It’s probably too late to rescue Tom Cruise’s latest film from box office oblivion, but I would like to go on record saying that the financial failure of EDGE OF TOMORROW represents the greatest inverse relationship between quality and ticket sales since TWILIGHT sent breathless teen girls storming into theatres.* Easily surpassing the summer’s successful action-oriented science fiction (the incoherent THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2; the over-rated X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED), EDGE OF TOMORROW defies low expectations set by the coming attractions trailers, which promised little more than a standard-issue futuristic battle movie. Though loaded with special effects, military hardware, and alien invaders, EDGE OF TOMORROW actually explores a clever conceit in an imaginative way, engaging viewers’ Sense of Wonder, along with their appetite for adrenalin-soaked thrills. Though the end result is not all it could have been, EDGE OF TOMOROW is about as close to sophisticated science fiction as we are likely to see this season.
Cruise plays Major William Cage, a public relations flack whose job is to boost morale back home while our soldiers duke it out with aliens in Europe. The latest gizmo in the war is the “Jacket,” an exo-skeleton that supposedly enables even neophyte soldiers to go head-to-head with the invaders, after only minimal training, laying the groundwork for a D-Day type invasion. Unfortunately for Cage, General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) wants him to cover the invasion live, from the front lines. In a beautifully wrought scene that immediately tells us we are in for something different, Cage attempts to decline the order, at first demurring, then hinting blackmail, and finally fleeing. Captured and stripped of his rank, Cage is sent to the front lines anyway – but as canon fodder rather than as a journalist. Knowing him for a deserter, Cage’s squad mates do little to train or help him, and somewhat predictably he dies in the first wave of the assault. And that’s when things get interesting…
Unfortunately, the central surprise of the story is already given away in the promotional campaign: whenever Cage dies, he jumps back in time to the moment when he woke up to find himself in his new squad. Though this sounds a bit like the comedic GROUND HOG DAY, it works more like a videogame: Cage is not simply repeating the same 24-hour cycle over and over; he goes on for as long as he survives – hours, days, maybe weeks – before death hits the proverbial Restart button for him. Along the way, he teams up with Rita (Emily Blunt), a soldier who believes his incredible story because she previously possessed the same ability. She trains him (over and over and over), hoping to reach a level where he will be skilled enough to get off the beach where Earth’s counter-invasion was (is, will be) slaughtered.
Eventually we learn that time-travel is a power possessed by the aliens, who used it to be ready for counter-attack. Cage, like Rita before him, inherited the ability when he killed one of the aliens, its blood pouring over him. Rita lost the ability when she received a blood transfusion, so the joke becomes that Cage cannot risk mere injury: he must succeed or die; every time he is merely wounded, Rita kills him to send him back to the beginning. As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect: eventually Cage and Rita learn what they need to know to defeat the aliens, but as fate would have it, Cage loses his ace-in-the-hole, forcing a final assault with no hope of a second chance…
By its very nature, EDGE OF TOMORROW has a great deal of repetition built into the story line. Fortunately, Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (working from a draft by Jez Butterowrth and John-Henry Butterworth, which took its central idea from Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel All You Need Is Kill) includes numerous clever variations during the re-runs, and eventually the editing becomes more elliptical, omitting scenes we have watched before and skipping ahead to the new material, as Cage gets a little farther in his quest each time. The strategy does not totally work: as we move into the second act, there is a sense of approaching tedium; fortunately, the third act moves in a new direction, removing the Rest button and creating a more conventional suspense scenario.
Until then, however, EDGE OF TOMORROW works in very interesting ways. Starting Cage off as a coward and a deserter, the film is obviously setting up his transition to warrior-hero, but that transition does not play out as expected. Cage never becomes a gung-ho Top Gun-type hotshot. By the time he has learned the skills he needs to survive on the battlefield, he has been through the battle so many times that it seems like old news; he moves through the carnage by rote, following his practiced moves and anticipating every attack, almost bored by the action.
