Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Summer Movie Rundown - The Last Five Minutes

There are two (count ‘em—two) time travel movies out right now.  And oddly enough—or maybe not so oddly, given that they’re both about changing the past—they’re both about creating a totally different world in the last five minutes of the film.

You know you’re watching something that says “To hell with the general audience, this is for the fans,” when the first ten minutes of an X-Men movie gives you Blink, Warpath, Sunspot and Bishop and tons and tons of Sentinels with nary a word of character explanation.  If those names don’t ring a bell, don’t worry: all you really need to know is that you’re in a dystopian universe where a bunch of super-powered people are fighting for their lives, and pretty soon some familiar faces start showing up (Halle Berry, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore) and then the need-no-introduction big guns (McKellen, Stewart, Jackman).  The only concession to premise is when Professor X tells everybody what they already know, so we’ll know it too; and then we’re off to the trans-temporal races, where Wolverine is mentally time-traveled back into his 1970s body, where he has to stop Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique from committing the murder that creates the Sentinels that are killing off mutants. 

It appears that, since X-Men: First Class, Mystique is more of a vigilante than Magneto, which is an interesting take on canon.  But then J Law is a bigger star than anybody but Jackman at this point, so it makes sense.  It’s also kind of a romantic triangle, since Magneto and Professor X are, in a sense battling over her soul; but really?  It’s more like one of those Howard Hawks movies where the two leads share the girlfriend but never come to blows over it because their guy bond is stronger than either guy-plus-girl bond.  (So yes, this triangle is so loaded it’s like the Uzi of subtext.)

It’s a ton of fun, it’s faithful to all three X-men incarnations (comic book series, first trilogy, and First Class), there’s a clever Star Trek moment, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo of an actor whose big scene was cut in post-production, and there is a (dazzling?  joyous? exhilarating?) set piece with a new character that will have you humming Jim Croce for the next two days.  

Sadly, there is also a prime example of movie illogic.  Let’s say you have a character whose power is so awesome that if you add her to your team, you are totally assured of a victory.  Do you (a) add her to your team or (B) bid her goodbye before you go off on your final mission?  If you said A, then you live in the real world.  If you said B, then you too can write for Hollywood.  Because seriously: you do not kick Wonder Woman off the assault team, okay?  You either find a valid reason why she can’t join you, or you come up with a way she can be neutralized during your mission, while maybe in the process getting you past a couple of dangerous situations.  Believe me, you do not want your audience saying, “Wait—you just showed me how awesome Superman is.  Why are you saying goodbye to him at the airport?” 
What makes this even dumber: IT’S A TIME TRAVEL MOVIE.  In a time travel movie, how hard is it to come up with a reason why you have to leave someone behind?  Something specific like: “You have to rush your mother to the hospital tomorrow.”  Even something nebulous would work.  “There’s something crucial you’re doing tomorrow, and we can’t tell you what it is, because we’ve screwed with the time line enough just by seeing you today.  These things have consequences.”  (And even then—when you have the power of this character?)  If you think about it for five seconds, you recognize it for what it is: bad movie logic at its best.  Or worst.


Speaking of time machines, Emily Blunt probably wishes she had one.  Back in 2005, she declared in an interview with The Telegraph that she would prefer to do badly-paid theatre for the rest of her life rather than be a spear-carrier in a Tom Cruise movie.  (A possible dig at  Kristin Scott Thomas, who was filming Mission: Impossible at the time?)  When confronted with the quote by Telegraph reporter Helena de Bertodano a couple of months back, Blunt at first denied it (“I never said that! What an awful thing to say.”) and then, when confronted with the actual newspaper clipping, she laughed and declared “Well, at least I’m not a spear carrier.”

And she’s not.  Half the fun of Edge of Tomorrow is watching this woman kick Y-chromosome ass from here to Helsinki.  And of course the other half is the sheer delight of watching Tom Cruise get himself killed, over and over again—deliberately, accidentally, and (at the hands of Blunt’s character) homicidally.   

Why?  In plot terms, because Cruise has gained the power to “reset the day” and keep living it over and over again until he defeats the alien invaders called Mimics.  In other words: he’s a real-life gamer, and if you’ve ever played a game where you train yourself to avoid this hazard and defeat that enemy to get to the next level, and then reached a point where you can’t get any further, a point where you have to go back and flank your past, in a sense, by striking off somewhere new, then this is the movie for you.  And if you’re not a gamer, it still works, because Groundhog Day With Aliens. 

It’s based on a Japanese novel entitled All You Need Is Kill, which was written by Hiroshi Sakurazaka (a gamer; duh), and there are a couple of things in the novel that don’t get explained in the movie, like why the aliens are called Mimics (they’re designed to mimic the first local life form they encounter, which in this case was a starfish).  The novel is also nowhere near as funny as the movie, mostly because of those recurring deaths, and who they occur to.  Plus it's a prime example of the classic Cruise arc of asshole-to-hero, and damn if you don’t believe the guy actually grows through all this Groundhog Day shit. 

Side benefits include Bill Paxton, in one of those Born To Play This Guy roles as the drill sergeant of your worst nightmares, and Emily Blunt, who is like Ripley in that exoskeleton times ten.   It’s an inspired piece of casting, and probably the first role she’s played which gives her a chance to display everything that makes her memorable all at once—her confidence, her smarts, her determination, her physicality.  There’s a recurring shot of Blunt coming up out of a push-up—which in long shot resembles the one-handed push-ups that everybody does in the novel—that just gets sexier and sexier every time you see it, and even though the look on her face is identical every time, it changes each time you see it because the lead-up to that look changes, and brings out something else that you didn’t see in it before.  That’s pretty damn amazing, and nowhere near what a spear-carrier does.  

Oh—and continuing an odd but current trend in trailer foreplay, the “you’re not a soldier, you’re a weapon” exchange from the preview?  It’s not in the movie. 

As for the last five minutes?  It is a gigantic plot-hole, but one you kind of go with, and it pushes the “reset the day” button with an American finger, if you will, because it’s also a cultural mirror.  In the novel, the war doesn’t end, only a battle; it’s very much a gamer conclusion, as well as a Japanese one, where the reward is skill and proficiency, not an all-out victory.  In the movie?  That’s all been Americanized.  The enemy is destroyed and the war is won by the quintessential American—the lone man who can make a difference, the outsider who has learned to fight after avoiding battle, the isolationist who has learned the virtues of intervention, and the only one who knows what’s really going on—and when he wins, his reward is the girl.  As entertainment, it’s satisfying; but when you compare it to the Japanese original, as a cultural critique, it’s quite illuminating.  
And the last five minutes of our other time-travel movie?  Well, all I can say is, if you didn’t like X-Men 3: The Last Stand—if you felt betrayed by the way it betrayed all the potential of the Dark Phoenix storyline—then you are going to adore the last five minutes of Days of Future Past.  Talk about a reset button . . .

No comments: