Monday, February 23, 2015

Edge of Tomorrow Meddler Week, Part 1: It Ignores Its Own Meaning

So let’s talk about Edge of Tomorrow AKA Live Die Repeat, AKA All You Need is Kill. As you might have noticed from the multiple titles, the studio didn’t really know how to market this movie, and didn’t really care, but then there was a twist: Critics loved it! But then there was another twist: Audiences didn’t show up, and the movie flopped! But wait: I had good word of mouth! At some point, the reputation finally settled at “sleeper you should see on DVD”. So I did.

So who was right, the dubious studio, the happy critics, the mass audience that rejected it, or the cult audience that embraced it? A little of each. The movie is definitely a slam-bang action blockbuster, delivering exactly the sort of all-out adrenaline-fest that draws people into Transformers movies, but with actual entertainment value added on, so it is frustrating that Transformers 4 kicked its ass at the box office.

 It’s also far better (both more entertaining and smarter) than Oblivion, Elysium, Pacific Rim, After Earth, and all of the other abortive attempts at non-franchise sci-fi from the previous year. So there’s that.

But…is it actually good? As in, not just better than crap, but actually good in its own rite? The answer is: almost. Well, okay, it’s certainly good, but it’s almost very good, and that’s really frustrating.

Unlike the movies above, this situation actually makes sense (which is saying a lot, with a premise this wild) and each plot twist is a clever and exciting escalation on the last. It’s well-structured, has fun dialogue and good performances. But it has several fatal flaws, so let’s take a look at those from a storytelling point of view:

The first big problem that plagues the movie is that it tacks on a bunch of awkward satirical elements while ignoring the satire inherent in its premise. The whole first half of the movie plays like a tongue-in-cheek parody of the D-Day landing (Too soon? Actually, yes.) Then there’s a mish-mash of other war references (The young woman who suddenly rises through the ranks to lead the army is known as “the Angel of Verdun”.) These odd detail are jokey without being jokes, and they ring all hollow. Parody and satire always limit audience identification, so they’d better add something to the movie, but these don’t.

This is frustrating, because the urge to add a satirical element is actually a good one. Here’s the premise: An untrained army PR guy is forced to fight an alien invasion on the front lines, but he finds himself living the same day over and over, allowing him to get better and better as he repeats the day, until he finally figures out how to stop the invasion altogether.

Obviously, Groundhog Day has already milked most of the meaning out of this situation, so it would seem like there was nothing left to say, but the change of setting could have provided a completely different meaning.

What this movie resembles more than anything is a game of “Call of Duty”: You’re plunged into an invasion, get killed a bunch of times, go back to the beginning each time, and learn to start over as a bad-ass right from the start. This taps into two possible sources of meaning:
  1. It could be a commentary on the FPS-generation of couch-bound man-boys, who crow online about what badasses they are while hitting reset over and over.
  2. And it could also be a commentary on the increasing video-game-ization of war itself, with guys sitting in Las Vegas with joysticks blowing up actual Pakistani families as if there were just so many Koopa Troopas.
In both cases, this premise almost taps into a deep vein of meaning...but it never actually goes there. The video games aspect is never hinted at, and this is clearly a drone-free military.

How to fix this? Let’s look at some on-the-nose solutions: Give Cruise a son by an ex-wife, then let him start the movie by having an awkward video chat with the boy, who’s ignoring him and playing an FPS instead. Or have Cruise, as PR spokesman, say that the new suits are as easy as operating a joystick.

Or make it less on-the-nose: After Cruise loses the power, have him freak out and hide until Blunt yells at him that he never would have been able to win without consequences, because we can’t really commit until we have something on the line.

Instead of critiquing video game culture, the movie just become a video game, which is a problem in more ways than one, as we’ll see next time...


j.s. said...

The intention of the source novel is not so much to critique video game culture as to celebrate the existential possibilities of video game play -- where you can and should embrace mind-numbing repetition and exhaustive iteration to get better than you imagined, to learn to solve (and even to spot) problems that seemed insurmountable or overwhelming before, to ultimately navigate your way into territories that were previously off limits.

