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Sometimes a good movie can be a big surprise.
One would have thought that the Sci-fi action combat subgenre was all but played out. Going in were were told that Edge of Tomorrow is a movie with a trick time-manipulation gimmick, that applies the premise of Groundhog Day to a Tron- like video game. The hero is trapped in the temporal context of a try-it-again game like The Legend of Zelda, doomed to keep replaying the same losing series of events until he learns enough to win, or the rules change. Since this is a Sci-fi action combat epic, losing means surrendering Earth to icky aliens.
That description combined with the presence of Tom Cruise lowered expectations for Edge of Tomorrow to the near-zero mark. A testosterone charged first-person shooter video game does not in itself a movie make, and we've become increasingly impatient with 'clever' screenplays that spend two hours constructing a convoluted cyber- or alternate world, only to cheat us on decent characters and story values. Hence the wildly popular but empty Inception.
I'm happy to report that Edge of Tomorrow seems fully aware of these angles and adjusts accordingly. Tom Cruise is excellent in his role, which seems the opposite of his old Punk With A Golden Halo persona. The video game aspect of the narrative is just interesting enough to keep us eager to find out what happens next. Director Doug Liman handles the endless action scenes and narrative clutter with wit and intelligence. In a story where much of the action is repeated scores of times, we're never bored nor overloaded by the repetitions.
E of T begins generic and quickly distinguishes itself. Horrible alien monsters have launched a blitzkrieg offensive that has already conquered all of continental Europe. The Earth Defense Force (shades of this Japanese classic) is preparing a giant D-Day invasion of France. Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is a P.R. specialist coordinating a slick recruiting campaign that de-emphasizes the staggering losses so far and instead harps on Rita Vratasky (Emily Blunt), a seeming super-soldier with a miraculous battle record. Cage is summoned to headquarters, where General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) coldly informs him that he's immediately going into combat. Actually a blue-ribbon coward who waxes heroic only for the TV cameras, Cage resists in every way he can. He nevertheless finds himself involuntarily attached to the combat unit of Master Sgt. Farell (Bill Paxton) and forced to debark with the first 'drop troops'. All the soldiers wear exo-skeleton battle suits packed with weapons; Cage doesn't know how to work any of his equipment. On the ground the group is immediately attacked by the aliens, which resemble living tumbleweeds made of electrically charged barbed wire. They also move faster than the Tasmanian Devil. Cage tangles with a strange 'Blue' variety of alien, and briefly spots the famous Rita. But before he can even get his bearings, he's killed.
Then something unexplainable happens. Cage finds himself back on the floor of the hangar where the invasion force is being prepared. It's the day before. He's alarmed when the exact same things happen that occurred the first time. He goes into battle again, this time using the memory of his failed first attempt to survive a few seconds longer...
It's not difficult to see where this is going. Major Cage's combat skills improve after innumerable fails, deaths that come in so many different ways as to be funny. Cage doesn't learn to play the piano or sculpt ice, but we watch as he's transformed into a super-soldier equal to the acclaimed Rita. When he contacts Rita he discovers that there is a major wrinkle that puts a terrible responsibility into his hands. It's both complicated and simple and involves Blue Aliens, the control of Time-space, and the possibility of zeroing in on the enemy's strategic weakness. Every time they fail, Rita must finish off cage with a pistol...again and again and again.
Edge of Tomorrow has plenty of aspects that could have gone wrong. Cage's effective invulnerability is exactly like the 'game over/reboot' switch on a video game. By taking the finality out of death (and perhaps the pain as well) the movie preaches the kid-friendly message that it's really cool to go full speed ahead in dangerous situations, because man, consequences are for losers. Combat is indeed the most exhilarating life-affirming activity in the cosmos. Edge of Tomorrow is the anti-matter Gallipolli. 1
Yet it's fascinating to see the initially craven Major Cage turn his ignorance and confusion around and take charge of his destiny... at least until the next dumb mistake that sends him back to square one. As in Groundhog Day it's a fantasy much to be desired: imagine going into personal confrontations and physical dangers knowing that if you screw up, you've got a Do-Over option. With so much out of our personal control these days, this is a highly attractive concept.
Slippery war promoter Major Cage is a terrific character for Tom Cruise. We first see him in a wholly credible role, as a carnage salesman for the Earth Defense Force's equivalent of the Pentagon. He talks like a Full Metal Minuteman but is actually just an actor for public relations. He seems wholly 'borrowed' from James Garner's marvelous Conscientious Coward in Paddy Chayefsky's classic The Americanization of Emily. The only difference is that Major Cage finds himself tossed onto an apocalyptic Omaha Beach, with a likelihood of survivability less than what we saw at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan.
Compared to James Garner's philosopher, Major Cage is a cartoon confected to fit into the screenwriters' master plan. But that only makes Tom Cruise ideal for the role. Once he turned into an action hero, Cruise has always been a charismatic yet weightless presence capable of striking the exact correct poses and facial expressions. Only with regret do we acknowledge that this is today's mark of a great star. It's frightful to admit that, had Tom Cruise played the hero of George Lucas' freeze-dried Star Wars prequels, they would likely have been ten times better.
