‘It’s just war” explains futuristic soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) to Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), an Army media-relations expert she meets when he’s forced into battle in Edge of Tomorrow. Celebrated as a tireless warrior, Vrataski wearily describes the clash between humans and octopus-like aliens called Mimics. Added to the complication of engaging these unstoppable creatures is a military/existential stunt in which Cage dies and is reborn to fight the same battle again and again. This is the kind of inexplicable nonsense that fanboys and gaming culture take to be profound — half cartoonish like Pacific Rim, half satirical like Starship Troopers. But Edge of Tomorrow fails due to a simpler, more important problem: Vrataski’s “It’s just war” line is unacceptable from performers and filmmakers who show no sense of what combat really means.
Edge of Tomorrow feels especially offensive after last week’s opening of Battle Company: Korengal, the documentary exploring camaraderie among the soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Set in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, this is a startlingly vivid, nonpartisan look at young men caught in the surreal displacement of war — away from home, under constant threat, developing intense commitment while adjusting to danger. Korengal completes the 2010 film Restrepo, co-directed by Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington.
Unlike a summer blockbuster, Korengal is a sequel that impresses the urgency of understanding war’s sacrifice (“Those guys to my left and my right, that’s what it’s all about”). These veterans’ recognizable averageness (they joke about their situation, then welcome the “snap” of gunfire that signals battle) is searing. It makes watching a blockbuster’s extravagantly detailed pretend violence obscene. The minutiae of battle in Korengal recall the matter-of-fact, harrowing observations in war novels. Junger uses the sharp-focus video color and clear sound esthetically and with principle. (A real raindrop on the real camera lens is more meaningful than that stupid, preening 3D floating tear in Gravity.) Sorry to get humorless, but Korengal makes the glee and sentimentality of action films like Edge of Tomorrow seem cowardly and foolish.
Strange, in this age of unavoidable media manipulation stretching from the White House to your various personal devices, that Edge of Tomorrow’s female mercenary killbot and a reluctant enlistee become the means of simplifying the ultimate example of man’s inhumanity to man. These characters carry no more than the burden of a loony, overloaded plot (from Christopher McQuarrie, screenwriter of the puerile The Usual Suspects). Edge of Tomorrow twists into pseudo-Gordian knots, exaggerating battle and Cage’s private trauma to avoid the reality of contemporary warfare just as our manipulative news media do even when playing partisan power games. But a sci-fi war movie is not a metaphor; it distracts from and trivializes the politics of war.
Director Doug Liman hasn‘t made a good movie since his 1997 Go (a jumbled-narrative correction of Tarantino artiness), but his time-jumping here has the same haphazard non-politics as his other lousy films, The Bourne Identity, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and Fair Game — a paranoid liberal’s must-avoid résumé. Edge of Tomorrow depicts war as a big-screen video game (it’s based on the Hiroshi Sakurazaka novel All You Need Is Kill). Intentionally or not, it is part of the usual media cover-up that keeps Americans estranged from the deployment in Afghanistan. The stylized Mimics (and blithely dropped references to Verdun, the Battle of Britain, and Normandy Beach) are an insult to historic casualties and current hopes.
Emily Blunt can’t be blamed for hollow delivery of impossible dialogue (how do you act an experience you never had?), leaving Tom Cruise to fall back on charisma. Cruise’s Cage is a canny, conflicted modern figure, like the ones he played in War of the Worlds, Lions for Lambs, and the underrated personal saga Oblivion. Going from exploitive cynic to fearless warrior, Cage knows more about the enemy, more about fighting, with each resurrection; yet the movie stays hectic and superficial. However, Hollywood’s fastest runner has aged with affecting vulnerability. Cage’s own fatigue suggests depth; Cruise intermittently brings this film close to admitting the hell of combat and the agony of unending aggression.
The contrast of Edge of Tomorrow and Korengal highlights the military naïveté prevailing in film culture — the result of post-Vietnam malaise and post-9/11 cynicism, all weirdly typified by the decadent derangement of politics and mortality in Starship Troopers and its ilk. The only lesson I can find in Edge of Tomorrow’s chaotic finale destroying the Louvre is that our sense of war — as in a humane chronicle like Korengal — has been undermined by contemporary Hollywood’s immature preference for gamer violence.
How many news broadcasts have you seen of political speeches backgrounded by citizens standing frieze-like as mute witnesses lending their implicit support? Among the striking insights of Marco Bellocchio’s Dormant Beauty (Bellezza Addormentata) is that it is the first movie to address the People Wall. An early scene shows politician Uliano (Tony Servillo) courting public opinion and collegial favor by posing for a photograph with members of Italy’s parliament faking solidarity on a euthanasia issue. The pols stand together against a film projection of euthanasia demonstrators — politics made transparent by art.
Bellocchio questions the facile assumption of the People Wall by examining Italy’s political somnambulism, yet his analysis is not cynical; Dormant Beauty’s six main characters place unsentimental hope in interactions beyond political manipulation.
There hasn’t been a personal/social vision so varied and remarkable since the great days of Robert Altman. Dormant Beauty confirms the extraordinary tradition of Italian filmmakers who go straight to the political heart of democratic experience. The opening ten minutes introduce the politician’s dilemma; his daughter (Alba Rohrwacher), one of the demonstrators, who meets a competitive pair of brothers at the rally; a junkie (Maya Sansa) whose suicidal intent moves a cynical doctor (Michele Riondo); and finally, an actress (Isabelle Huppert) tending to her comatose daughter while acting out her own martyrdom. These storylines (including Huppert’s heartrending comic tour de force) cohere through sensitivity. “No one has a monopoly on pain,” the politician is told. Bellocchio understands the variety of personal responses outside media simplification and his gift — visual eloquence and emotional depth — puts our so-called Golden Age of TV to shame.
Hard to believe Servillio is the same actor in the insipid Oscar-winning The Great Beauty — a Fellini rip-off that reduced contemporary Italian politics to the same smugness as a Sundance indie. As Senator Uliano. Servillio’s face is not clownish, and his emotions are layered, which also describes Bellocchio’s effect, always looking beneath the surface. The awkward gestures behind a neurotic act — such as the daughter’s face being splashed at the demonstration, or her response to a romantic tryst, then a filial reunion — illustrate national eccentricity in want of spiritual, political unity. Like Chen Kaige’s portrait of contemporary, media-obsessed China in Caught in the Web, Bellocchio pinpoints millennial agitation but realizes a hidden longing in the distances between people. Dormant Beauty is the most politically impressive movie of recent years.
— Film critic Armond White is author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World.