Action Plus Gravitas

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Tight shot on the face of a man sleeping. His eye snaps open, and it is yesterday morning — again. He rises, and the day unfolds exactly as it did the day before. No one else knows that the day is being repeated, but he remembers, and he reacts. Each time he learns the best way to react in order to get where he wants to be. With eternity to learn and an infinite number of do-overs until he gets it right, the man develops skills, enhances relationships, and eventually gets the girl.

Groundhog Day (1993) is one of my favorite movies, but that’s not the film I am reviewing here. Edge of Tomorrow relies on the same premise of a neverending loop in which a man wakes up day after day in the same place, facing the same dilemma, surrounded by the same people doing and saying the same things. But he changes and grows with each repeated day.

As the film opens, an alien force has invaded Europe, burrowed underground, and started spreading across the continent toward England, China, and Russia. Enter Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), a media specialist with the Army who started in ROTC and rose to the rank of Major through office successes; he has never trained for combat, and he has no intention of going to war. When commanded to go to the front lines of a beach invasion in Normandy, he bolts. When next we see him he is handcuffed, stripped of his rank, and forced to join J Squad on the day they are going to invade France. He has no training with weaponry, doesn’t even know how to disengage the safety, and buckles under the weight of his heavy armor.

It is an unusual treat to see Cruise playing a terrified coward who doesn’t know how to fight, since he usually plays the tough guy who is cool as a cucumber under pressure. Of course, before long he is using his repetition of days to build up his skills and learn how to fight so that he can save the world. It’s an impossible mission, but someone has to do it. Helping him is Lt. Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a war hero known as the Angel of Verdun because she almost single-handedly vanquished the alien enemy in a previous battle. That’s because Rita has also experienced repetition of days and used her repeated experience to anticipate the enemy’s moves. Together she and Cage fight to reach the source of the alien force and destroy it.

The story line is reminiscent of a video game in which the player adopts a character on the screen and fights through several different levels to accomplish a goal. Each time the player “dies” he has to start over, and each time he plays, he gets a little further in the game by remembering where the booby traps are. Often players work together, telling each other which tunnel or path is safe and which one has a lurking danger. Cage and Rita work together in this way, remembering what happened the “previous day” and moving further each time toward their goal. When Cage says to Rita at one point, “We’ve never made it this far before,” it sounds exactly like my munchkins playing Mario together.

It is an unusual treat to see Cruise playing a terrified coward who doesn’t know how to fight.

This video-game reference does not trivialize the film; it simply gives the viewer something more to ponder about metaphysics, the nature of life, and what you might do if you could see into the future and learn from your mistakes. A do-over once in a while could make all the difference.

Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Director Doug Liman has remembered and learned from the past. While Edge of Tomorrow borrows heavily from the concept of Groundhog Day, it is not doomed in any way. Moreover, Liman brings to this project a strong history in action films from his work directing the Bourne series. Edge of Tomorrow is fresh, exciting, and compelling. The references to the storming of Normandy give it a sense of gravitas missing from most modern action films (it was even released on June 6, to coincide with the anniversary of the invasion). The threat of a lurking menace that spreads unseen and underground until it has become unstoppable and can enter one’s mind gives the audience a sense of personal investment while suggesting that the enemy is a thought or philosophy, not an army. Even the solution for stopping the enemy — that is, getting inside the enemy’s mind and understanding his perspective — is also a powerful lesson for modern warfare. Edge of Tomorrow works on every level.


Editor's Note: Review of "Edge of Tomorrow," directed by Doug Liman. Warner Brothers, 2014, 113 minutes.



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Sci-Fi for Thinkers

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What will we do when earth is no longer habitable, either because of environmental pollution or because of an annihilating war? Several films this season imagine a dystopian future in which humans have to leave the earth to survive: Oblivion, with Tom Cruise; After Earth, with Will Smith; and Elysium, with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. All have seemed promising. The first to be released is Oblivion, and it is satisfying in all the ways you want a film to satisfy — the acting is good, the special effects are thrilling, and the story is meaty enough to maintain the interest of philosophical viewers.

The film opens in a bleak, silt-covered New York where earthquakes and tsunamis caused by the destruction of the moon have made the landscape completely unrecognizable. Occasional bits of rubble tell us this was once the public library or the Empire State Building or Giants Stadium. I imagine that an ancient Roman returning to the Forum today would experience the same sense of loss, seeing the great temples and marketplace reduced to a few broken columns. The voice of our hero Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) explains, "We won the war, but we lost the planet" (while defending it against alien invaders). The anti-war message is pretty clear: there are no victors in a nuclear war.

I couldn't help noticing the similarities to Luke Skywalker's battle at the end of the first Star Wars movie. That set the benchmark for special effects, and we haven't seen fundamental changes, even after 35 years.

A skillfully written exposition quickly brings us into the story. Humans have moved to a moon of Saturn, but a few "techs," such as Harper, have remained behind to oversee the creation of energy cells from seawater that will be transported to the new community, and to patrol the area for scavenging aliens called, appropriately, "Scavs." Jack is the ground tech, and his wife Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) watches the computer screens from their sky-high tower home to warn him of potential danger. "Security and maintenance," Harper admits wryly. "We're the mop-up crew." A modern-day Crusoe and Friday or Adam and Eve, they are the only people on this part of earth.

Several exciting skirmishes with the scavs give Cruise fans the thrills they expect in an action movie. He even ends up with the scar across the bridge of his nose that is becoming as much a trademark as his footrace through most of his movies. Adding to the assignment are wild chases through the canyons of broken buildings while being pursued by rogue drones. But I couldn't help noticing the similarities to Luke Skywalker's battle at the end of the first Star Wars movie, back in 1977. That set the benchmark for special effects, and we haven't seen fundamental changes, even after 35 years.

