The Circle Game
Review by Ken Burke Edge of Tomorrow
A futuristic soldier fights against a powerful alien invasion; he dies (frequently) but acquires the power to keep resetting time to find a defense against these beasts.
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OK, let’s see if I can meet my stated intentions from my last posting (June 6, 2014, reviewing X-Men: Days of Future Past [Brian Singer] and Maleficent [Robert Stromberg]) to start doing shorter, single-film-reviews but still try to make them a bit unique from all of the many others that you can turn to in our vast analytical worlds of print, broadcast, and cyberspace. Maybe the latest from honest-to-God-movie-star Tom Cruise can help launch me on that noble mission (but don’t expect a straightforward linear flow; babbling/unnecessary asides are my defining artistic identity).
Despite having a title that sounds like a daytime TV soap opera (which, to my generally-clueless-surprise, there are some of these still being broadcast; you can find out much more—certainly enormously more than I ever wanted to know—about them at this site, which also includes nighttime melodramas such as Glee, Grey’s Anatomy [both of which I admit I do watch], and Revenge [which many have told me I should watch]), the new Tom Cruise-Emily Blunt Sci-Fi-action-thriller, Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman), is generally quite a pleasure to experience and so far is making a solid impact at the box-office (although its almost-$29-million opening weekend domestic take was far outpaced by the teen-oriented-weepie, The Fault in Our Stars [Josh Boone; our review of it to come soon] with about $48 million while Maleficent, the Disney Fantasy reimagining of their own animated classic, Sleeping Beauty, came in at #2 with over $34 million [adding to its $128 million gross after only 2 weeks; last year’s latest Disney animated success, Frozen (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, 2013; review in our January 24, 2014 posting), hasn’t completely eased its avalanche at the turnstiles either, because not only is it still playing after almost 7 months it’s one of the few in last weekend’s Top 50 to show some increase in sales from the previous week, adding further to its well-over-$400-million-domestic-gross so far—making it #19 on the All-Time list]). In that Edge of Tomorrow’s already been endlessly-compared to Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993) and you couldn’t possibly expect Tom Cruise to not overcome an alien attack where the world’s fate depends (at least metaphorically) on his success (as in War of the Worlds [Steven Spielberg, 2005] or any other Sci-Fi-based-crisis such as in Minority Report [Spielberg, 2002]—although we do find that the Jack Harper he plays in Oblivion [Joseph Kosinski, 2013; review in our April 26, 2013 posting] is actually a clone created during another alien-invasion-narrative but even when that protagonist-clone is destroyed in an alien-defeating-self-sacrificial-act there’s another one left to carry on his legacy so we should never assume too much loss of Cruise-control where these types of movies are concerned), I’m not too worried about Spoiler Alerts here (but please take that into consideration if need be) as we move into this intriguing-though-more-predictable-as-it-goes-along-story. Once again, Earth is the target for marauding aliens attempting to take control of our planet to mine some sort of our resources requiring humans to wage a last-ditch-battle to defeat them.
The most interesting aspect this time around is that—while we get a now-well-established extra-terrestrial-invasion plot— whatever repetition of this narrative we may feel as viewers is mirrored by the main character, Major William Cage (Cruise), because even though he finds himself dying many times during the course of this story he always revives at the same starting point of when his formerly-secure-world began to fall apart as he wakes up on a military tarmac being forced into all-or-nothing-combat with these fierce aliens despite never having even been trained for battle. Just to make this fiction more ironic, though, the movie was released in many countries on June 6, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied armies' invasion of France in 1944 as the needed strategy to reclaim Europe from German Nazi occupation, just as these aliens first landed in Germany 5 years earlier then took over the continent before being faced with a similar invasion across the English Channel, Operation Downfall. And, as life often has a habit of intruding upon art, we also have the further irony of Cage being accused (in a completely phony set-up, just to insure his death by insulted-and-irritated United Defense Forces commander, General Brigham [Brendan Gleeson]), of being a deserter attempting to impersonate an officer (in response to a blackmail threat by Cage), setting up an unintended resonance with the current brouhaha over Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s situation regarding accusations of dereliction of duty before being captured by the Taliban then released in the recent POW swap. When no-nonsense Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton) first cynically introduces Cage to his commando squad the unified rejection of this new “comrade” is intense, so much so that they don’t even tell him how to override the safety-restraint on his advanced exoskeleton-body-armor-weapons, reflecting the current tension in our society beyond the movie theaters as to whether Bergdahl should have been released at all, let alone exchanged for enemy combatants. However, in Edge of Tomorrow smooth-talking Maj. Cage (well, until that confrontation with Brigham, which resulted in his arrest, false charges [An example of “All’s fair in love and war”?], and being busted down to private)—a former advertising exec whose company tanked after the alien invasion so he took his public-relations-skills into the military but only for the purpose of recruiting others to die in battle rather than go there himself as Brigham had ordered him to do to promote the counter-invasion’s-intended-victory as a desperately-needed-morale-booster against a powerful enemy who’d only suffered one defeat, led by battlefield warrior, Sgt. Rita Vrataski (Blunt), the now-inspirational “Angel of Verdun”—soon finds strategies to “blunt” the distain his squad holds for him, given that during his first battle with the alien Mimics (no clue about this name because they don’t mimic much of anything except angry giant jellyfish [virtually all arms, no other major body parts]) he’s soon dead (to his shock, so is Sgt. Vrataski) but not before by sheer luck he kills one of the alien lead-beasts, an Alpha, whose bodily fluid washes over him as he dies allowing him to endlessly resurrect and reboot the previous day with total memory of the events about to occur which no one else shares, even Rita (although it’s happened to her at Verdun so she understands what’s going on, believing whatever new information he shares with her each time they meet anew.*
