Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein, is my favorite book. Second to none since the early 90’s.
(Which isn’t to say that Heinlein is my favorite author. Dude’s got flaws. He went some weird places. I love him like a badass bachelor great-uncle who sometimes gets a little creepy at the family picnic when he’s had too much of Cousin Spider‘s special sweet tea that’s just for grown-ups.)
There are many books that I adore, that I read once and enjoyed, that I recommend to friends, but that I would never pick up again. With a few Pratchett-y exceptions, I’m just not a big re-reader. How can I be, when my waking hours are finite and the world of written words is not?
And yet, I’ll go back to Heinlein’s little scifi novel once a year-ish. It’s like curling up with an old lover who knows how to satisfy whatever appetite moves me at the time. Maybe I’m in the mood to argue politics and societal ethics with the opinionated voice that first spoke its ideas 75 years ago. Perhaps I need a snarkily crafted tale of an asshole rich kid getting shoved into the crucible of war until all of his faults are burned away and all that remains is the steady hero’s heart that he never even knew he had. Or maybe I’ll just skim those bits and get right to the strapping young men in powered armor suits fighting giant space bugs in an all-or-nothing war for humanity’s survival. My pick, I can take it.
When the movie came out in 1997, Teenage Me sat in that theatre and stared, mute in my 130-minute-long metamorphosis from starry-eyed novel fangirl to hearsickened bitter old crone. That movie aged my soul about a thousand years. Not even Doogie and the Kurgan could save it. It was fucking terrible. I felt unclean aftwards, like I had to do scifi penance. Watch the first two Alien movies and recite the Bene Gesserit litany against fear ten times lest I be forever haunted by the emotional void that is the gaze of Denise Richards (who I have just realized is the Megan Fox of the 90’s and OMG Y’ALL TIME IS A FLAT CIRCLE).
I tell you all of this so that you can properly imagine my trepidation, my creeping dread, my sneering cynicism born of crushed nerd dreams, when I heard that Tom Cruise would be starring in a scifi summer blockbuster involving aliens and powered armor.
Then I saw the trailer and something akin to hope sputtered to feeble life in my unwilling heart.
Then I went to go see the movie, and …
Look, I can’t say that Edge of Tomorrow is the best scifi movie ever made. I haven’t seen all of the scifi movies ever made. Yet.
What I can say is, and I mean this in all sincerity and without hyperbole …
Edge of Tomorrow is the best scifi movie that I have ever seen.
It’s like everything that I ever wanted the Starship Troopers movie to be got thrown into a blender with a healthy pinch of Groundhog Day and a sprinkle of Mass Effect. Throw in a handful of bloody sand and bullets, hit puree. The result is a dirty, sweaty, hilarious gutpunch of a damn near flawless story.
As spoiler-free as I can tell it, the top of the movie drops us smack in the middle of a not-too-distant-and-therefore-uncomfortably-plausible future in which aliens have invaded Earth and everybody on the planet is just plain screwed. We are going to lose. The war is desperate on a global scale and the military has got to attract every single able-bodied soldier they can get. What they need is a propaganda posterchild. A steel-jawed killing machine who slaughters aliens by the score and then poses majestically.
And oy, did they ever find their super soldier.
That’s right. The biggest badass of this movie is not Tom Cruise. Not the career action star. Nope. It’s Emily Blunt, who has never been in an action movie before and whose previous work is all stuff I’ve never paid to see because I can take naps at home for free. And my gawd …
I’m not sure who set the bar for whom in this film, whether it was Emily Blunt inspiring everyone with her transformation from waify pale English miss to Full Metal Bitch (that’s what her fellow soldiers actually call her, to my delight) or if it was action movie veteran Tom Cruise grabbing the ensemble by the scruff and hauling them up to his level, but the entire cast for this flick just works.
(Can we talk about Tom Cruise for a sec? I love him in movies. THERE, I said it. He has never turned in a performance that I haven’t enjoyed, which is saying something for a guy who’s basically made a movie a year since 1981. Every other moment of the film could be like a thousand fingernails on the chalkboard of my soul [cough-Eyes Wide Shut-cough] but Cruise himself always delivers. Sure, he did some crazypants cradle-robby Scientologist couch-jumpy take-himself-too-seriously crap once upon a time, but that was damn near a decade ago. Seems to me that he may have loosened up a bit since then.)
Anybody you meet who has a name is significant to the story. Somehow, in a cast teeming with military extras in full-scale assault situations, there are no extraneous characters. No token minorities or two-dimensional pop-ups. Everyone’s got depth and growth. Everyone moves the story forward, from Brendan Gleeson in all his bullish authority to Bill Paxton doing the best work he’s ever done. The supporting cast live up to their name and truly support the film as a whole.
And that shit ain’t easy for actors to pull off when 75% of their scenes are the same scene over and over. Bra-frackin’-VO.
Oh yeah, there’s a time loop. A magnificent one. I had my doubts, because I’m painfully persnickety about time futzing in movies, but this loop is played out by a very deft hand. The repetition of the intial wake-up-confused moment is done just enough times for most of the audience to get it (no pandering to the lowest end of the bell curve) and then we all move on to trying to solve the puzzle. There are benefits to living the same day over and over, unlimited training and scenario memorization, but the horrible weight of endless repetition takes a toll that we watch subtly grow on Cruise’s character in layer after layer of sweat and blood. Just like the movie’s posters say: Live. Die. Repeat. Most of the deaths are hilarious, but not all of them. Oh no, not all of them. I may or may not have lingering feels about a few.
But enough about that artsy-fartsy film student crap. None of that matters if the aliens and the powered armor aren’t worth a damn. Amirite? Iamrite.
Luckily for us all, those things are worth ALL the DAMNS.
The alien menace are … well, they’re alien. This is the first time I’ve seen extraterrestrials designed in a way that makes it clear that they are like nothing that ever came from Earth. They move like a nightmare, all incomprehensible tentacle-like maybe-limbs and horrific noise. If you took a timelapse video of mold growing, made it out of mercury and neon, then gave it a glee for murder and a scream like metal grinding in a furnace, you’d come close to what our heroes are fighting. Close, but not quite. These are the monsters that humans are supposed to fight, and it’s practically impossible to even tell what the hell to shoot at. Just watching these creatures move across a battlefield is enough to make even the most grim-faced hardass a little panicky with the trigger finger.
Also, there’s a horrible intelligence guiding them. Ain’t nothing worse than monsters with strategy. How the hell do you fight something like that?
Why, with powered armor of course! This stuff is spectacular, yet believable; a rugged piece of military materiel that does little to protect a soldier but does much to amplify his or her battlefield nastiness. No shiny, smooth Star Trek edges, here. It’s all grease spots and chipped paint and BFGs. The rig itself was a real thing, not a weightless CG creation. In interviews, Cruise and Blunt have said their suits weighed 80-100 lbs. They basically had to run, jump, spin, flip around, and be badass while wearing a whole ‘nother person strapped to their entire body. Because the actors aren’t having to pretend the armor is there, neither are we. It’s a reality for them, so it’s a reality for us. A reality full of five-foot-long machetes, backmounted smartguns auto-targetting with the handheld weapon, semi-automated reload from thigh ammo chambers, and ‘splosions.
I want one. Like, bad.
I think everyone should go see this movie. And everyone who does should get their own set of powered armor. I bet if you asked Tom Cruise, he’d agree with me.