What sets this film apart is its subtle references to history, literature, and philosophy, especially to the image of the cave in Plato's Republic. Jack is careful to stay inside the perimeter of safety, away from the radiation-tainted grids identified by their computer screens. Victoria watches carefully, warning him if he strays too close to the boundary. Who holds the truth? How do we know? Plato asked that question millennia ago, and the question remains.

What is really on the other side of the perimeter? Victoria turns out to be the "Adam" in this reverse Eden, so obedient that she won't even accept a flower that Jack brings her from outside the tower, because it is forbidden. Jack is the "Eve," always pushing the limits to satisfy his curiosity. He cannot coax her to join him. Victoria's kind of blind compliance is essential for tyranny to succeed.

The opportunity to contemplate the conflicts between man and machine, nature and science, and free will and obedience makes this a thinking person's action movie. It is sci-fi of the best caliber. But as the movie ended and the credits rolled, I overheard the person behind me say cynically, "That was a one-timer." I guess we can't all be thinkers.


Editor's Note: Review of "Oblivion," directed by Joseph Kosinski. Universal Pictures, 2013, 126 minutes.



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Censoring South Park

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Earlier this year I read an interview with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creative duo behind the hit animated comedy South Park, in conjunction with their new Broadway play The Book of Mormon. What struck me was one of them saying that in the episode of South Park in which they lambasted the cult of Scientology, they had wanted to say that Tom Cruise is in the closet. Their lawyer advised them that Cruise could sue them for defamation, so instead they put the cartoon version of Tom Cruise in a literal closet that he refused to come out of. The result was laugh-out-loud comedic gold, but it highlights one of my major peeves about legal causes of action, which is the law of defamation.

Defamation is a cause of action under which a plaintiff can sue a defendant for damage to his reputation. In For a New Liberty, Murray Rothbard wrote that he believed defamation law should be abolished, because a person’s reputation exists in the brains of other people and the plaintiff has no property right in other people’s minds. My concern is broader; I believe that defamation law scares people away from making statements that might offend those among us with the money to hire lawyers. This fear of being sued for defamation chills people's ability to say what they want. It scares them away from criticizing others, even when the criticism might be justified and deserved.

This danger is often poignant in the case of such artistic representations as South Park, which makes deep, meaningful social commentary by making jokes, often offensive ones, directed at people who could easily take offense and who generally have money. The strange thing is that the first amendment has a clause that guarantees freedom of speech. Why isn't the First Amendment regarded as making charges of defamation unconstitutional?

There is a larger and a smaller answer. The larger answer is that the members of the Supreme Court, even the supposedly “textualist” and “originalist” conservatives, do not take the words of the Constitution literally. They make interpretations that twist and mangle it into something that looks like what they want, something that deforms the meaning of the words on paper, written by the Founders. The smaller, more specific answer is that the Supreme Court has grappled with the conflict between free speech and defamation, and has chosen a middle ground that tries reconciles the two.

Why isn't the First Amendment regarded as making charges of defamation unconstitutional?

In the landmark case of New York Times v.Sullivan (1964), an overseer of Southern police officers, sued the Times and members of the civil rights movement under a defamation theory, accusing them of damaging the policemen’s reputation by publishing an ad indicating that the police had committed crimes against demonstrators. Instead of holding defamation unconstitutional, the Supreme Court found for the defendants, holding that when public officials assert defamation they must prove “actual malice,” meaning that the defendant knew his statement was false or acted with reckless disregard for truth. This is a much higher standard than the “negligence” requirement that applies to defamation against private individuals on matters of public concern or the mere “publication” requirement that applies to defamation by private citizens on a matter of private concern. However, after Sullivan the Supreme Court expanded the actual malice rule to cover “public figures” as well as public officials, so most celebrities, such Tom Cruise, must prove actual malice.

Actual malice was designed to prevent censorship. I am sure that the Court believed it was being quite generous by creating such a high barrier to recovery. But because defamation continued to exist, the fear of being sued and the expense of litigation remain a serious impediment to American free speech and to our ability to criticize people of political and social importance. Speaking freely about the flaws (real or alleged) of our political and cultural leadership is a basic requirement for democracy to function.

A more recent important case is Hustler Magazine & Larry Flynt v.Jerry Falwell, a 1988 United States Supreme Court case in which evangelist Jerry Falwell sued a pornographic magazine for printing a joke that accused him of having sex with his mother. The accusation was obviously a joke that no one could take seriously. It was also clearly an example of the use of charges of defamation to censor criticism and take revenge against people who offend you. The jury found against Falwell on his libel claim, but found against Hustler on the “intentional infliction of emotional distress” claim, which is a somewhat similar cause of action that is also used to censor criticism and punish offensive behavior. The jury awarded substantial monetary damages. The Supreme Court, however, found in favor of the magazine on the “IIED” (as lawyers call it) claim, citing the need to protect the American tradition of political satire cartoons, and held that the New York Times v.Sullivan “actual malice” standard for defamation against public figures should also be used in cases involved intentional infliction of emotional distress claims against public figures, in order to protect free speech and create breathing room for vigorous debate. Regarding the right to be offensive towards other people, the court said that offensive speech is protected by the First Amendment.

But again, the Court refused to see the truth sitting right under its nose, which is that the only real purpose of claims of defamation (or intentional infliction of emotion distress claims alleged against plaintiffs because of what they say or write) is to censor speech; and this violates the first amendment. The law of defamation has no place in a society that believes in intellectual freedom for all citizens. We libertarians are basically the only group of people in America who say that the emperor has no clothes and who criticize governmental mistakes that modern-liberals and conservatives ignore or condone. Defamation is an obvious abuse of the law and of the state’s coercive power to repress independent thinking, and we should all get angry about it.




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