GROUNDHOG DAY's scenario is hellish because the protagonist doesn't see an upside to being stuck in the same world day in and day out, but that's precisely the point of playing a difficult video game -- to master a world through painstaking iteration.

Here's a film where training sequences (and the real-life all-stakes/no-stakes "training" opportunity of each repeated day of the battle) were intended to have been the heart and soul of the narrative.

The P.R. man is a better fit for Cruise's persona than the cowardly green infantry recruit the character was supposed to be, but a much worse fit for the story overall. There's just so little reason to believe he'd be put in the position the film needs him to be in. And Cruise continues to be a cinematic black hole for me -- a star with reasonably interesting taste who is almost always the worst thing in (if not the entire ruin of) the films he picks to make.

Emily Blunt does her best, but she's reimagined into a bland teacher become love interest rather than the mysterious warrior princess the character used to be.

I didn't mind the humor as much as you did. But the tone is all over the place for a reason. It feels like Cruise and Liman were as ambivalent as the split audiences and critics you describe -- interested in some of the elements but ultimately unsure of what they wanted to make of this, or even why they'd set out to do it in the first place.

And I can't really see the appeal of switching locations to England from Florida unless it was simply that bright sunlight would make all those VFX even more difficult.

I don't even know if I can bear to talk about how lame that ending is... The location alone is so weird and random, it's like a deadly serious version of that joke from PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE about the basement of the Alamo. And almost all of that seems like Cruise's fault as his go-to rewriter, Christopher McQuarrie, has his fingerprints all over the script. McQuarrie is also currently completely rewriting the end to MI5, again at Cruise's insistence, while the whole production is shut down for a week or so.

Parker said...

So, Matt, do you play video games? Because if not, maybe that's why you're missing the appeal of this kind of plot. I like irony, and I'm all for criticizing techno-culture, but I think the video game structure of this movie succeeded at being... just fun.

That said, the movie wasn't more than that. It was fun and that's all. The ending was predictable and a bit meaningless, but the ride was fun.

Even so, I'm always up for meddling, so I look forward to tomorrow's post!

A.D. said...

I don't know if sprinkling on a little heavy handed dialogue would really change anything. To me one of the best aspects of the film was its light tone and comedic touches, and if anything, I wanted more.

For me, the "serious" version of this film would be one in which no matter how many times he tries to find the perfect route, he realizes he has to sacrifice something important to him, because war has no winners. Or something like that. A sophie's choice-level of dilemma. But that's not necessarily the movie I wanted to see.

The sequence that exemplifies what I liked most about the film is when he's trying to perfect the roll under the truck and splatters a couple times. Witty and genuinely cool, which is more than I can say for anything Cruise has been involved with in years.

j.s. said...

In response to some of Matt's remarks about EDGE OF TOMORROW on the podcast -- I guess it's starting to feel like you didn't want a different or better version or this film so much as a radically different one based on a similar premise.

I'm hearing a lot about how this ought to have been a critique of video game logic and/or a much more ironic war film. But I'm not sure why that's necessary.

How is simply learning to be a more effective soldier through repetition and persistence not enough? Not even if the filmmakers had highlighted the cost of witnessing and remembering all of that mass carnage every single time -- like PTSD on steriods?

Wouldn't going from an inexperienced coward to an experienced hero by virtue of his persistence be a worthy arc? Or what about a solider who really thinks he's pretty good, who mistakenly imagines he's up to the challenge, but has no idea what he's really up against, who has to learn humility and an almost granular attention to detail and intelligence collection about his enemy? A war fighter with plenty of brawn and guts who has to learn to use his brain (obviously, of course, an even worse fit for Cruise than the current character)?

Before we turn this into some much broader, more conventional hero's journey I'd like to consider how to make it a better version of the sort of military sci-fi that it already wants to be, a more narrowly focused descendant of Heinlein's (not Verhoeven's) STARSHIP TROOPERS.

