I've never been a gamer. But there was a while, a decade ago, where a group of us were stuck for days at a time in our little rat-hole crash pad in Louisville waiting for our phone to ring with a flight assignment. To while away this time we bought an X-Box and played a small number of games. My favorite was Halo, a highly-regarded First Person Shooter game.
I'm probably not the person to describe these things, but for the uninitiated I'll take a stab. Your controls manipulate a character--the character you play, as it were--called the Master Chief, a half-human, half-machine (think RoboCop) soldier who is tasked with killing off a variety of alien scum threatening a ship or a planet or a people. Your controls manipulate the character's movement through space (to include walking or running and jumping, turning, etc.) and the selection and operation of weapons and vehicles. The setting for these battles is a collection of Earth-like planets, often with abandoned structures. There are often other soldiers who accompany you, and one of your tasks is to look after them and keep them safe (you'll often get further with other people helping you to kill the bad guys). You play against an array of computer-driven enemies--you against the game, as it were--or the game can be played in multi-player mode, either with up to four people playing on the same game console (with the TV split two or three or four ways) or with other players who connect online. We did very little two-person playing, and none of us ever tried the online version--not least because we did not have a phone line and could not connect our X-Box to the internet. But the game was addicting, and it occupied us for countless hours.
When playing a game like this, one of the things you get accustomed to is the notion that you can only make it so far before your character is killed and you are "reborn" back at a previous checkpoint. Thus you have to work your way through a given scenario again and again until you find the exact right way to get through to the next scenario. We used to refer to this process as developing a "pattern" (no idea what anyone not a thousand years old calls it today) which you would follow and tweak until you got it right.
So it's not much of a stretch to imagine what it would be like to actually BE the character you play, the guy or woman who gets to die again and again until they figure out exactly what is needed to survive for another day.
This is exactly what director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Jumper, Fair Game) has done with his latest film, Edge of Tomorrow. (I'll try to say no more than can be gleaned from the trailers.) Set in the not-terribly-far future, the Earth is being overrun by an alien invasion. Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), an Army PR guy, finds himself unexpectedly assigned to an invasion force in France, an unwelcome assignment and one for which he is unprepared in training or temperament. After resisting the assignment, he is brutally demoted back to Private and becomes basically a prisoner in the Army--one condemned to an almost certain death in combat (a fate of which he is reminded continually by the wonderful Bill Paxton playing a hard-assed Southern Sergeant).
The invasion goes, well, quite badly and Cage does not make it far. But at the instant of his death he finds he is transported back to a point in time just after his demotion to Private and he gets to live the whole scenario over again. And again and again, basically until he gets it right.
He meets another soldier during these Groundhog Day events, a Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who is world-famous for her role in beating the alien force in a previous battle. It turns out that she achieved what she did in exactly the same way as he: she got to replay her scenario over and over again until she figured it out. After some discussion, they learn that what they have in common is that they each killed a certain kind of alien whose splattered blood conferred on them an ability to reset the time clock, as it were. This little insight also helps them to understand why they're being so badly beaten.
It's certainly no more absurd a scenario than many fantasy or sci-fi stories, and it all whips along at a dizzying pace. But unlike so many movies of this kind, the character development here is very satisfying. Both Cage and Vrataski are unexpectedly rich, flawed people caught in a nightmare, and we sympathize with them. We expect to see Tom Cruise playing an action hero, but we don't expect him to start as a sniveling coward and become a hero by being forced externally. Sergeant Vrataski has become a hero in exactly the same way--she did not start life this way--and Emily Blunt carries this along in her performance in lovely fashion.
The effects-rich setting requires its own kind of 21st-Century expertise, and too often the effects become the tail wagging the dog. But Doug Liman seems to have the situation well in hand here, as he did with the first Bourne movie (still the best, in my opinion). Everything looks great, and though the action is a bit thick and fast we are given moments to catch our breath. The invading aliens--a kind of super-creature that seems part spider and part fungus and which moves at lightning speed like millions of pairs of organic nunchaku or like a thousand-headed weed-whacker--are more imaginative (and fearsome!) than we might have expected. So it's doubly surprising to find character development in this setting. It's not world-beating, but it makes for a more watchable story than I anticipated.
So, unexpectedly satisfying. Grade: A-