Posted June 6, 2014 by D. K. Holm
As it invades our thoughts at three in the morning, so now has death invaded a “big movie” summer weekend. The dual release of Edge of Tomorrow and The Fault in Our Stars indicates a new morbidity in the culture that we haven’t seen since Six Feet Under, Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me, and a host of other thanatos-curious TV shows appeared several years ago. Edge of Tomorrow is more or less a Groundhog Day knock-off in a sci-fi war film setting, while The Fault in Our Stars is a Love Story–Romeo and Juliet knock off in a cancer survivor support group setting. And each alludes to significant legacy events from World War II. If Edge edges out Stars, that’s not just because mise-en-scene ultimately triumphs over mush.
The Fault in Our Stars succeeds in its high quality version of an Afternoon Special with the goal of eliciting tears from a susceptible, cued audience. Directed by sophomore-helmer Josh Boone from a script credited to Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ( Days of Summer) itself based on the young adult novel by John Green, Fault tells of the short-lived romance between cancer surviving teens Hazel and Gus. She has a thyroid condition, and he has lost part of his leg to the disease. Gus woos the resisting, cynical Grace to the tune of her voice-over narration, and their romance reaches a culmination when the pair travel to Amsterdam to visit Grace’s favorite author, Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), a disillusioning experience which is reversed morally and sexually by a visit to the Anne Frank house. It’s almost shocking the use to which the visit is put in the film, not to mention the book, where Grace’s suffering is visually and physically equated with that of the Frank family. It’s almost a relief that the sequence is presented in the plain TV-style Mr Boone adopts. If Spielberg had ridden the action with all the music, awed-looks, swooping cameras, and other tools in his belt the sequence would have been far more vulgar.
One could compile an anthology of misuses of the Holocaust in media, ranging from the Sylvia Plath poem “Daddy” to such misguided films as the unreleased Jerry Lewis project The Day the Clown Cried (though I have read the script) and Life is Beautiful. Within this concord the sins of Fault are minor, and after all [sarcasm alert], the Holocaust was 70 years ago, so why shouldn’t it serve as a backdrop and a spur to ending teen virginity. But then Anne Frank will always be a touchy subject, be it the controversy surrounding the authenticity of the diaries themselves to Philip Roth’s exploitation of the girl for a novel to the fearfully tasteful treatment in the play and the later film by well-meaning George Stevens.
Fault is so demographically focused it’s hard to imagine parents enjoying it, though they have their pallid surrogates in the form of Laura Dern and Sam Trammell (TV’s True Blood). Mostly the film is for teens, adopts the teen sensibility, and is rife with pop tunes that are so hip that even teens haven’t heard them, though they will be playing the soundtrack album soon enough on their iPods. That last element is not a cynical component of the film, however. One part of Grace’s persona is a cynicism toward popular culture that drives her to favor obscure authors and even more obscure bands. Shailene Woodley embodies Grace with a great deal of authenticity. Having drawn warm attention in The Descendants, and then been cast in the YA series Divergent, Ms Woodley is becoming the new Jennifer Lawrence, at a time when we aren’t even through with the first one. They even look a little alike at times. Ms Woodley is also already experienced in the romance department, having made yet another mark on viewers with The Spectacular Now, the second film by the Summer team. It’s a star turn, and often star turns occur at the expense of, or in defiance of, the the quality of the film around them.
There are few true science fiction films anymore. Since at least Star Wars they have been war films disguised as science film because set in space and the victims of the battles usually bleed blue goo, which also ensures a less-than-R rating. One of the many virtues of Edge of Tomorrow is that yes, it is a war film disguised as sci-fi, but it also contains clever science fiction elements. Like science in general, or at least physics, the explanation for the time travel makes sense when you hear it but an hour later you find yourself puzzled again. Still, in the midst of battle you can go with it.
As is now well known, Tom Cruise stars as William Cage, an ad man who gets out of combat in the war of the worlds between human beings and Europe-invading aliens called Mimics by entering the army as a publicist, exploiting the heroism at Verdun of one Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) to inspire higher enlistment. Instead, he is thrown to the wolves, and dies on his first day in combat, on the beaches of France in an homage and retort to Saving Private Ryan. But in the course of his death, Cage acquires a power that allows him to reset back to start and relive the day, each time getting a little further because he learns from each repeated day’s experience. Based on the novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the script is credited to Christopher McQuarrie, who knows his way around complicated plots such as The Usual Suspects, and who has worked with Mr. Cruise before, and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (among others, the anonymous Fair Game), and is directed by Doug Liman (Swingers, Go, The Bourne Identity, Mr and Mrs Smith, and sadly Fair Game and Jumper) with rigor and flair, and an unusual display of humor, integrated into the action.
Mr. Sakurazaka has revealed that he was inspired by the process of video game death and rebirth, and in that regard the resultant movie could be rated the best, if not the only good, “video game” movie thus made. It’s also a time travel movie, and this is one of the shakiest of all film genres because it induces mental combat with the viewer who, distracted by parsing how the events on the screen could happen and the possible results, loses track of the immediate action. They crunch your brain in ways few other types of films ever can. Groundhog Day never bothered to explain why Phil kept reliving the same day (though the trailer famously did), but here McQuarrie and company labor to offer a plausible reality and succeed. As with Phil, we never learn just how many times he relives the day, we don’t know how may hundreds, thousands, or more days Cage needs to get where he is, but Rita reveals at one point that Cage’s predecessor in recycling, an unseen soldier named Hendrix, died 300 times in Rita’s presence.
The script is delightfully clever and Mr. Cruise is as good as he has been since Collateral and the last Mission Impossible entry. I’ve been a critical supporter of Mr. Cruise because he has always been a practicing auteurist. I don’t pay attention to his private life or religion, only to his screen presence and the excellent choices he has made in directors and projects since Top Gun gave him the leverage to hold his box office as hostage to studio suits. Consequently he has worked with Scorsese, Levinson, Stone, Pollack, De Palma, Crowe, Kubrick, Anderson, Spielberg, Mann, Mangold, Abrams, Woo, and Bird, to name the best.
Cowardice is a comic theme in American movies from Bob Hope to Kevin Hart, and like Seth McFarland in his new anti-west western, Mr. Cruise plays a coward, but one who is slick enough, at least for a time, to evade confronting the dark knight of his soul. He is terrifically subtle in a scene in which he is confronted by the no-nonsense leader of the combined international forces (Brendan Gleeson), and later when he snivels to his immediate superior, played by the terrific Tom Paxton. If Mr Cruise has less chemistry with Ms Blunt that is compensated by the team of howling commandos around him who do acquire identities beyond being cannon fodder. And Mr. Cruise can also display a sense of discovery. In addition to being war and science fiction, the film is also a mystery, and watching the characters figure out what is going on is never boring, and an indice of their desperation to live, though Cage has moments of despair. In one scene, he gives up and goes to a pub, whereupon he is inexplicable killed in combat anyway, which later proves to be a major clue that provides the key to the viewer. Later, in an abandoned farm house, Cage and Rita have a confrontation that reveals just how much more he knows than she, and it’s a delicate scene that turns violent, then delicate again with plausibility thanks both to the actors but also to Mr Liman, whose deft hand and supervision turns what could have been overblown sentimentality in other hands into a poignant moment, one that informs the film’s moving last shot.