Now what do these two science-fiction movies have in common? One is a low budget Australian film based on a Robert Heinlein short story, starring Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook. One is a big budget studio action adventure film based on a Japanese novel, starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. Well, they both have complicated plots involving time travel, are unusually committed to their heady premises, and both have been hailed as overlooked or underappreciated titles by various movie fans taking stock of the genre films of 2014.
"Predestination" is a film I was more inclined to root for at first. It's a tiny film made on a shoestring budget, but has such a great idea at its core. It also has the benefit of a great performance from its leading lady, Sarah Snook, with a good assist from Ethan Hawke. Hawke plays a Temporal Agent, a time-traveling law man of sorts, who is sent back to the 1970s to stop a terrible bombing from taking place. Snook plays a writer he meets, whose involvement in the crime is not clear. "Predestination" is set up as a typical thriller, but then turns into something else completely, something much weirder and stranger. And as much as I usually love movies that do this, it doesn't' work.
It's not that the twists are predictable - and they are predictable - but that they simply aren't executed well. Part of this has to do with the nature of the story itself, which includes several outlandish elements that worked well on the page but fall totally flat on the screen. Part of it has to do with the limited budget and big ambitions. But mostly, it's the filmmaking that just isn't up to snuff. The characters are shallow, the dialogue is trying too hard to sound cool, and every one of the big twists are telegraphed far in advanced. The premise is a good one, but it needed some expansion to really get us invested in its outcomes. "Predestination" doesn't bother, too wrapped up in the mechanics of making sure the audience appreciates how grand its big ideas are, so those big ideas end up having very little impact.
On the other hand, we have "Edge of Tomorrow," the action-adventure movie that can be described as "Groundhog's Day" if "Groundhog's Day" took place during an alien invasion. The marketing made it look like yet another by-the-numbers Tom Cruise vehicle in the vein of 2013's ho-hum "Oblivion." And it completely failed to spotlight the earthy humor, the great worldbuilding, and most importantly the humanity of the characters. Tom Cruise breaks from form and plays a main character who starts out as a scummy coward, and we're happy to see him dumped in the middle of the battlefield to get his comeuppance. He eventually becomes the more typical Tom Cruise action hero again by the end of the movie, but they make him work for it.
Between writers Christopher McQuarrie and the Butterworth brothers, and director Doug Liman, the repeating day premise of "Edge of Tomorrow" is used to its fullest. Cruise's character is gleefully offed many, many times, we watch multiple variations on the same scenes build up to satisfying climaxes, and the heroes are forced to earn their victories the hard way. The action is great and the aliens are wonderfully menacing - they have to be or the movie simply would not work. And just when the video game mechanics start to make things seem too easy, the game changes again. Cruise shows that he can still surprise when necessary, and Emily Blunt continues her ascension to the A-list. How is it possible that this woman hasn't been cast in a superhero role yet?
Simply having a good, interesting high-concept idea isn't enough. Though "Predestination" shows a lot of promise, it's clear that the filmmakers didn't have a take on the Heinlein story that was worth creating a movie around. And though there have been too many Tom Cruise sci-fi movies that have been disappointments, if you put him with the right talent and material, you get something like "Edge of Tomorrow," a good reminder of why we watched so many of those Cruise films in the first place.