Edge of Tomorrow
Comparisons with other movies don’t really do Edge of Tomorrow justice. Yes, it’s the sci-fi Groundhog Day (and also tips its hat to Source Code); given the popularity of that movie, it’s a perfectly acceptable shorthand. But this isn’t a love story (despite the usual tepid intimations of romance that Tom Cruise – or his advisors – have shoehorned in, pretty much as an afterthought; as such it’s relatively innocuous). Yes, the aliens make noise like, well Aliens. And there’s the open-air warfare of Starship Troopers. And yet, the creatures are the least of the story. And there are mech suits, suggestive of both Cameron’s movie and last year’s Elysium. However, a fair portion of the action is devoid of such an encumbrance, notably the climax. The reason easy comparisons are unhelpful, if very much a given of the modern movie age – we all do it, and I will again in this review – is that Edge of Tomorrow is a first class, top-notch sci-fi movie able to stands on its own two feet without needing to look over nervously over its shoulder.
This is the best pure science fiction movie since Inception (or Cloud Atlas, if that qualifies). Mention of those two gives some idea of the area Edge inhabits. The realm of idea-driven blockbusters, where plot is king, never overshadowed even when the spectacle is as pixelated as it is in almost every frame here. It’s rare, hallowed territory, and it will be interesting to see how successful this is. Can it break through the $300m worldwide ceiling facing any non-Mission: Impossible Tom Cruise picture? Maybe Cruise’s baggage has finally weighed him down. Maybe, as a boy-man into his sixth decade, new generations just don’t care. Or maybe he merely suffers from the industry-wide decline of the movie star, unable to open just anything. I wasn’t particularly enthused by the Cruiser during his zenith as a star. Perversely, his movies have become progressively more interesting as his appeal has waned. I liked last year’s Oblivion for its visual and aural sumptuousness more than anything Tom brought to the feast. He acquitted himself as well as ever, but with scenes specifically playing to his traditional toothy-grinned all-American wonder boy status (if not in any degree as much as he did historically) and a third act that blew a gasket, it ultimately fell a bit short.
Here, even though his character arc may get him to the same nice cosy place ninety percent of his pictures trace out (and ones that don’t are blips like Magnolia and Collateral), and there’s the odd inflection of cheeky Tom-ness, we start out with a guy who is a complete dick. And Cruise, sportingly, relishes the chance to play on his publicity-baiting persona (for both the actor and his character, such a high profile inevitably turns sour). The Groundhog Day thing will come up occasionally, and it’s worth noting that Bill Murray may have been a miserable sod at the start but he was still full of fun Murray misanthropy. Cruise is an out-and-out coward, more-than-willing to resort to blackmail and, when that fails, attempt to leg it from the pursuing squaddies, in order to avoid frontline duty. There’s a common-sense quality here that most movies don’t broach in favour of portraying glorious valour (that is, the preservation instinct suggests you’d have to be out of your mind to volunteer for combat); the one who disavows such acceptable norms is invariably a lowdown weasel of weak moral fibre. They get what they deserve.
So it is with Cruise’s Major William Cage. He’s an ex-advertising executive who fell on his feet in the military by using his skills to propagandise the war effort against the alien hoard. A fixture on TV, he devotes most of his time to promoting the Angel of Verdun, “Full Metal Bitch” Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), as the heroic scourge of the Mimic menace (her nickname consciously echoes Kubrick’s 1987 opus and Ripley’s exchange with the Alien Queen in the previous year’s sequel). Consequently, when he is called to England and Brendan Gleeson’s General Brigham uncharitably sends the completely inexperienced officer into the fray as part of the spearhead on the beaches of France (expected to be a decisive victory), one wonders quite what Brigham has against him (so much so, I half expected Brigham to be in cahoots with the enemy somehow). The truth is simply that Brigham doesn’t like him or his underhand shirking, and this is payback. No one thinks Cage will survive five minutes, which sort-of proves to be the case (he manages to kill an Alpha Mimic but is infected with its blood, which causes him to repeat each day over each time he is killed). There’s a straightforward practice-what-you-preach ethic at play, which goes beyond plain old cowardice.
That said, besides being announced as a deserter to his new company (and guilty of impersonating officer), Cage later finds himself under similar scrutiny in a London pub. Anyone of a certain age (under sixty?!) who hasn’t taken up arms is dubious cove, and one can’t help see Cruise and his director summoning the more straightforward attitudes of the Blitz and D-Day landings. Is the idea that this, like WWII is a “good” war (as in justly waged against a tyrannical foe) and that any who don’t do their bit deserves a swift and nasty end? That Cage will carry on being taught this until he learns his lesson; mettle and heroism will be beaten into him with each new destruction he experiences? This may be (a) subtext, but Edge never quite feels like it wants to make any such grand statements (you could hardly mistake Starship Troopers’ satirical skewering of propaganda and abject derring-do, and yet many did). This is, after all, the classic hero’s journey. Except that it chooses a far less gallant place than normal for its hero to begin.
