The Fault in Our Stars arrives on a flood tide of tears already shed by the 10-million readers of John Green's young adult novel, on which the movie is based. It's a teen romance played out in the black shadow of cancer, and—I know, I know: you're thinking Love Story. But that 1970 schlockbuster, still remembered with hoots of derision, deployed fatal disease as a cheap emotional manipulation. Here, cancer is simply the world in which the characters are forced to live, for however long they might have. Since Green drew the story from his own work with terminally ill children, the heartbreak he stirs arises organically; it's not just a commercial calculation. The movie doesn't reach for tears, but tears come.
The cast is unimprovable. Shailene Woodley, a young actor precociously at ease in both big-budget action films (Divergent) and much smaller indies (The Spectacular Now), plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a no-nonsense Indiana teen who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at age 13. She very nearly died. But an experimental treatment saved her life, so now, at 17, she's still walking around (lugging an oxygen tank, with breathing tubes at her nose). "I could be the Keith Richards of cancer kids," she deadpans.
Hazel is resigned to her almost guaranteed fate, more so than her loving parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell, of True Blood). She resists a suggestion by her mother that she attend a support-group meeting for cancer kids—she doesn't want to be defined by her disease. But she goes, and immediately catches the eye of Gus Waters (Ansel Elgort, who played the brother of Woodley's character in Divergent). Gus is 18, and has already lost a lower leg to bone cancer. He's been in remission for more than a year, though, and he's unconquerably upbeat. "I intend to live an extraordinary life," he tells Hazel. He's her kind of guy.
Gus' best friend is Isaac (Nat Wolff, who started out in the Nickelodeon series The Naked Brothers Band). Tumors have already taken one of Isaac's eyes, and will soon, he knows, take the other one. He's not as cheery as Gus—he's pretty angry, actually—but he finds strength in sarcasm. ("I just want to cry and play video games.")
The Fault in Our Stars is only the second feature by director Josh Boone; and working with writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who also scripted The Spectacular Now), he has remained faithful to the tone of Green's book. The picture is especially moving in making us realize, with passing touches, how much these characters have already lost. Gus' bedroom shelves are filled with old basketball trophies—"I used to play," he says, leaving it at that. Isaac has a hot girlfriend who stuck with him for a while, but has now moved on—she can't deal with the horror of his disease. And we know, with a dismay she herself doesn't exhibit, that Hazel has been robbed of her youth before it even got started.
The movie's hook, of course, is watching Hazel and Gus—rookies at romance, both virgins—slowly, tentatively fall in love. Hazel is obsessed with a novel called An Imperial Affliction, about another girl with cancer. But the story's ending is annoyingly ambiguous—she wants to know, for good reasons, what happened to the book's characters after the narrative ended. Its author, Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), is a mysterious recluse, but Gus tracks him down. He now lives in Amsterdam, and in an email vaguely suggests that they stop by if they're ever in town.
This seems impossible, but Gus, the perfect boyfriend, makes it happen. And when the movie shifts to the gleaming Dutch capital, it opens up like a starry night. Arriving with Hazel's mom, the two teens find that the still-unseen Van Houten has made reservations in their name at a fancy restaurant, his treat. There, greeted with a bottle of vintage champagne and a heavenly tasting menu, they have the first date of their lives. And of course maybe the last.
On arriving at Van Houten's house the next day, however, they discover that their big dinner was actually arranged by the writer's sympathetic assistant, Lidewij (Lotte Verbeek). Van Houten himself turns out to be a mean drunk who angrily insults them and soon drives them away. They have no idea why. But they're determined to make the most of their trip, and soon find themselves taking a tour of the Anne Frank house. Overlaying a famous Holocaust narrative onto this already weighty story may seem flagrantly excessive, but it makes an affecting point. Watching Hazel determinedly pulling her oxygen tank up the house's steep stairs while Anne Frank's words are being read over a sound system ("We're much too young to deal with these problems, but they are forced on us") is simply, eloquently, heart-crushing.
Back out on the street again, wandering among the canals and the swans and the streetcars, Hazel and Gus finally kiss, and soon there's a love scene of breathless delicacy. After they return to the States, the bad news you knew was waiting in the wings finally emerges. But the movie doesn't end quite the way you'd think. Instead, we're left to contemplate Green's redemptive message—that even the shortest life can be full of value and meaning. However you might normally feel about weeping at the movies, resistance, by this point, is probably futile.
Edge of Tomorrow
Edge of Tomorrow is a machine-tooled product of the Hollywood blockbuster factory. It delivers great writhing gobs of alien-invasion action in a perhaps overly tricky time-loop structure, festooned with little steals from several earlier films (Aliens, The Matrix, Source Code and so on). Seen as it must be, in IMAX 3D, the movie rears up before you in a formidable display of pure commercial will. It demands that you submit, and there's no shame in doing so—it's actually a lot of fun, however forgettable.
This is the sort of picture that's always discussed in connection with the word "popcorn," and Tom Cruise is right at home in it. The story—assembled in the vicinity of a 2004 novel by Japanese sci-fi writer Hiroshi Sakurazaka—has Cruise playing Major William Cage, a former advertising exec way out of his element in a worldwide war between Earth's united military forces and a globe-girdling mass of extraterrestrial marauders called, for some reason, Mimics. These are standard-issue CGI monsters of many tentacles and familiar stretchy mouths filled with rows of flesh-rending teeth. Cage hadn't planned on coming to these creatures' close personal attention, but on a visit to the army's London headquarters he made the mistake of irritating the blustery General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson). Brigham busted Cage down to private and consigned him to a squad of frontline soldiers under the command of an abrasive master sergeant named Farrell (Bill Paxton). Cage suspects—rightly—that he will soon be dying with these guys, because the Mimics have a mysterious ability to anticipate the earthlings' every move. Which is why the earthlings are losing the war.
Sure enough, after being deployed with his fellow grunts to France, where the Mimics are staging a new Normandy Invasion, Cage—who knows nothing about combat, nor even how to operate the big gun-heavy exoskeleton with which all the troops are equipped—soon finds himself dead. But then he wakes up again—and he's right back where he started, being berated by Sergeant Farrell, shipping out to France. As Groundhog Days go, it's kind of a drag.
Cage keeps slogging back into battle, and he keeps getting killed. But each time he progresses a little farther into his endless day, picking up skills and insights for use on his next foray. Director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) keeps this time-loop conceit moving along with snappy dispatch—the continuing restarts never linger long enough to get boring. And it helps that Cage early on acquires a partner—Master Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), the army's top Mimic-slayer. Nobody else is buying Cage's weird temporal-reset story, but Rita does—it happened to her, too.
Blunt's Rita Vrataski is a less-detailed character here, and more subsidiary, than in Sakurazaka's book. But hey, this is a Tom Cruise movie, not a Tom-and-Emily project. And Blunt and Cruise do have a brisk rapport that keeps the picture grounded in something not unlike reality (well, reality with limb-ripping aliens). There's no romance in the cards, alien assaults allowing little time for tender moments. But the picture is often quite funny: each time Cage and Rita reach an impasse in their latest journey, and have to go back and start over again, she simply turns to her comrade and shoots him in the head.
Edge of Tomorrow is big and loud and unconflicted about its basic bottom-line aims. I enjoyed being run over by this movie once, but feel no pressing need to pay to repeat the experience. Surely the film's producers, who sunk something approaching $200-million into its budget, are betting that this will be a minority response.