Tom Cruise in a time loop! Alien invasion meets Groundhog Day! The new Hollywood SF spectacular, filmed in Blighty! Good, we have your attention.
As of writing, Cruise’s next SF vehicle is reportedly filming at England’s Leavesden Studios, or Warner Bros Studios, Leavesden as it’s properly called now. Nor is he shunning the locals. According to the Daily Telegraph, he recently dropped in at a curry house in St Albans, near the Hertfordshire studio, though he wasn’t with co-star Emily Blunt (The Young Victoria, The Adjustment Bureau and now starring in the acclaimed time-travel drama, Looper) or director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Jumper).
The film is based on a short Japanese SF novel, available in English from the Haikasoru imprint. As well as a time-warping plot, it has robot suits, a hero going the distance from rookie to world saviour, and a petite American heroine wielding an axe. Of course, some (maybe all) of these elements may be dropped from the film. The book’s hero, Keiji, is a Japanese youth fresh out of high school, so putting Cruise in the role will require rewriting or Avatar technology. We guess that Blunt will be the woman super-soldier, but it’ll be interesting to see if she retains her book name: Rita. There are purported reviews of what appears to be the same draft script, credited to Dante Harper, here, here and here. In this draft, which seems fairly close to the book, Rita is still Rita, but Keiji has become Billy Page, perhaps in tribute to the time-lost Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
The book is called is All You Need is KILL (sic), and no, “KILL” isn’t an acronym for a superdrug, secret society or doomsday weapon. We’re guessing the rather terrible name will get a change – some reports claim the film’s working title is We Mortals Are, though that’s not much better. Given the militaristic plot, the title probably should be All You Need To Do is Kill. At one point, Keiji overhears a homely song that goes Let’s all join the ar-my, And kill ourselves some things! The “things” are Mimics, barrel-like, shoulder-high critters, “like the bloated corpse of a drowned frog,” which are fast overrunning the Earth. They eat soil and fire “javelin” projectiles with the impact of a 40mm shell. Later we learn they’re mashups of sea life and alien tech, like the walking fish in Junji Ito’s horror manga Gyo, whose anime version has just been released in Britain as Gyo: Tokyo Fish Attack.
Keiji, narrating most (not all) of the story, is a hollow-man protagonist, joining the army as a response to his own inadequacies. Posted on the fictional Japanese island of Kotosiushi, he looks unlikely to survive his first battle, and doesn’t. His “Jacket” power suit is crushed, his body broken, and he spends his last moments in the company of a woman he’s never met. But he knows who she is:
The Full Metal Bitch. I’d heard stories. A war junkie, always chasing the action, no matter where it led her. Still carrying the battle axe, the blazing red Jacket started towards me. “There’s something I’ve been wantin’ to know.” Her voice filled my suit, clear as crystal. A soft, light tone, at odds with the two-metre axe and carnage she’d just created with it. “Is it true the green tea they serve in Japan at the end of your meal comes free?”
Red-haired Rita is a fighting legend, who’s dispatched more Mimics than whole armies put together. Her physique would lend themselves to a manga or anime – she’s tiny, with a thin nose and sharp chin. Interestingly, though, the writer stipulates, “Her chest was completely flat, at odds with the images of Caucasian women you saw plastered on the walls of every barracks cell.” Before you ask, no, Rita’s not a boy in disguise.
Stirred by the sight of Rita fighting heroically to protect him, the dying Keiji gets up for a last stand, enters the battle… and wakes up, a day earlier in his army barracks. At first, he thinks everything he went through was a dream. After his next death and reset, though, Keiji’s forced to accept he’s in a loop, though naturally no-one else knows it. Our hero goes through a similar progression to Bill Murray in Groundhog Day; denial, failed escape, useless suicide… before realising that if nothing else, he has time to become a very good soldier.
