June 11 2014 12:00 AM

Rom-drama trumps sci fi as love blooms in the foxholes




I will always hate “The Fault in Our Stars.”

In the future, the romantic dramedy about dying teenagers falling in love will be heralded by the sentimental and loathed by the cynical as classic American heartbreak porn. The success of “Fault,” which exploded at the box office this weekend, will make a brand name out of author John Green, make stars out of its young leads, and its quotes will infect every corner of pop culture, providing handy new passwords for bleeding hearts from here to eternity. OK? OK.

However, its victory happened at the same time as the failure of “Edge of Tomorrow,” a masterpiece of imaginative science fiction storytelling that bombed big time. In the battle between films appealing to romantic suffering and those appealing to challenging concepts (aka, the “tears vs. idears” conflict), the win by “Fault” adds to the frustration of moviegoers craving original material that maximizes the medium’s potential.

Which isn’t to say “Fault” is a bad movie. It’s a straightforward adaptation of a straightforward YA novel that earnestly addresses the pain of mortality through the eyes of attractive, intelligent, rich, white people. Every generation clings to a film like this. It’s a tradition that spans from “An Affair to Remember” to “The Notebook.”

But there’s just nothing special about it. Thirty years after we met the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess and the criminal in John Hughes’ groundbreaking “The Breakfast Club,” the teenage characters in “Fault” offer no new insights into adolescence, terminal conditions or not.

In “Fault,” 16-year-old cancer patient Hazel (Shailene Woodley) is depressed that she’s dying, but we don’t see any of her dark thoughts. She puts on a good face for her parents because she’s worried for them after she goes, but it seems so easy for her. We never feel her struggle.

Similarly, funny, handsome and astonishingly self-secure Gus (Ansel Elgort) couldn’t be simpler. His defining characteristic is falling instantly in love with Hazel. That’s it. The two have so much in common — they love reading! they’re fighting cancer! — but it all feels preordained. Of course the two hottest kids in class are going to hook up. Der.

You can have intellectual romantic films — “Casablanca” and “When Harry Met Sally … ” are two fine examples — but goddammit, do something new. And no, making out in the Anne Frank House doesn’t count.

The ironic thing is, “Edge of Tomorrow” is every bit as romantic as “Fault,” tying themes of eternal love into a futuristic war epic. When front line soldier William Cage (Tom Cruise) is killed in a D-Day-like battle against invading aliens, he discovers he’s trapped in a time travel loop, forced to relive the same day repeatedly. He soon discovers his fate is intertwined with that of Rita (Emily Blunt), a badass warrior chick who may hold the key to his seeming immortality.

“Edge of Tomorrow” continues the metaphysical thought experiment of “Groundhog Day” — what could the human brain do with an infinite amount of time to solve a problem. But it goes deeper, shocking you into considering why world superpowers use soldiers to kill each other to figure out who wins. It’s all so arbitrary, but that’s life.

Each time he dies, Cage comes back a little smarter — and a little bit more in love with Rita. That blossom of foxhole affection is strikingly similar to that of Hazel and Gus, but after awhile, the pain of losing Rita begins to haunt Cage, giving the film a raw, emotional edge, just as the fear of loss is the most palpable aspect of “Fault.” When all hope is gone, the characters prove that you can still love with everything you have.

With any luck, “Edge” will find its audience after it leaves theaters, like “Starship Troopers” and “Blade Runner.” Unfortunately, it’s another in a long list of recent exemplary sci fi films like “John Carter,” “Dredd” and “Her” that failed to connect with audiences, and which producers will point to as explanations for why they’re not taking more chances on big-budget, cutting-edge fare.

So expect a slew of YA adaptations of forlorn teenagers who look and sound vaguely similar, and going to the movies will be an endless circle of déjà vu. And that is why I will always hate “The Fault in Our Stars.”