Released 2014. Directed by Doug Liman. Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez & John-Henry Butterworth. Based on “All You Need Is Kill” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. Starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton.
Aren’t we getting tired of my reminding you that I reveal plot spoilers in these things? It’s like I’m repeating myself day after day after day…
I had low expectations of Edge of Tomorrow. After Knight and Day, I was wondering whether Tom Cruise should give up the action movies. He’s getting on, after all. I’d seen the trailer and sarcastically summed up the premise as Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers meets D-Day from Saving Private Ryan. I was anticipating two hours of unintelligible nonsense with Cruise’s face glued over it in the hope I wouldn’t notice. It looked so… stupid.
I’m so glad to say that I needn’t have worried. While my sarcastic description is absolutely correct, I didn’t realise that there was a good version of that mashup to be made. Edge of Tomorrow is creative. It’s funny. It’s energetic. It eschews darkness and introspection – it’s constantly on the move, doing new things. In some ways it’s a real throwback to the way it used to be done before Christopher Nolan showed up with his grumpy Batman. This is what action movies should be like.
The opening twist is a pleasure. We’re introduced to the film’s world through a succession of news clips from around the world describing an alien invasion, many depicting interviews with Cruise’s Major William Cage as he talks up the US military and seeks to boost morale. He’s in so many that you begin to wonder whether he’s actually involved in the war at all. Which is when you find out that he’s not. He’s just a PR guy, hired to put a pretty face on things. He’s not a soldier at all. It’s a lovely feint right from the off. The Action Movie Cruise you’re expecting is replaced with a Public Relations Cruise that is more cynical. And I love a bit of cynicism in a Hollywood flick. When Cage flashes his smile, just as when Cruise does it, it’s pure showmanship – the trick is admitting it. It’s very astute of the film to articulate this. The real-life Tom Cruise does somehow seem as though he was genetically engineered to be a huge star and smile on chat shows, and that’s the version of Cruise that’s revealed to us here. When General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), a real soldier with little time for Cage’s PR antics, tells Cage he’ll be sent to the front of a major upcoming invasion with a camera crew in tow, the smarm turns to fear. He nervously tries to blackmail Brigham into not sending him; Brigham’s response is to knock Cage out and send him anyway, stripping him of his rank before he wakes up in handcuffs at a military base.
This is where we get into the film proper. Cage, without camera crew and recognised by nobody, is thrown into barracks, given a mech suit and told he’ll be forming part of tomorrow’s assault, and will probably die. Nobody even tells him how to disengage his weapon’s safety for fear that he’ll end up killing them. Arriving at the beach, it becomes evident that the aliens, who weren’t supposed to know the humans were coming, are more than ready for them, and have turned the operation into a massacre. Dazed, scared and staggering around amidst the chaos, Cage watches everyone around him die, including his squadmates and Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a celebrity soldier due to her heroics at a previous victory, and puts an end to the madness by setting off an explosive in the face of a giant blue monster, killing himself in the process.
Then, he wakes up in handcuffs at a military base.
So we’ve had the Saving Private Ryan and Starship Troopers bits, and this is where the Groundhog Day comparison comes in. For we soon realise that Cage is back at square one, surrounded by soldiers who were dead just seconds ago and who are now repeating themselves. He soaks it up and sees the day play out again… and dies again. It’s very entertaining to see him argue with and run rings around his superiors as he becomes accustomed to the loop, and it’s funnier than you might expect (a couple of well-timed cuts deliver big laughs, and Cage’s smarm returns as he starts to have a good time playing with his newfound ability to tell the near-future). It moves really quickly and is tightly-constructed. The editing is tremendous, in fact, and sure to be overlooked, but its timing and economy are outstanding. It’s not long before we only need a couple of brief shots to show Cage failing at something, then succeeding at it, to get the entire picture.