*There’s a great analysis of time looping in Groundhog Day, Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998), 50 First Dates (Peter Segal, 2004), Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011), and Edge of Tomorrow by Lindsey Bahr, “Let’s Do the Time Loop Again,” in the June 13, 2014 issue of Entertainment Weekly, accompanying Chris Nashawaty’s review of Liman’s movie, where she says that we see 23 onscreen-loops by Maj. Cage (I sense that we see fewer but I assume she was counting these events whereas I wasn’t), although I think he’d have to have endured far more of these offscreen to have all of the various foreknowledge that he gains as he and Sgt. Vrataski finally progress further and further into the events of/following Operation Downfall. I wanted to mark a link for you to explore Bahr’s calculations but, surprisingly enough, for once print seems to be ahead of digital as I don’t find this yet in EW’s electronic archives but if you don’t get the hard-copy-magazine (where it’s on pp. 62-63) you’ll probably be able to search successfully for a link in a week or so after my posting.)
With his hard-earned-experience Cage is able to anticipate statements and actions before they occur, so that on the fateful day before the UDF invasion of France he’s able to build an alliance with Rita that allows him to acquire from her the intensive combat training he needs to survive, learn from her that these Mimics are some sort of unified organism despite their separate bodies, and that his now-internalized-Alpha-connection will allow him to ultimately make contact with the singular Omega of this species (hidden somewhere in Europe), the all-powerful “queen bee” whose demise would bring the alien force to a halt, allowing the human army to quickly conquer them (in a bit borrowed from the disabling of the alien mothership in Independence Day [Roland Emmerich, 1996]—which, in turn, reminded me of the destruction of the Empire’s Death Stars in both Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope [George Lucas, 1977] and Star Wars: Episode VI—Return of the Jedi [Richard Marquand, 1983], although in that extended fable remnants of the Empire did remain to create havoc for the re-established Republic, as we might know from many additional Star Wars novels and the much-anticipated Episode VII [J.J. Abrams, due to debut in 2015]).
The only problem for Cage is that he must either stay alive to push the scenario forward or die to reboot it (there seems to be sort of a dual-purpose in these time-resets, as best I understand it, so that from the perspective of Cage-control he’s trying to stay alive long enough to get Alpha-generated-visions of where the Omega is so that he can travel there and kill it while Rita is convinced that the aliens want him to keep reliving that initial battle encounter so that they can better protect against an unanticipated killing of a powerful Alpha just as they allowed Rita to die and revive at Verdun so that they could study what a successful human battle strategy would be in order to better defend against it—which worked well because Cage learns from the first slaughter of humans on this modern version of Omaha Beach that the Mimics knew the human soldiers were coming all along, so their defeat was inevitable allowing the creatures to then invade England, then push further westward, as well as eastward when they’d know better how to conquer the Russian and Chinese forces that are holding them at bay on that flank) because if he’s simply injured so as to require a blood transfusion he’ll lose his time-regenerative-power (this happened to Rita on the battlefield after Verdun) so that his next death will be final. Cage is scared that Rita’s demise is even more ordained because they do manage to work their way inland to an abandoned farm (that just happens to have a damaged helicopter in its yard) but, unknown to her at first, they’ve gotten this far many times only to have her die in a fiery blaze in the chopper as she attempts to rev it up to fly them to where they believe the Omega is hidden, only to bring about the swift response of nearby Mimics. To avoid this particular branching of their ever-evolving-fate, Cage tries to embark on a scenario where he doesn’t link up with Vrataski at all, going it alone to where he senses the Omega is hidden but finds that he’s been fooled with a false “vision” by an Alpha who tries to terminate him for his blood, so, after a mere drowning, the next time he and Rita force Gen. Brigham to give Cage an experimental device that allows him to connect with the Omega’s true refuge, the caverns far under Paris’ Louvre museum—however, Cage is injured in the process, wakes to find himself hooked to a transfusion so he knows that, like Rita, he can't come back from his death in this current timeline where he travels with her and his now-inspired J Squad (whose initial disdain is neutralized when he uses the same tactic he did with the General of convincing them of the truth of his crazy story by offering so many private details of their lives that they’re forced to believe him; Rita’s support for his explanation also provides a key incentive for them). All of this manages to happen in that same 24-hour-period prior to the invasion where each of Cage’s reboots begin so that the next morning as bulldog-brained Master Sgt. Farell comes to get his squad for their trip to France he finds no one in the barracks (you see, it’s OK to go a specific version of AWOL if you have higher purposes and Tom Cruise guiding your mission; at least that's the story here). At the Louvre our warriors encounter fierce protective resistance from many Mimics and a guardian Alpha but Cage still manages to destroy the Omega using several grenades, with him and Rita dying in the process but Cage bathed in Omega blood that allows him to reset his existence once again, waking up as before on that fateful day prior to the now-unneeded-invasion (I guess the future has somehow rippled back into the past, so that the Mimics are now a defenseless force set up for easy conquest) but back in his Major rank and PR duties where he can calmly introduce himself to Sgt. Vrataski just before final fadeout and credits-roll.