As for Edge’s relationship with military might, it isn’t a straightforward one. For every thrust that appears to nourish their virtues, there’s another undercutting it. Military men aren’t thinking men. They follow orders, and have the smallest of minds and imaginations when it comes to strategy or lateral thinking. Their poster-boy (or rather, girl) heroes (or rather, heroines) are the result not (necessarily) of a true warrior spirit but someone who got really, really good by living the same day again and again and again. Where’s the prowess in that? There’s probably a metaphor here for the brainwashed automaton soldier – constant repetition makes a perfect killing machine – except that Liman manipulates expectations in order to birth self-awareness. Everyone else, the actual killing machines, is just cannon fodder. No quantity of hardware will be any use when it comes to an enemy that outmatches in terms of speed, cunning and, well, foresight. The nods to Saving Private Ryan here are overt stylistically and in terms of setting. Arguably, a torn chic has arisen in the period since that film; bravery amidst the terror and hell of battle (and the mud, and the filth!) are givens, so it is the real man and soldier who endure them. Spielberg clearly venerates his soldiers, and in a similar way Cameron’s fascination with the well-oiled, ultra-disciplined unit is potent even when he depicts that unit falling apart. Doug Liman, in contrast, is nothing if not ambivalent.
The director goes through the motions of with every rowdy and macho cliché of the grunts, the gruff sergeant majors, the dim generals, and the carnage of an assault contrasting with the machismo leading up to it. He has fun with the routines, but he remains unseduced. There’s a similar scepitcism we saw in The Bourne Identity, and to an extent in the real-world milieu of Fair Game, but it’s an element that never overpowers the story. Any power structure is inherently flawed, and ultimately it is the individual that is important. But for Cage, his cynicism is broken down by… What exactly? By the lack of any other options? By having a thing for the girl? By wanting to solve an intriguing plot? By reaching the point (over how many thousands of days?) where he could run for it, but he now sees that only he can pull off the mission? This indeterminacy might be viewed as a flaw in the writing and in character, but it translates more as if its all of the above. With a hefty dollop of familiar Cruise control. He becomes a hero simply because that’s his story.
I think my doubt over this aspect may be because, while the final act is effective in and of itself, there can’t help but be an element of routine once the plot is shorn of the seductive device of the repeat. It’s the final assault, against insurmountable odds, and little Tommy is going to prove himself. Just as he did in Oblivion. The story needs to lose the safety net of death not being the end in order to up the stakes, but so much fun is had with the Groundhog Day-ing, and it is used so well so consistently that, once it is left behind, there’s an ever-so-slight element of deflation.
Doug Liman knows how to shoot good clean action (even when handheld), and he’s always (at least, he always appears to be) clear about where he is in a potentially confusing story. This rock-solid sensibility helps immeasurably in ensuring the viewer has their bearings (just imagine if Marc Forster was at the helm or, rather, don’t). His pictures traditionally have a stop-start production history, picking up for reshoots that no doubt infuriate cost-conscious studios. This one was no exception, although the late addition of Jeremy Piven is nowhere in sight (perhaps Liman thought better of it). The attempts to come up with really good new aliens seem to have a bit of brick wall, however. It’s something post-CGI movies science fiction movies have in common; the possibilities are endless but the lack of tangibility makes them ultimately rather forgettable. These ones have speed on their side, and Aliens signature screeches, so Liman is able to create tension from their presence. But their fast-rotating, whirling dervish quality rather detracts from seeing them as anything other than a mass of pixels. In that respect at least, he’s far behind the effects rendering in, say, Godzilla. On the other hand, he’s ahead of Gareth Edwards in every narrative and character respect.
Nevertheless, the Mimics’ traits are strongly conceived. They just don’t necessarily bear close scrutiny. They can manipulate time, and through seeing into the future/repeated present they are able to ensure effective and total victory over each new world they encounter. The idea of fooling the enemy into thinking they have won, and then taking advantage of total attack to wipe them out, is a strong one but it also raises questions.
Also a strong plot element is the subterfuge that, even when Cage thinks he is on the trail of the Omega Mimic, their central nervous system if you will, it’s another red herring. At points the exposition is a little hurried and muddled however, either because it hasn’t been thought out fully or because the writers want the viewers to fill in the gaps (or because the actors may have rushed through an explanation without pausing). Not being spoon-fed is commendable, just as long as this isn’t a mask for lazy logic. Someone I saw the movie with complained that, if the Mimics are as unstoppable as they seem, their plan is unnecessarily elaborate, but rather see it as more a case of simple economy; if they can use a method that elicits the least casualties, then why not keep using it? But that’s assuming the Omega has a finely-honed logician’s brain.
