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Die Another Day

Tom Cruise is unkillable in ‘Edge of Tomorrow’; Shailene Woodley radiantly incurable in ‘The Fault in Our Stars’

Who’s 3-D IMAXier than Tom Cruise? You can rattle off names, but you’re wasting your time because there’s one answer: nobody. I mean, there are stars taller than he is. There’s King Kong and Godzilla and Marvel, too — I guess. But you don’t even need IMAX for Tom Cruise. His grin is 72×54 feet and practically chattering on your lap. The screen itself is an occupational necessity. Trust me, if Cruise could knock on your door and do his job at your kitchen table, he would. And don’t think for a second that some start-up isn’t hunkered down in Mountain View working on a solution for that one. In the meantime, thank god for digital reproduction, right?

The thrill of a movie like Edge of Tomorrow is in watching a star appear fully high on himself. No one is a bigger Tom Cruise junkie than Tom Cruise. He makes the Robert Downey Juniors and Matthew McConaugheys of the world look like Walter Cronkite. We’re talking about something greater than egotism. We’re talking a total and utter desperation to please. This time Cruise has sprinted the extra block to ensure that even his haters go home happy. In Edge of Tomorrow, he keeps dying, over and over, jarringly, hilariously, triumphantly. The movie, which Doug Liman directed, takes perverse pleasure in knocking him off, then reviving him. Each time Cruise jolts awake you get a jolt, too — unless you’re a hater, in which case all you get to do for almost two hours is suck your teeth. But the movie knows you’re out there too: For death no. 1, Cruise’s face melts through his skull.

The excuse for the flesh sizzling is apocalyptic world war. Metallic-amphibious aliens, dubbed Mimics, have invaded Earth. Humanity teeters on ye olde brink of annihilation. And the planet’s nations have banded together as a combat complex called the United Defense Force. One of its generals, a big, humorless Irishman played by Brendan Gleeson, informs Major William Cage (Cruise) that he’ll be suiting up and going to war. Cage is the sort of slick asshole that made — and then kept — Cruise a star. He used to run an advertising agency. Now he does PR for the Army. He sits in his officer’s uniform across from Gleeson and tries to slither out of conscription (his assignment is to lead the filming of the UDF’s assault on the aliens on Normandy Beach). Cruise does that smug, “Oh, I don’ think so” laugh that, because there are a dozen Cruisier things to talk about, we usually overlook with him. But it’s right up there with Eddie Murphy’s rusted “heh heh heh” and Julia Roberts’s cackle.

It’s a well-done sequence that hits all the Cruise notes. He laughs. He gets prissily pissed (“I do this to avoid doing that”) and tries to blackmail his way out of his predicament. He leaps out of his chair and bolts for an exit. But there he is, waking up in a vast barracks at Heathrow Airport, still trying to talk himself loose — only now, as punishment for attempted blackmail, Cage isn’t even a major. He’s just another soldier on his way to fight.

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An American master sergeant (Bill Paxton) barrels around the barracks with Cage yapping up at him like a schnauzer, pleading his case. It doesn’t work. Before you know it, Cage is fastened into a high-tech “ExoSuit” and, with the rest of his platoon, dangling from a gadget, then dropped onto the modern-day mayhem of Normandy Beach. (Flagrant-allegory alert: The invasion emanated from Germany.) Cruise has dramatically acted the horrors of war before. Here he risks playing the shock for a laugh, running and shooting cluelessly amid real soldiers. Liman doesn’t do a lot of slow motion. You assume he wanted to get out of Saving Private Ryan’s way while getting at the hyperreal chaos of a nonhistorical war. The movie provides a fresh sense of the utter, lethal arbitrariness of combat: What wont kill you?

Cage lasts amid the death and destruction long enough to catch the arrival of UDF’s most famous soldier, Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), before a Mimic wends from the sand and, having been shot up, spills acid all over Cage’s face. He pops awake at the barracks on the day of his arrival 24 hours or so before, with a drill sergeant screaming, “Wake up, maggot!” in his ear. On his second or third life, Cage begins to collaborate with Vrataski, who had the same mysterious thing happen to her. None of the whys or the hows of these resurrections are worth going into since they hold the enjoyably ludicrous keys to the larger plot.

