Science fiction time loop, take 1: The uneven ‘All You Need is Kill’ is most notable for having inspired ‘Edge of Tomorrow’

July 4, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 4, 2015

Last summer, Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt starred in Edge of Tomorrow. I praised this dynamic military science-fiction movie as a likely classic of its subgenre, a motion picture that might one day be mentioned in the same breath as James Cameron’s seminal Aliens.

Somewhat to my surprise, the movie seemed to sink without a trace. True, it grossed $100 million domestically, but that was only the 33rd-biggest haul of 2014, per the website Box Office Mojo. (Edge fared better worldwide, selling $269 million in tickets overseas; the combined take gave it the 20th-highest worldwide gross of the year.)

Perhaps one reason Edge of Tomorrow fell into obscurity was that Warner Brothers had trouble committing to a title for the picture. It’s an adaptation of Japanese author Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s short 2004 novel All You Need is Kill, and it was promoted under that title for much of the production process. Several months prior to release, however, the studio opted for the blander moniker Edge of Tomorrow. Then, for some reason — presumably because the film didn’t live up to box-office expectations — the suits rebranded the movie Live Die Repeat for its home-video release.

All of which is largely incidental to how excited I was to stumble upon a copy of Sakurazaka’s volume on a recent expedition to a secondhand book-, DVD- and CD-shop. Naturally, I snapped up the volume, which was the third printing of an Alexander O. Smith translation that originally appeared in the U.S. in 2009. Unfortunately, I found myself disappointed by the book.

The story’s general outlines were familiar to me from the film adaptation, which Doug Liman directed based on a screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth: A raw soldier embroiled in a hopeless battle against alien invaders finds himself trapped in a time loop, à la Groundhog Day, in which he repeats the events of the deadly day endlessly. He allies himself with a crack soldier named Rita Vrataski as he repeatedly attempts to win the battle, defeat the alien Mimics and escape the loop.

There are differences, of course. Sakurazaka’s action centers on not an anonymous English military installation but a Japanese outpost with the unlikely name (to my American sensibilities, at least) of Flower Line Base. Vrataski’s character is similar to her film counterpart, but the protagonist here is Private Keiji Kiriya, a young Japanese man. Alas, Kiriya doesn’t seem to have much personal history beyond a vague mention of a failed romance that prompted him to enlist in the military upon graduating from high school.

In this passage, about midway through the book, Kiriya plunges yet again into battle:

Thunder erupted from the shells crisscrossing the sky. I wiped sand from my helmet. I glanced at Ferrell and nodded. It only took an instant for him to realize the suppressing fire I’d just laid down had thwarted an enemy ambush. Somewhere deep in Ferrell’s gut, his instincts were telling him that this recruit named Keiji Kiriya, who’d never set foot in battle in his life, was a soldier he could use. He was able to see past the recklessness of what I’d just done. It was that sort of adaptability that had kept him alive for twenty years.

To be honest, Ferrell was the only man in the platoon I could use. The other soldiers had only seen two or three battles at most. Even the ones who’d survived in the past hadn’t ever gotten killed. You can’t learn from your mistakes when they kill you. These greenhorns didn’t know what it was to walk the razor’s edge between life and death. They didn’t know that the line dividing the two, the borderland piled high with corpses, was the easiest place to survive. The fear that permeated every fiber of my being was relentless, it was cruel, and it was my best hope for getting through this.

That was the only way to fight the Mimics. I didn’t know shit about any other wars, and frankly, I didn’t care to. My enemy was humanity’s enemy. The rest didn’t matter.

The fear never left me. My body trembled with it. When I sensed the presence of an enemy just outside my field of vision, I could feel it crawling along my spine. Who had told me that fear had a way of seeping into your body? Had it been the platoon leader? Or was it Ferrell? Maybe it was something I’d heard during training.

But even as the fear racks my body, it soothes me, comforts me. Soldiers who get washed away in a rush of adrenaline don’t survive. In war, fear is the woman your mother warned you about. You knew she was no good for you, but you couldn’t shake her. You had to find a way to get along, because she wasn’t going anywhere.

Vrataski gets more of a back story in Sakurazaka’s book then she does in the movie; we also learn a bit more about both how Earth is faring under siege and the nature of the Mimic invaders. But for structural reasons, the details about the aliens are almost as unsatisfying as the lack of information about Kiriya. While most of the novel is narrated by the protagonist, and a little of it is told from Vrataski’s point of view, in the middle is a sort-of-orphaned bit providing background on the entirely uncommunicative aliens that no human could know.

All You Need is Kill resists the Hollywood impulse to give the story a happy ending, which I applaud. Still, the book, which was only Sakurazaka’s second, struck me as being rather unpolished. Only hardcore science fiction fans need volunteer themselves for this adventure.

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