You can’t help but feel that you’ve seen it all before from a collage of various movies that address time looping, dreadful alien invasions, and the collapse of the intruders due to the loss of their “hive” leader, but that doesn’t keep Edge of Tomorrow from keeping you on the edge of your seat through the many scenes where our tiny hero team is trying desperately to get past or outlast these horrid, vicious aliens even as you know that somehow Earth isn’t going to end up a colony of these seemingly-indestructible-beasts, despite all of the relived-lives that Cage and company had to endure to finally bring about their destruction in this essentially mindless but still very enjoyable latest version of the alien-assault-scenario, spiced with many scenes of genuine humor to offset the constant violence (the Mimics are dispatched with every available weapon, even an axe in one scene) including Rita’s need to shoot Cage several times just to reset their day when difficulties hamper them from further progress (there’s some humor there as well). To celebrate those life-cycle-repetitions and what we learn from them as we mature I’ll offer you my Musical Metaphor that inspired the title of this this posting, Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” (from her 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon, which has many fine songs from her early career including ”Woodstock,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” and “For Free” [I’ll get back to that one in my next review]); there’s a nice version at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iyHMPR3dBY8 with just some still photos accompanying a live performance from her 1974 Miles of Aisles album including a pleasant introduction to the song about how painters are different from musicians in not being constantly requested to reproduce their previous “hits,” although she generously encourages her audience at L.A.’s Universal Amphitheatre (a fabulous place to attend a concert) to join in with her on the song.
Now, if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to finish off with something that has nothing to do with this review of Edge of Tomorrow (and, admittedly, detracts from my “shorter review” ambitions) but instead is a “kind of” (as baseball players always say about whatever happens) off-the-wall-tribute to the great Oakland Athletics' (my other true passion in addition to movies and my marvelous wife, Nina) pitcher, Bob Welch, who died unexpectedly at age 57 on June 10, 2014 (it always rattles me when people younger than I am die, especially when I had almost 10 years on him), whom I had the honor of seeing at this prime when he became the last pitcher to win 27 games in one season (no one’s even won 25 since then), helping him earn the American League Cy Young Award in 1990 (if you want to know more, here’s a non-Oakland-centric-obituary from the New York Times). But I’m going to offer this mini-memorial to him by way of another notable Bob Welch, the musician who at one time was a prominent member of Fleetwood Mac (1971-74)—a group I’m finally going to see live in December 2014, assuming we’re all still here by then—but is also now gone (back in 2012, as the result of a tragic suicide). The 2 had no connection to each other that I know of, except my respect for both of their talents, now long gone from our further sharing (“’Cause we live in a time, When meaning falls in splinters from our minds”) except for memories brought back to us by the occasional “Sentimental, gentle wind blowin’ through [our lives] again,” so here’s Mr. Welch, the guitarist/singer, with his biggest hit, “Sentimental Lady” (originally on the 1972 Fleetwood Mac album Bare Trees but more well known from the re-recording on Welch’s 1977 album French Kiss) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cjH84W_-V1c, with backing from much-longer-time-Mac-members Christine McVie and Mick Fleetwood from a 1982 performance, in memory of those things that we treasure but don’t always stay with us (“’Cause we live in a time, When paintings have no color, words don’t rhyme”). If this doesn’t make you think that I’m too weird as a film critic (or even if it does), I hope you’ll join me soon for another review, of last week’s turnstile champ, The Fault in Our Stars (you can probably find my faults much closer to Earth, but I still hope to see you soon for another round of cinematic conversation).
If you’d like to know more about Edge of Tomorrow here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IlEx9WKHE5s (13:32 featurette, narrated by actors Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt who explain their characters’ motivations in the movie, illustrated by even more clips than in the above trailer along with some behind-the-scenes-shots)
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P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.