Edge of Tomorrow is based on a Japanese novel turned manga called All You Need Is Kill. The script is credited to Christopher McQuarrie and the brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, and it gets off on deploying philosophical business about free will and being the “master of your own fate.” Salvation here is possible only with autonomy. But, you know, it’s also a movie that has just as much to say about generic big ideas as it has time to glorify pop militarism — so feel free to think about Aliens and the shooter game of your choice. This, too, was the premise of Source Code, a 2011 Duncan Jones science-fiction thriller with Jake Gyllenhaal, that addressed, not at all tastelessly, wishful antiterrorism. That movie did a lot with a little. It was like 24 dressing up as Vertigo for Halloween. Edge of Tomorrow is Full Metal Jacket taking two War of the Worlds and waking up inside a version of Groundhog Day that’s been held hostage by Private Benjamin.

I didn’t know who’d directed Edge of Tomorrow before I got there, but the film has the confidence of someone who understands rising action and appreciates a grim, kinetic sort of visual comedy. Of course, it’s Liman’s name that came up during the closing credits. He can do good, expensive-looking contraptions (Go, The Bourne Identity), bad contraptions (Jumper), and ludicrous ones (both Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the gassy Valerie Plame thriller, Fair Game, which the Butterworths wrote, are also his). This time Liman has a sharp script, cleverly designed effects, and an inspired editor (James Herbert) and cinematographer (Dion Beebe). The kick of a movie like this comes from the fun being had in its execution. It certainly doesn’t come from originality. The finale uses Paris as such a Dan Brown–level amusement park that you’re sad to discover that Opus Dei isn’t behind the invasion.

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Otherwise, it’s rare to get to one of these behemoth productions and discover that there’s wit in the fuel tank — formal wit. It’s not enough for Cage to keep dying. The movie has to be clever about the deaths. The “live, die, repeat” power allows Cage to get some kind of narrative toehold. To master this scenario is to end what seems like a pretty ideologically vacuous invasion. The Mimics are just babysitting the source of their power. Ultimately, this is a two-hour video game. But the filmmakers play it well.

They bring energy to the repetition, and the film comes through. Once, Cruise is crushed by a crashing plane. Then he’s wiped off the screen by a speeding Humvee. Eventually, he stops lapping at the Master Sergeant and, in each new life, tries to convince the grunts and brass of his oracular endowment, in part by finishing the sentences of other soldiers. This is all so Tom Cruise. Of course he’s taking words out of other actors’ mouths! But the movie has a very good time building layered rhythms out of his obnoxious exasperation. He doesn’t have time for the guy from the BBC’s Robin Hood to finish his lines; he’s gotta save the world. Vrataski knows this and has even less time. Whenever Cage screws up, out comes her gun. The visual music guiding these sequences is grimly comical: Bang! “Wake up, maggot!” Bang! “Maggot!” Bang! “Maggot!”

Being the woman in a Tom Cruise movie has always seemed thankless. She’ll almost never win. Rosamund Pike hit a new low in 2012’s Jack Reacher, playing a defense attorney so dumb that Cruise had to do all of her thinking. It’s fitting that one of the few women to really push back is named Blunt. Sure, she’s shown at least three times rising up, sweatily, lustily, from cobra pose. And I don’t like her in this warrior mode — graffiti on bus posters of Vrataski read “Full Metal Bitch” as if the kids thought she were Sigourney Weaver. It doesn’t feel as if Blunt wants to be here, but this is where the road of decent commercial parts takes you. So she keeps putting a gun to her costar’s head and making the most of it.

But Cruise doesn’t try to steamroll her. They become a comic unit — although he does get around to looking at her in that way, and all you hear is the clanging of pots and pans. No one wants to see these two do more than shoot and steer and impale stuff. He sells you the rest of it, though: the terror of operating one of those ExoSuits, the disorientation, the gradual exhilaration of mastering the time loop, turning from petulant Cocktail Tom to the Tom who can fire weapons while spinning around the rim of a trench. All it took was dying about 75 times, and each time being relieved to open his eyes and still be even more himself. There will be people annoyed that he keeps waking up at all. But there’s almost no one else who’d keep trying this hard to die on our behalf.