A few deaths later, Cage has met Vrataski on the beach and she’s realised what’s unique about him. She’s able to tell him to meet her back at base before they’re killed. The reason that she became a war hero, it turns out, is because she was repeating a day of her own, able to practise it repeatedly until the battle was won. It’s explained that the blue monsters are rare, and connected to the alien hivemind – when Cage killed it, he accidentally swallowed its blood, and became hooked in to the system too. They’re able to reset days until they’ve accomplished what they want; an ability that he has inadvertently hijacked. Vrataski surmises that the aliens allowed her to win her famous battle in order to embolden the humans and encourage them to throw everything at their beach invasion, where the aliens would secretly be waiting for them. While Cage and Vrataski want to work together to destroy the alien base, they have to get off that beach first.
A discussion of Edge of Tomorrow wouldn’t be complete without a brief look at its connection to videogame logic. I think it’s a little bit trite, and the film isn’t doing much that’s purposeful with it, but it’s certainly something that can be drawn from it. It’s not the first film to depict different ways a single day can go – see Run Lola Run – and it’s not the first to depict repeating a day and being able to iterate on one’s previous failures – that would be Groundhog Day – but I’m not sure that I’ve seen a film of this type that has quite articulated the grind of doing things over and over again in exactly the same way. There’s a breed of videogame (one that’s dying out, but used to be totally dominant) that features enemies moving around the player in patterns that are not just predictable but pre-scripted. That is, success relies on learning the sequence and following it under pressure as much as on agility and skill in aiming. Move forwards, shoot the monster on your left, hide to avoid the cannon, head up the stairs, turn around and nuke the group following you… and if you forget or screw up a single step, you’re dead and have to start over. It’s like learning a song, but you’re not allowed to practise just the parts you’re worse at; you have to start from scratch every time.
This is how Edge of Tomorrow works. Needing to escape the chaos on the beach, Cage repeats the day over and over in quick succession, Vrataski in tow, giving her instructions about where to go next, to shoot the alien that’s approaching from over the hill. They spend as much time on the battlefield as they do at base poring over a map, Cage drawing on it the specific route that they need to take, Vrataski memorising “step left, duck right” in anticipation of an alien that keeps killing her. They require perfection to move swiftly and safely through the fight, and that perfection is slow to come. This isn’t about figuring out a new way to do it. It’s about there being one way out, and getting it right. It’s pure videogame logic, and while I remain sure that the film isn’t doing it purposefully – probably not even deliberately – it really captures that frustrating feeling of repetition and continuous, gradual edging towards success.
(Curiously, the game that most evokes this for me is Stuntman, in which you navigate courses as a movie stunt driver, making handbrake turns, jumps through trains, flips and so on. That game even put the instructions directly on screen and had your director bark them at you, and I still couldn’t complete it.)
The film continues to throw new obstacles and objectives at our heroes at breakneck pace and watch them handle it, until its final twenty minutes, which are disappointingly weak. It’s been fun watching Cage play with his repeating day, but there’s no jeopardy to it. If he dies, he wakes up. It’s the same problem that Inception had: once you’ve established that death is no problem, where are the stakes? Edge of Tomorrow uses a less dirty trick than Inception did to bring death back, in fairness – instead of just deciding that its characters can die for no reason now, it gives Cage a blood transfusion, removing him from the aliens’ system – but the result is that Edge of Tomorrow becomes a completely normal action film right when it should be winding up to do something really special. It gives up its conceit, the conceit that it’s been so creative and smart with, and instead gives us twenty minutes of any action movie ever. It’s a huge shame. (The denouement is unconvincing too, hovering between being properly earned and excessively simple and neat, but as with the rest of the film, it happens quickly and sharply, so there’s not much of it to groan at, should you be so inclined.)
Don’t let that sour note discourage you from seeing Edge of Tomorrow, though. It’s so much smarter than it’s necessary for any big-budget film to be these days, which is a delight. Actually, going on its disappointing early box-office performance, it’s probably smarter than it’s wise to be these days, which is depressing. The film breathes light-heartedness, even during its darker moments. It wants you to have fun, and not to feel talked down to, and it respects your time. The cast is superb and Cruise’s performance in particular is a real joy, the plot bounces along doing new things all the time, and there’s a great sense of humour keeping things from going down the grim and gritty rabbit hole. See it on a nice big screen and don’t skimp on the popcorn. It’s a big crunchy Tom Cruise film!