30 June 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

I do not hate big blockbuster action flicks. I really don't. I am generally willing enough to tolerate Hollywood's ridiculousness as long as it's remotely entertaining, and if a movie is doing something even slightly interesting, or has an enlightened approach to race/gender/etc, I am already 75% won over. But things get dicey when you're facing a film that has some pretensions to actually being a good movie rather than a standard mindless blockbuster, because it becomes hard to decide what kind of standard to judge it by. Edge of Tomorrow is a reasonably intelligent movie with decent special effects and a strong female character who refreshingly breaks with action film conventions. But is not a sparkling, witty film with heaps of panache and emotional complexity, and it is certainly not a "doozy," despite what some critics say. Unfortunately, despite having a lot of things going for it in terms of plotting and character, it's strangely lifeless and somewhat rote. I really, really wanted to like it. But I was decidedly underwhelmed, and honestly, I blame the critics who are pushing this film as a smarter, more interesting blockbuster, because I feel like I would have liked the movie a lot more if my expectations hadn't been over-inflated.

Let me be clear -- the movie really does have a lot going for it. I absolutely agree that Emily Blunt is awesome as a grizzled badass warrior who is basically written like a stock male character except she's female and it works just fine. I don't think that should be mistaken for emotional complexity -- the film is pretty spartan when it comes to feelings, which is also fine by me. Although it occasionally seems interested in delving into the kind of relationship that develops between two people in such a context (is anyone making the 50 First Dates comparison?), a lot of those moments feel pretty cursory. The movie is instead rather single-mindedly focused on achieving its mission of killing the aliens, and figuring out how to do that without dragging the viewer through the tedium of actually repeating the same day over and over.

And it does that quite effectively. In the middle, actually, it starts to get really interesting as it becomes unclear whether a given moment is happening for the first time or not. I haven't seen Groundhog's Day in ages so I have no idea whether it did the same thing or not, and I also think that's entirely beside the point. I tend to find time-travel movies a bit eye-roll-y, but this was the rare film in which the time travel plot points were both exciting and intellectually stimulating. At least until the end, when the writers apparently could not resist busting out what has become the standard cliché ending of any "mind-bending" film. The logistical problems raised by the specific way these particular aliens worked were really quite clever and cool, and I wish the movie had spent more time exploring them because unlike most sci-fi action thrillers, they actually merited deeper consideration.

I am also totally willing to grant that the movie has moments of something like humor, and that Tom Cruise is more likable than usual. Linda Holmes has said that he is more appealing when he's doing something a little bit more smarmy than his full on noble hero act, and I agree, though I might put it a bit differently -- it's when he seems lighter on his feet, more playful (be it for good or evil), that he is more appealing. He does a lot of very earnest stuff. Sometimes (as in Magnolia) that turns into something very interesting, but usually it's heavy and borderline caricature. It's the moments that he's not so serious that we like him, and fortunately, we get a few of those.

But overall, the movie felt heavy and a bit dull to me. There were a couple plot decisions that dragged it down, I think. I've mentioned the stupid ending; the beginning isn't much better. The writer wants to get Tom Cruise to somehow be literally dropped into combat totally unprepared, and he does it with this bizarre lead-up of a p.r. guy getting shanghaid by a general who is angry at him for threatening to tarnish his image (after refusing to...be dropped into combat unprepared... which the general weirdly wanted him to do...so as to provide good p.r.). It's totally absurd, and it really seems like there are better ways to go. Cruise arguably doesn't even need to be so unprepared in the first place -- given the nature of his mission, he'd probably need some additional training anyhow, because lord knows the film REQUIRES a training montage. The point being: the movie felt rather long to me, and this was exacerbated by the feeling that it wasn't using its time effectively.

It's not a bad film. As far as summer blockbusters go, it may well be one of the better ones around. It's unfortunate that it's just good enough to make me actually engage with it mentally and emotionally (unlike, say, the latest X-Men film, which I found entertaining enough because I don't take it at all seriously), but not quite good enough to carry the weight of that attention. I want to reward it for making the effort, but I just didn't find it that entertaining. The problem is, the industry is probably going to draw all the wrong lessons from its low box office numbers.


TB said...

I actually liked the movie quite a bit, your criticism notwithstanding. The idea that in a global conflict with an alien race only three entities - Cruise, Blunt and "the Brain" matter - is quite appealing and it mimics (no pun intended) the real life.

cbk said...

I haven't seen this film, but I TOTALLY GET what you are saying about the critics touting this or that as something "smarter" than....well, than what, exactly? Your reaction to this mirrors what I felt after seeing The Heat last year. I sooo wanted to like it, and its gender politics were certainly in order, but it was just meh. Meh! And then I see something like Pain and Gain and see all kinds of smart things in it, upending my own expectations about it. It doesn't speak well to the critical establishment--which is already shrinking--that they end up tangled in what feels to me like groupthink.