne Identity (2002).

While the breakneck pace leaves little room for meaningful character development, and the flooded Paris set climax fails to match the handheld ballistics of the earlier scenes, there's imagination and thrills to spare. There's a freshness here too that comes not only from the structure, but from the fact that Edge Of Tomorrow is a shiny new property in a cyclical age of sequels, prequels and spin-offs.

After the forgettable Jumper (2008) and Fair Game (2010), it's good to see Liman back on pyrotechnic form, orchestrating some inventive combat spectacle. This could well be his biggest hit yet – and certainly Cruise's for a good while, too. Arguably a rebirth, of a sorts, for both of them. If nothing else, Edge Of Tomorrow will stand out as one of this summer's most entertaining surprises. One to watch again and again and again...

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