Ms. Emily Blunt is certainly physically impressive as the Universal Soldier-ette, lean and tuned to perfection so she can serve as a battlefield gunslinger. She and Cruise play the characters and concept straight 'n' sober with the result that Edge continues on course even after its novelty has worn off. Cage and Rita zero in on the Grand Solution that will Save The World, and have to do it without the Major's no-fault superpower. Gee, do we think there's any doubt of that outcome? If the finale doesn't top what has come before, it's because movies with such exotic concepts paint themselves into a tighter corner than most, making good endings more difficult than ever. Just the same, E of T brings its characterizations and story logic to an acceptable finish.
But in mind-puzzle / rollercoaster terms Edge of Tomorrow is more than satisfying. Director Liman has organized things so well that the story's leapfrog story construction is crystal clear. The effects are fine and the monsters adequate; we're already very familiar with the hardware-driven combat because it's so similar to the 'Space Marines' setup of Starship Troopers. It's hard to believe that Bill Paxton played an amusingly tough jarhead type way back in Aliens, but here he is again over thirty years later. The Tomorrow screenplay handles exposition about the alien war with montage-d news blips similar to Troopers' news bites. But don't look for a cynical political edge of the kind provided by Jon Davison and Ed Neumeier -this picture has no particular political fish to fry. 2
This action thriller didn't get a perfect launch in the theaters, and part of the problem must have been title trouble. "Edge of Tomorrow" seems more appropriate for an afternoon soap opera, but I realize that the bulk of today's audience won't make that association. The home video sell-phrase Live Die Repeat is only on the Blu-ray box, not the film or its credit block. That would have been a good theatrical alternate, except that it might encourage hecklers to dub the picture Live Die Rinse Repeat. The title of Hiroshi Skakurazaka's source book All You Need Is Kill is good but it makes the movie sound even more vicious than it is. In these kinder & gentler millennial years, our spectacles of genocidal killing need less violent-sounding names.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD of Edge of Tomorrow is the expected dazzling HD encoding of this film, which was released theatrically in 3-D. A separate 3-D disc is being released concurrently with this Blu-ray. Technical excellence has now become such a given in high-end effects fantasies that there's little to criticize here -- the disc presentation is just as polished as the film itself. The intense audio mix is has plenty of vitality. Besides the usual combat cacophony on the track, there are the odd effects that accompany those skittering electric tumbleweed creatures.
Warners has stacked the extras menu with slick featurettes: a general overview, a look at the interesting Heinlein-like exo-suits, the visual effects to create the aliens, and a much longer show on the work of director Doug Liman. We see him playing tennis to stay in shape to keep up with Tom Cruise, who is described as a human dynamo who volunteered to work seven days a week and gives his all to every scene.
Also included is a selection of deleted scenes, often integrated with incomplete effects or untouched green-screen backgrounds. Critics fixated on box office results have theorized about a possible glut of expensive combat action fantasies, and some predict that Tom Cruise's days as a bankable presence are over. I think the industry bankers will just crunch the numbers, do their statistical analyses and conclude that this impressive film was too intelligent and demanding to thrill the general audience. The next ones will be dumber.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. That's my pacifism talking. To my mind the inadvertent end product of 'cool combat' entertainment is that unfortunate kids are attracted to military service for the wrong reasons. 'Twas ever thus, I suppose... I like some of these movies too, if they're as well done as this one. End of Rant.
2. Qualification: there's no additional political context beyond the automatic assumptions common to today's combat action fantasies. Whether from outer space or a foreign country, there's always another implacable, 'alien other' out there in need of expunging, no debate welcome.
3. Reader response from Tom Giegel, 10.07.14:
Hi, Glenn, Thanks for your review of Edge of Tomorrow. I saw the film in a theater back in June and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Indeed it was the only "summer" release that I saw in the theaters this year. As I recall, the audience attending with me was unusually thin. I frankly couldn't understand why the film underperformed financially, though I think you hit the nail right on its head. As you said the film was just "too intelligent and demanding" for the general audience. Moreover, the film wasn't based on a brand-name comic book. This is too bad but understandable; I have witnessed this continuous downward spiraling into dumbness in this country since the 1980s and I'm afraid it's only getting worse. One only has to look at where this film was made and produced, in Britain, the same nation that has given us the wonderfully intelligent and clever Dr. Who TV series. Are there any American studios putting out intelligent/sophisticated science fiction films and television shows of this caliber?
I really enjoyed Edge of Tomorrow but due to its lack of success at the box office I'm afraid there will be fewer theatrical releases as ingenious and entertaining as this one. I'll cross my fingers and hope that you are wrong when you say, "The next ones will be dumber." Take care, Glenn -- Tom Giegel
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.