The book is written by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, soon after he’d won a New Novelist prize in Japan for the story “Wizard’s Web,” a magic school yarn later published as Modern Magic Made Simple (it spawned both manga and anime). Like the Spice and Wolf books, All You Need is KILL flaunts its anime qualities with a cover design by Yoshitoshi Abe, best-known for his work on Serial Experiments Lain and Haibane Renmei. Intriguingly, the author’s afterword refers to Abe’s “illustrations” in the plural, though there aren’t any more in the English-language edition; were they were dropped in translation? The afterword also pays homage to video games, with Sakurazaka reflecting on the irony that anyone can become a hero with unlimited resets.
Unsurprisingly, Sakurazaka writes from a Japanese viewpoint, likely to vanish in the film. In the book, Japan’s strategic importance comes from its tech; the Jacket suits are “made of a Japanese composite armour plating that’s the envy of the world.” The narrator admits, though, that 70% of the parts come from China. Later we’re told that the early Jacket suits rubbed so painfully in the crotch that soldiers died trying to find a comfortable posture – perhaps a detail to go into the next Gundam! Anime fans will also appreciate a scene where Rita discovers a figurine’s been made of her, blonde and “prodigiously endowed.”
Like the recent movie Battleship, the book has Japanese and Americans effectively re-fighting the Pacific War side-by-side. Keiji is mentored by a Brazilian-born sergeant who tells the youth about samurai and despairs of Keiji’s ignorance (“Damn kids, wouldn’t know Bokuden from Batman!”). Then again, there’s also a historically barbed aside that, “The U.S. hadn’t been invited to the party at Okinawa.” Soldiers in the book talk in “Burst,” a fictitious artificial language that would have disappointed the late SF writer Harry Harrison, champion of Esperanto.
Translated into English by Alexander O. Smith, All You Need is KILL is a fast, action-packed, immensely enjoyable read. It’s apt that the cover blurb is by John Scalzi, as it offers many of the same pleasures as Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. Despite the dark subject, much of the first-person narrative is written in a soft-boiled, even genial tone, though Scalzi is funnier and more affecting. However, AYNIK is a tricky source for a film. Part of the problem, of course, is the existence of Groundhog Day and Source Code, both of which revolve round time loops. SF fans could bring up dozens of others, such as Ken Grimwood’s 1987 novel Replay, which won the World Fantasy Award; the Next Generation episode “Cause and Effect”; Richard A. Lupoff’s 1973 short story “12:01 PM”; and the classic British horror film Dead of Night (1945).
It’s also a device that’s been frequently used in anime and manga. Need we mention the Endless Eight in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, or the hints dropped in the recent Evangelion films? The device goes back at least to 1980s anime; for example, a Christmas episode of Kimagure Orange Road, or the Urusei Yatsura film Beautiful Dreamer (directed by Mamoru Oshii, who bunged a mini-loop into Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence just for fun). There’s a real danger that viewers might feel, with justification, that they’ve seen it all before. Sakurazaka comes up with an ingenious and surprising explanation for Keiji’s loops, but it’s a tricky one to convey on film, making inventive use of a concept that’s common in print SF and genre TV, but foreign to mainstream viewers.
Moreover, the book’s plot doubles back for several chapters to reveal information we weren’t privy to at the outset – no problem in print, but a harder sell in film form. (The reviews mentioned earlier claim the script resorts to long info-dumps in a handy “holovid library.”) The biggest issue, though, is human interest. Sakurazaka can write characters with humour and sympathy – witness the first battlefield meeting between Keiji and Rita - but they take second place to the puzzles and ideas. Even in the last chapters, where the human story seems to be getting somewhere, it’s ruthlessly truncated by headspinning twists.
Ironically, it’s easy enough to imagine the final conflict stretched out in an anime, full of split-screen melodrama and Yoko Kanno choruses. Reading the scene in the book, though, you find yourself worrying more about if the final “cold equation” logic holds up or not. One obvious danger is that a Hollywood version will turn the battle scenes into the film’s raison d’etre, whereas in the book they’re part of the whole. For at least one of the script reviewers, All You Need is Kill is “a rambling episodic narrative puzzle that fails to relate to the characters,” with no ethos except “fight to win.” The book avoids that by engaging us with Keiji’s very human voice; whether Cruise’s acting can do the job remains to be seen.
All You Need is KILL, the movie, is scheduled for June 2014 in the USA. The book is available from Haikasoru.