Instead, the suspense turns on an emotional hinge: Cage knows that, when he finally succeeds, he will lose his alien-inherited ability and, with it, loose any chance to reset the clock and resurrect those who died beside, including Rita. In one fine scene, we see Cage reluctant to proceed, ostensibly from a fear of flying, but Rita soon deduces that his hesitation stems from having played the scenario out multiple times without finding a way to keep Rita alive.
Little touches like this hint at an even more sophisticated film than the (very entertaining) one that we have. At first, Cage’s ability seems like a gift – which it is, to the extent that it allows him to defeat the enemy. However, on a personal level, it inevitably results in days, weeks, perhaps months of repeated actions; the chance to go back and fix mistakes leads to frustration, even boredom, as Cage goes through what must feel like a lifetime of re-experience the same few days and hours again and again. There are hints regarding the psychic toll this takes, but by necessity those suggestions remain in the background, overshadowed by the action-adventure scenario.
Fortunately, director Doug Liman (THE BOURNE IDENTIFY) delivers action as exciting and fast-paced as anything in a Michael Bay film, but he grounds the action in the drama and builds gradually to a climax that doesn’t seem like just more of the same, after two hours of previous bullets and bombs.
Liman also knows how to milk the inherent black humor in the situation. After it comes clear the Cage will die multiple deaths over the course of the film – to the point where the thought of dying becomes a typical, almost daily experience – Liman litters the frames with potentially lethal hardware, as when Cage visits Rita in a training room equipped with some nasty looking razor-edged hardware, meant to simulate attacking aliens. We’re safely in SOUTH PARK territory (“Oh my god, they killed Kenny!”); even a simple dialogue scene becomes fraught with tension, as we wonder whether a stray alien-simulator will take Cage out in mid-sentence.
As is apparently obligatory for all action-packed movies, EDGE OF TOMORROW is presented in 3D. As far as live-action movies go, the third dimension works tolerably well, enhancing some of the battle sequences and adding an extra layer of creepiness to the aliens. Liman has always been good at rendering comprehensible action scenes: sure, they seem to zip by, but they’re not simply a blur of images and quick cutting – you can tell what is happening, and all the more so in 3D.
Performances are strong all around. Emily Blunt is fine as Rita; though I’m not sure I buy her as a super soldier, her passionate commitment to the cause contrasts nicely with Cage’s personal concerns. Brendan Gleeson is good as the general who sends Cage into battle, and Bill Paxton absolutely relishes his turn as a master sergeant, eager to haze the new recruit – an officer busted down to enlisted man for desertion.
Cruise himself gives one of his best performances ever. His early scenes of fatuous confidence, predicting victory during a series of media appearances, contrasts wonderfully with the unpleasant surprise he registers when General Brigham assigns him to cover the war up close. Cruise makes Cage believable even as the character is attempting the unbelievable – turning down an order from a superior officer; you really see the wheels going round inside the guy’s head as he imagines that if he plays this right, he will walk away. And of course it’s hysterically funny to see “Maverick” Mitchell run like a coward when he realizes that nothing he says will get him out of the situation.
Unlike X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED, which used its time-travel plot as little more than a gimmick to get the new and the old X-Men cast into the same movie, EDGE OF TOMORROW makes at least an effort toward exploring the ramifications of its premise, and does so without adopting an aura of pretentious seriousitude. To some extent, the film sells out with a contrived ending, but I’m willing to cut the filmmakers some slack. No, it’s not the science fiction masterpiece it could have been, but EDGE OF TOMORROW is great entertainment, with a good idea or two. It proves that summer flicks do not have to be dumb to deliver the goods (though apparently they do need to be dumb to become blockbusters).
- Though in the case of TWILIGHT, the imbalanced weighed in favor of box office over quality.
EDGE OF TOMORROW (Warner Brothers Pictures: June 6, 2014). Directed by Doug Liman. Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, based on the book All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. PG-13. 113 mins. Cast: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Jonas Armstrong, Tony Way.