Accordingly, some of the “intricacies” (if I call them that, it doesn’t necessarily mean they make sense) don’t completely translate. Such as the whys and wherefores of the reset device. Okay, the blood of the rare Alpha Mimic fosters the repeat experiences in Cage (and before him Rita in Verdun). And a blood transfusion will kill that power (resulting in – one of many, this is often a very funny movie – the running joke of Rita shooting Cage dead in the head whenever he is wounded to ensure he comes back); that’s fine so far.
I would assume the power over time gives the Omega the ability to strategise it’s campaigns, as mentioned. But if it’s the case that it resets time (only?) when an Alpha dies, as a failsafe when they are losing, it’s a bit of a waste of an ability. Wouldn’t you want to use it at the drop of a hat? And, if the ability is transferred to Cage, why does it preclude any of the other Alphas, no doubt bombing about the beaches, from immolating themselves and jumping? What gives Cruise preference shares? It’s a very specific plot device and it appears to be the case, as it seems the only way the Alphas and Omega can get their gift back is to de-blood Cage.
The revelation that Verdun was a plan on the Mimics’ part suggests a curious mixture of instinct (resetting when an Alpha dies) and strategy (choosing to lose battles so as win the war). How much of Rita’s success is part of the Mimics’ plan? At what point did they decide to lose? Once the Omega was tapping into/observing her repeated days and could see a plan of action? I would guess this is the case as she is the only day repeater (the Alphas can’t do it). (On the other hand, perhaps the Mimics had already scoped the battlefield out, and an Alpha had already been killed before the point where Rita gets splattered.) There’s an internal conflict here since, if the Alphas that rare, it’s surely foolhardy to put them in harm’s way. Yet it is also the only method the Omegas have of guaranteeing a victory (although, as noted, the Mimics seem pretty damn unstoppable anyway and might be just as victorious if the Alphas steered clear of the frontlines all together). Any contact between a human and an Alpha runs a danger of passing on the power, so the Omega must run a lot of calculated risks through that big brain. I would guess also that the attempt to lure Rita to a false destination occurs once the Mimics have sufficient knowledge to enact their plan in France. But again, they surely don’t want Cage, or anyone, getting the ability there, so wouldn’t it make sense to hold the Alphas back on the big day?
Outside of their cause-and-effect logistics, the old standby in which the annihilation of central control provides total victory is so much of a narrative shortcut it has become expected (be it Oblivion, or Star Wars, or Ender’s Game). So, while the Omega’s destruction, wiping out the capability of its minions, isn’t such a surprise, it’s still a bit of a disappointment after the sheer next-level euphoria provoked by the preceding plotting. Which raises the issue of numerous drafts the script encountered. Most reviews have mentioned how the movie’s construction reflects video games (restarting the same level when killed), and this is something Liman was consciously embracing. It’s ironic then that a movie that isn’t a games adaptation should tailor the principles in an incomparably superior fashion to the myriad failed attempts to translate name titles. As such, it’s no surprise the ending should be a rollercoaster of maximum decimation. Yet that’s also a natural narrative touchstone (which games for to a greater or lesser extent), so it’s curious that the makers only got there through a protracted writing process.
Edge is based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s much, much better named All You Need is Kill. It’s amazing and saddening how frequently clueless execs drop an instantly arresting and evocative title for something highly generic. It was developed by Dante Harper before ending up on The Black List, and then taken on by Joby Harold (neither writer gets final credit). Then Jez and John-Henry Butterworth came on board (they wrote Liman’s Fair Game). After that an uncredited stab by X-Men man Simon Kinberg. And finally Christopher McQuarrie (a Cruise favourite script doctor) had a bash. With all these cooks, it’s remarkable the movie is as seamless and compelling as it is; so many scribes is usually the sure sign of a mess. But it is telling, given its lesser status to what has gone before, that less than two months before filming began the ending wasn’t set.
There are also bits and pieces that clearly came from vested parties. Tommy boy asking to have the human story beefed up, hence a car journey with Rita where he talks about how much he knows about her, and the only marginally convincing subdued romance between them. To be fair, this is never made overt, but the moment where Rita kisses Cage goodbye still feels awkward and unnecessary. The scene at the end, where Cage visits her and she fires the same snappy lack-of greeting at him he’s heard myriad times (which is a great way to finish it off) would have been even better without that “promise” of something more. And, while that moment is fine, the reset itself is more complicated. How exactly does victory occur if Cage has thrown himself back to a point prior to initiating it? I’ll admit, that one doesn’t fuss me too much although it seems to have become the major bone of contention in post-mortem discussions. I feel as if the ending is earned, logic be damned (in which case I probably shouldn’t have harped on about the Mimicology).
