Edge of Tomorrow (2014) – Directed by Doug Liman – Starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Kick Gurry, Dragomir Mrsic, Charlotte Riley, Jonas Armstrong, Franz Drameh, and Noah Taylor.
Tom Cruise still believes in movie stars.
Have movie stars ever mattered less than they do in the 2010s? The list of the ten highest grossing domestic movies of 2013 contains one movie whose success could be potentially to star power: Gravity, and even the success of that movie was less about being a Sandra Bullock movie as it was being a Sandra Bullock movie that promised a visual spectacle unlike anything else. The rest of the top ten is stuffed with superheroes, animated films, and franchises. Superhero movies no longer pretend star power is a thing that matters, as Marvel and DC/WB realize it’s the costumes that are the stars much more than the people wearing them.
In contrast, Tom Cruise movies are still Tom Cruise movies in the way Days of Thunder and Top Gun and The Firm were Tom Cruise movies. Which is to say that Tom Cruise still believes you will go to a big budget movie to see Tom Cruise. Yes, there needs to be a spectacle built around that, but Tom Cruise will still sit himself in the goddamn middle of a goddamn spectacle and expect you to pony up some cash to see him, even with the dwindling returns of movies like Jack Reacher, Oblivion, and Knight and Day. Tom Cruise still doggedly refuses to make a tentpole movie in an age of tentpole movies. Other than the Mission: Impossible franchise, Tom Cruise doesn’t do sequels and isn’t interested in setting up a franchise when what all studios seemingly want right now is a franchise.
Even his one franchise is really just four individual Tom Cruise movies tied under one banner; there is no overall arc to Mission: Impossible as there is to The Hunger Games or Twilight or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (And all of this is why it’s so odd to hear him pining to make Top Gun 2.)
Which brings us to EDGE OF TOMORROW, a movie that continues the Tom Cruise approach to science fiction: Tom Cruise in a spectacle that thinks.
Earth is five-years deep in a war with an alien race called the Mimics, who have spread their control across Europe. American Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is a spokesman for the United Defense Force (UDF), meaning his job is to go on television and sell the war to the non-European public. He’s brought to London to meet with General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), the head of UDF, on the eve of a massive offensive. Cage thinks he’s there to sell Operation Downfall to the public from behind a desk, but Brigham wants to imbed Cage with the troops during the assault.
Cage wants no part of that and tries to talk his way out of it. When Brigham doesn’t budge, Cage attempts to blackmail him, which results in Brigham having him arrested, stripped of rank, and sent to a base at Heathrow, where he has less than 24 hours to prepare himself for the assault. Still unwilling to be a part of the fighting, Cage does his best to weasel his way out of it, but Master Sergeant Farrell (Bill Paxton) has been warned and isn’t buying it.
Full credit to Cruise for understanding the worse he allows Cage to look, the better the redemption story. It’s fun to watch Cruise pour on the Cruise charm and have it repeatedly rejected. Farrell sticks him with the losers in J Squad, a group of misfits that, if this wasn’t a Tom Cruise movie, would be played by a group of character actors doing riffs on their standard persona. Because this is a Tom Cruise movie, these rejects are neither famous (to the external world) nor all that necessary (to the internal world). They exist merely to help further the redemption narrative, which includes Cage ultimately bringing them into the final act.
Where they promptly prove themselves disposable all over again.
During the initial assault, Cage stumbles around the beach, watching his squad members get killed, seeing Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), the so-called “Angel of Verdun” for her dramatic victory over the Mimics that has inspired Operation Downfall and “Full Metal Bitch,” the name given to her by her fellow soldiers because of her overall bad-assery, and finally getting killed when he detonates a bomb as an Alpha Mimic stands over him. Cage gets covered in the Alphas blood and after dying, finds himself waking up right back on the tarmac at Heathrow.
Cage is noticeably freaked out, of course, but his intelligence (he’s a coward, not an idiot) allows him to quickly pick up on what’s going on. While he doesn’t know why it’s happening, he gets that his world is resetting, and he seeks to take advantage of that to live longer. Eventually, he’s good enough to work his way to Rita and impress her enough that she believes what he’s going through.
It helps that she used to be able to do it, too.
As bad ass as Rita is, some of these skills were developed while she was leading the battle of Verdun over and over again, her own life resetting after each death. Her shared experience with Cage allows the film to shorthand some of the mechanics of the process, so we can spend more time watching Cage become bad ass instead of watching him play detective. It’s a smart move. Any of these time loop movies, whether they’re one of the greatest comedies ever (Groundhog Day) or the single best horror movie ever (also Groundhog Day), needs to contend with making the character’s repetitive day continually interesting for us.
The way films accomplish this, of course, is that once they have established a day or two’s worth of our protagonist having the same experience, they proceed to largely ignore it, telling us a story that skips over the part of the day we’ve seen to get to a sequence we haven’t. They come back to touchstone moments from time to time, usually either to shift tones, providing a comedic moment when things are getting serious, or a serious moment when things are getting too loose.
EDGE OF TOMORROW does this wonderfully, largely jettisoning J Squad in favor of Rita, but once Rita is involved, the film gains its narrative momentum. I like that there’s a point to all of the resets, that Cage is actively trying to not only become a better soldier but to advance the beach assault.
People seem to forget sometimes that Cruise is a good actor, but watching him go from slick PR guy to fumbling soldier to experienced soldier to frustrated with the whole experience is nearly sublime in its subtlety. Cruise makes this transition appear so effortless (from an acting standpoint) that it makes Cage feel completely human (from a narrative one).
Give Cruise his due – he’s not hiding in an ensemble or protecting himself in the comforting of a franchise. For all of its clever concepts, its smart script, solid directing, and engaging Emily Blunt, EDGE is going to fail or succeed with audiences because of Cruise and I bought it. I thought Oblivion was a step too clever for its own good, more interested in surprising you with the twist than in telling an engaging story on its own. (I also think it had a troubling message about clones, furthering the idea that they really are all interchangeable parts. Doctor Who had this problem, as well, during the Russell T. Davies era.) EDGE does not have these problems; there are twists and turns (I particularly liked the real reason why Rita was able to win the Battle of Verdun and the twist with Omega’s location) but they serve to further the narrative.
The Mimics are pretty awesome, too. They’re just The Faceless Enemy. There’s no compelling Big Bad sitting on a throne contemplating the conquest of the universe, only these wild, swirling creatures.
If EDGE is one part time loop movie, it’s also the best on-screen version of a video game I’ve seen. More than any other film, EDGE replicates the playing experience of a game where you can die but reset back to your last saved point. That’s not what’s happening to Cage, because he has to go all the way back to the tarmac and relive his whole experience over, but for the audience, once the narrative gets going we mostly get to pick up where Cage left off.
Emily Blunt is all sorts of great throughout EDGE. She’s as smart as she is bad ass, and when the film goes beyond the twinning of her physical experience with Cage’s resetting the day to make an emotional twinning (she fell in love with someone the way Cage is falling in love with her), Rita is made stronger by looking “weaker.”
The final action sequence is a bit of a letdown. Once you know that Cage has lost his ability to reset, you know he’s done dying until the aliens have been eliminated, and the very final fight with Omega is like the filmmakers gave up on trying to figure something unique up and just copped the ending from Pacific Rim.
From start to finish, though, EDGE OF TOMORROW provides one of the better cinematic experiences of Summer ’14. It’s not as good as The Winter Soldier, but it’s every bit as good as Godzilla, and that’s some heady company to hang out in. EDGE manages to tell a serious story and still provide some good humor, and along the way, reaffirm Tom Cruise’s belief in Tom Cruise movies.