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Death hovers over The Fault in Our Stars. The entire movie hums with the harsh, chilly light of a hospital. It’s a romantic comedy about adolescent cancer patients, so the grim glow doesn’t feel like a strategy so much as a side effect. The first thing its 16-year-old heroine, Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), says is, “This is the truth. Sorry.” That seems right for a film whose characters are shot so that they barely cast a shadow: There’s nowhere to hide. Hazel has stage-four lymphoma and an oxygen tube in her nose.  She conducts herself with the bitter poise of a Brontë character who adores being a Brontë character.

Her parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell) coax Hazel Grace into a support group. That’s where she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a long, bright-faced kid with amusing self-confidence. His cancer’s in remission, but he’s there for his friend Isaac (Nat Wolff), whose own cancer is on the verge of taking his second eye. Augustus slips a cigarette in his mouth and Hazel Grace assumes he’s mocking the matter at hand. But no, he says: The cigarette is a metaphor for what can’t kill him. They begin trading text messages. She makes him read her favorite novel, something awful-sounding called An Imperial Affliction. He says, “How would you like to go on a picnic with me?” It goes on from there.

Mom and dad dotingly watch as these two fall for each other, and a trace of pity is detectable in all their love. The stars are crossed, but doom isn’t what’s drawing Hazel Grace and Augustus to each other. It really feels like love, one defined by circumstances that set them apart from the majority of their peers. What a strange movie. A trip to Amsterdam leads to a kiss in Anne Frank’s attic that inspires applause from the surrounding visitors. The whole film is like that: appallingly romantic. I can’t recall anything this close to both an after-school special and a European art-house tragedy, in its flat, ugly style and emotional nakedness. It’s reminiscent of Say Anything or, when the terrifically oddball Wolff’s around, the latter 30 minutes of Ferris Buellers Day Off. It’s not as competently made as either of those movies, and for too long it’s more posturing and glib.

But if I spent an hour rolling my eyes, the final 20 minutes were devoted to contemplating blowing my nose. The film was adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber from John Green’s best seller, and was directed by Josh Boone. Green wrote the most inescapable book since the Harry Potters. It’s covering people’s faces on the subway. It’s dog-eared on coffeeshop tables. It’s jutting out of book bags. For every 20 pages of pretentious back-patting prose, there’s a line of resonant simplicity like “I fell in love with the way you fall asleep.” It sits on the young adult shelf, but its mass appeal makes sense. It is, in its way, a rebellion novel: fuck this disease, fuck pity, fuck dying.

The movie picks up where Green leaves off: fuck filmmaking. The poor shotmaking and the too-close close-ups are a trial. At some point, we’re staring at a wall for five seconds before a character opens a door and stands in front of it.  And yet — and yet — there’s something about the performances that gets to you. It’s point-blank earnest. Dern and Trammell spend the movie looking like they’ve just donated kidneys to unicorns. They’re being more than they are acting. So are Woodley, Elgort, and Wolff. Woodley is like vintage Debra Winger: self-possession that refuses to fall to pieces.

It takes a while to get used to her bristling independence — sort of the way you had to come around to Ione Skye’s air-dried approach to intelligence in Say Anything … . Elgort’s even better. In Divergent, he played Woodley’s brother. But this is the more believable relationship. He gives every line a sweetness. I didn’t remember him from Divergent right away and assumed that his artificial leg was real, that he was some kind of miracle discovery: a self-confident lug who could effortlessly embody besotted decency. There’s a moment when the breeziness powering the story goes away and medical reality takes over, and Elgort’s performance goes to a surprising new place.

This is acting (and moviemaking) that has almost nothing to do with conventional norms of “good.” It’s pure and true and just vividly there. The shock is that, eventually, there you are with them, wiping away the suds and snot. 

Filed Under: Movies, Tom Cruise, the fault in our stars, edge of tomorrow, doug liman, Emily Blunt, shailene woodley, Ansel Elgort

Welsey!

Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

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