Matt Bird said...

Sorry guys, I'm trying to fix my computer, responses tomorrow...

Matt Bird said...

Computer's still dead, but here goes:

For me, a good story needs an internal component which this movie didn't really have. Ultimately, what's inside Cruise doesn't really matter, he's just an everyman, and I've always been opposed to that. Can it work? Sure, this movies works, but it's not fully engaging, and I think that that's why this movie didn't catch fire in the way that some people expected it to.

The problem is one of obstacles vs. conflict. It's fun to watch Cruise overcome external obstacles, but he never really encounters any internal confilcts.

In terms of the "basement of the Louvre" it's even crazier because that's also the location of the macguffin and finale of "The Da Vinci Code". One of many things that feel oddly derivative here.

Parker: No, I don't play anymore. I agree with your assessment of the movie as fun and just fun, but I think I was more frustrated by that than you were.

j.s. said...

But can't the protagonist's internal conflict be as simple as overcoming the cowardice/apathy of the green recruit in the source novel? Why does it feel like you still want this to be some kind of military sci-fi statement on the futility of all war?

Or about the craziness of fighting a war as if one is playing a videogame? Not that there's not a good film to be made about those themes, just that this film feels like a really odd choice, given especially how the material feels like it's legitimately celebrating certain aspects of videogame logic as a metaphor for hard-won self-improvement. We might all wish we had extra lives and a few more do-overs to solve our problems. But the price EDGE OF TOMORROW's protagonist pays for utilizing his -- actually dying and witnessing the deaths of all of his comrades again and again and again -- is surely in many respects just as high if not higher than the price many continue to pay for the lessons they've learned surviving combat in battles where they only get one life to live. Shouldn't a clearer assessment of the problem be looking at how unseriously the present version of EDGE OF TOMORROW takes those existential stakes? (In terms of genre stories that deal imaginatively with similar issues, I felt more empathy for Hugh Jackman's character in THE PRESTIGE or the dual and dueling protagonists of PRIMER.)

Another way of putting this is to reference your own recent post on SELMA: Is there a more satisfying fix via an ironic means/hows procedural version of EDGE OF TOMORROW's story as opposed to the ironic what/who you seem to be more focused on?

Harvey Jerkwater said...

The central conceit is not a metaphor. It's just a gimmick. An awesome gimmick. It doesn't mean anything beyond itself. That limits how good the movie can be. As others have pointed out, it's good and fun, but it doesn't have the necessary parts to be great.

The "videogame" metaphor doesn't work, because it's not a "national pain," as Matt puts it elsewhere. Alone, it doesn't resonate.

The weird time-travel hoohar is separate from the technology of the army, making any connections to How America Fights Wars With Distant Tech a non-starter. Cruise isn't fighting that kind of war - he's in close combat all the time - and what makes him different is a result of an alien accident, not human planning. Making him a braggart from the 101st Chairborne Infantry who discovers the horrors of war for real doesn't require the time-travel mechanism.

I'm trying to think of the metaphor the time travel hoohar could serve. Coming up blank.

Which is how you end up with an entertaining, very cool "learning the ropes" story with some curious emotional threads, rather than a Big Powerful Movie About Important Truths that happens to include Tom Cruise in a robot suit shooting aliens.

Maybe it could be another Jerry Maguire, which was described well by a writer I can't recall this second as "the spiritual awakening of a shallow man." Edge of Tomorrow shows Cruise growing from callow dick to competent guy, but it didn't strike me as spiritual growth. Maybe go that way? Sure, it's Groundhog Day with power armor, but that's not a bad thing.

j.s. said...

I'll second what Harvey says about the problem of shoehorning a critique of drone war into a film with a conceit of brutal closely fought infantry combat. The idea that "war is not a videogame" has everything to do with issues of distance and depersonalization, not much to do with extra lives and learning through iteration.