Other elements just seem a little bit silly. What are we to make of the Omega living under the Louvre. It’s an ostentatious brainiac? It doesn’t think earthlings would ever have the depravity to bomb such a national treasure therefore it’s safe down there? Or it represents an assault on art and human creativity, tantamount to Nazi book burning (except that Cage blows the whole shebang up, so the Omega isn’t really responsible). The truth is probably more prosaic. The writers located the brain somewhere everyone’s heard of. Then there’s the special, previously unmentioned device of the doctor (Noah Taylor), designed to tap into the alien location. It’s introduced in a clumsy fashion and is much better in terms of the action it leads to than its sudden placement in the narrative when all else has failed.
Just as Groundhog Day mined the possibilities of recurrent performances beyond mere comic potential (pathos plays a large part of that one) so Edge doesn’t put the kibosh on anything non-dramatic. The main lines of action are Cage’s growth as a warrior and his and Rita’s attempts to reach the Omega, but it would have been looking a gift horse in the mouth not to utilise knowledge of exact beats of the day for a string of gags. These come both in the vein of Mr Memory and pure visual punch lines. They stray from obvious interactions with his new infantry unit to varied responses to Bill Paxton’s Master Sergeant Farrell. Paxton’s role has been mentioned in the same breath as Hudson in Aliens, but there’s no similarity other than the military role and capacity for stealing of scenes. Paxton has great comic timing, seen as far back as Weird Science, and his responses to Cage, be they initial mercilessness when the latter is trying to slip and slide his way out of warfare or bafflement when the words he is about to deliver are plucked from his mouth, are gems.
The more obvious humorous route is Wylie Coyote slapstick. To a greater or lesser extent I’ve like all of Liman’s movies; Jumper is definitely a lesser, but I’m quite willing to admit to enjoying the generally vilified Mr and Mrs Smith. That’s the movie where he appears to be having the most fun, and here there’s also a cartoonish abandon to Cage’s various failures. An incoming carrier repeatedly squashes the fat guy (Tony Way) during the beach landing, or it gets Cage when he mounts a rescue bid. Rita puts a series of caps in Cage’s head during a series of injurious training scenes. And Cage rolls under a truck to reach his rendezvous with Rita, but this action isn’t always a success. As has been suggested by others, the only downside is the 12/PG-13 rating precludes more extreme onscreen demises.
Cage’s learning curve is funny and frustrating, and crucially the grip exerted is all down to the plotting. Yes, it is very lucky he’s a quick study (in terms of memory; we see it on his first repeat) and physicality capable; if he had two left feet it wouldn’t make for much of an arc. But there’s an intrigue and tension, a desire to find out what will happen next and what will transpire, that renders most blockbusters wholly predictable. We can gauge Cage’s progress by how his attitude is changing, but it takes a good while before he isn’t looking for an excuse to back out. Adding to this is the very smart choice not to reveal, in most cases, how many times he’s done this or that, if at all, until we’re a good way through a scene. Sometimes a sequence flows from an apparent realisation (the return to see Brigham), only to realise this has been going on torturously time and again; and then you reach a point where it hasn’t. Even where the fact of knowledge is shouted loudly, it can be provocative (the despairing scene where Cage and Rita come across a helicopter).
You wouldn’t exactly call Cruise’s role age-appropriate given the action zest required, but having an older, “past it” guy thrown in with the young bucks absolutely adds a tension to the proceedings. And, as an older guy who moisturises enough to be a good decade younger (if not more), it isn’t such a stretch to see him sharing the screen with twenty-years-younger Blunt. It’s just as well, as his last three movies have all feature female leads in the same age bracket. Anyone would think he wanted to be the next Sean Connery. Blunt is more than solid here, she’s great, particularly as she imbues Rita with more depth than is on the page or in the dialogue. It’s good to see her finally making a mark in a big movie after losing Black Widow when scheduling pulled the rug from under her bid for blockbuster status. She hasn’t really been rewarded with the best of roles since Hollywood-ing it, but this will probably give her a second wind (and she’s still just a whippersnapper).
I’ll be surprised if another movie comes along as good this summer. Liman’s less-zero-to-hero tale may not be wholly satisfying (the climax, if not a stumble, requires some elaborate theorising to justify, but what time travel movie is watertight?) but the confidence, energy and sure narrative grip allows him to ride through even the difficult third act relatively unscathed. The discussions on the internal logic of this one are going to run and run, and no doubt someone will come up with acceptably coherent explanation from choices made most likely for commercially astute reasons. I noted that Cage’s arc isn’t fully developed, but the movie as a whole achieves something broader; it satisfies through the goodwill amassed from what it does well. Edge of Tomorrow exceeds its shortcomings and earns its ending, logical or not. This one cost more than anyone would sensibly give to a Tom Cruise movie these days, but if it underperforms it won’t be so much a bad omen for him as for science fiction with a brain (or an Omega). If that happens, everything will be riding on Christopher Nolan. Again.