Edge of Tomorrow
Directed by Doug Liman
Written by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
Starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson
Directed and written by James Gray
Starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner
Landing on strange shores is one element Doug Liman's Edge of Tomorrow and James Gray's The Immigrant share, and at first glance that might seem the end of it. The first movie, after all, is a Tom Cruise summer-tentpole cornpopper about a man spun by a time loop to fight the same marauding alien hordes on the same beach every time he dies, and The Immigrant is a sombre, silent-era throwback melodrama about a Polish woman (Marion Cotillard) struggling for dignity and self-direction on the streets of New York in 1921.
But look more closely, on screen and off, and a tale of two filmmakers, both working at their peaks in dissimilar forms, begins to emerge. It's a tale of artistic tenacity and maturity on one level, but on another it's a tale of what's happened to American movies in the past 20 years, and the struggle to find (and keep) a voice in a business that only has ears for the ringing of profits.
Nineteen-ninety-four was the year that both these directors, New York born and bred, made their debuts, Liman with a cheeky, morally sideways comedy of academic upward mobility called Getting In, and Gray with a wintry family gangster tragedy called Little Odessa. Both announced distinctive but raw sensibilities, and each led to bigger things – Liman broke out with Swingers in 1996, and Gray garnered serious festival traction with The Yards in 2000 – and each signalled divergent ambitions. Liman was a filmmaker determined to put the mark of personal idiosyncracy on commercial projects (as he would with Go and The Bourne Identity), while Gray – taking the lesser travelled and increasingly neglected high road – set himself the task of dragging commercial genres up the steep slope of serious art.
In the aftermath of Pulp Fiction – also arriving in '94 – the market seemed open to both approaches. There was a surge of "indie" pride and optimism, but it proved fleeting. At the same time people were staking a claim for the resurgence of maverick cinema, the commercial mainstream was hunkering down to CGI-based blockbusters and franchise bet-hedgers, and the gap between commercial and art movies opened like dividing continents: Commercial movies were those that opened everywhere and could be seen by everyone, while art movies were marched summarily off to festivals and the occasional blink-and-you-miss-it, big-city theatrical release. It was a strategy of cautious corporate loss-minimizing that, on the one hand, made it harder than ever for Liman to work personally within the system, and on the other cast Gray almost entirely without.
That both have attained a kind of peak of sorts with their new movies is testament to the talent and tenacity of each. But it also reminds us of the industrial lockdown of these 20 years. These are movies that might as well have been produced by and for different universes, as remote from each other in terms of tone, market presence, public awareness and promotional priority as members of the same media species can get.
But the pertinent fact is they're both good – very good. Liman's movie, based on a Japanese novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, is almost hermetically airtight in terms of structure, and the genre-mashup it attains so seamlessly – imagine Saving Private Ryan cross-pollenated with Groundhog Day, or War of the Worlds reconsidered as heavy-metal rom-com – is only more impressive for providing precisely what we've come to expect in our opening-run megaplex experience: aliens, effects, superheroics, roller-coaster tummy flips and, of course, Tom Cruise, whom Liman brilliantly casts as a spineless coward turned reluctant hero, a kind of 21st-century Cary Grant. All in all, a perfectly superior example of industrially fortified Hollywood fun, and as good a guarantee as Doug Liman can offer that we haven't seen the last of him yet.
Then there's The Immigrant, probably James Gray's most beautiful, moving and expansive work, a sepia-steeped ode to immigrant resilience, struggle and conditional American Dreaming that visually evokes Coppola's Godfather Part II and Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, but in its utterly irony-free melodramatic sincerity also suggests a silent-era woman's picture à la D.W. Griffith, King Vidor or G.W. Pabst.
Daring for being so unabashedly serious, romantic and classical, and providing the context for a trio of performances – Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner – that are permitted to grow and breathe in the movie's deep spaces and slow rhythms, Gray's movie is an almost flawlessly articulated example of the kind of thing we like to say they just don't make any more: serious, adult, character-driven and impassioned. That it won't be seen by nearly anywhere near the amount of people who will jump off the Edge of Tomorrow is a foregone conclusion, but that shouldn't diminish our gratitude for the fact it exists to be seen in the first place. As long as good American movies continue to be made on both ends of the art and commerce axis, and filmmakers such as Liman and Gray stick with the struggle, there's hope for a future. And maybe even one where movies can share the same dream of overcoming odds that their characters do.