'Edge of Tomorrow'
It’s been a while since I’ve had reason to get excited about a Tom Cruise movie. Though his last decade included the underrated ‘War of the Worlds’ and the wonderfully goofy ‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’, good Cruise movies have become the exception rather than the rule. Thankfully, Doug Liman (a man in need of a comeback himself) has delivered the star’s best film in a damn long time, and all he needed to do was kill Cruise over and over and over and over…
On the surface, there’s nothing hugely original about ‘Edge of Tomorrow’. It’s essentially ‘Groundhog Day’ meets ‘Aliens’ filtered through a wash of ‘Matrix’ and anime influenced production design. The trailers and posters all seem to suggest another dull and personality-free Cruise-fed sci-fi blockbuster along the lines of last year’s abysmal ‘Oblivion’. Yet, while notoriously flighty director Liman’s new movie might not be particularly original, it’s incredibly creative in how it explores its central premise. Despite the generic Americanized title (the film is based on a Japanese novel with the much weirder title ‘All You Need Is Kill’), ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ is a witty and delightfully self-conscious trip through blockbuster tropes that may not reinvent the wheel, but at least makes you feel as though you haven’t seen that wheel a billion times before.
The movie kicks off with an alien invasion that has claimed most of Europe. Through a flurry of news reports, it becomes clear that the war has apocalyptic potential. Smilin’ Tom Cruise stars as military spokesman in a well-pressed uniform assigned to go on TV and convince young folks to sign up for their inevitable deaths. Just before humanity’s last big push, a no-BS general (played with the crabby grace only Brendan Gleeson could provide) insists that Cruise join the fight himself. Given that pretty boy Cruise is a talker not a fighter, he tries to negotiate and then blackmail his way out of combat, before being knocked out and waking up on the front lines. A snarling Bill Paxton shoves him into a dirty unit of killers despite being woefully unprepared. He catches a glimpse of Emily Blunt’s robo-suit enhanced killing machine lovingly known as the “Full Metal Bitch” before promptly dying on the battlefield at the hands of an alien slimeball.
Then things get interesting. Cruise wakes up just before battle once more and lives through the exact same day again and then again, a la ‘Groundhog Day’. Eventually, Blunt discovers Cruise’s plight, and it turns out that she’s been through the exact same experience in a previous battle, which is what transformed her into a coldhearted killer in the first place. This is all tied into the alien race they’re fighting, which is so difficult to kill because its leader can control time and constantly resets battles until they defeat their villains flawlessly. By getting doused in one of those special alien’s blood before death, Cruise now has that power, and over an unspecified series of repeated days gradually transforms himself into a killing machine.
This brings an interesting parallel to videogames, with Cruise becoming the unstoppable action star that we all know from countless genre movies by dying repeatedly and learning how to defeat his enemies through pattern recognition.
The repetition conceit also allows Liman to have big heaping piles of fun as a filmmaker. The movie has an element of slapstick ‘Looney Tunes’ violence to Cruise’s repeated deaths that is not lost on the director. He milks it for all sorts of comedy and editing effects potential. And yet, what makes the movie really stick is how none of the characters ever loses sight of the tragedy of the situation. Every time Cruise jumps awake, you can feel his pain. The best passages of the script set up scenes where the audience is unaware of just how many times Cruise has played out this same scenario until somewhere in the middle. In particular, a sequence involving Cruise with pained sunken eyes, Blunt and a helicopter offers a genuinely moving moment at the center of a big, thrilling and wonderfully silly popcorn picture.
Eventually, the repeating-day-scenario is ditched for a third act of world-saving heroism, and the movie is less interesting for it. (On first viewing, I’m not sure that the ending holds together.) That’s not to say that the last act is bad, of course. Limon shoots his action from the ground level center of the carnage as he did in ‘The Bourne Identity’ and delivers the requisite thrills and satisfying button-pushing expected from this sort of movie. The trouble is that it all pulls ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ back into a conventional comfort zone after about an hour of genuine creativity. Still, complaining about a summer action blockbuster having a happy ending is about as pointless as complaining that a horror movie is scary. That’s just part of the ride.
Everyone involved has delivered wonderful work. For Liman, it’s easily his tightest and most effective movie in a decade. For screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie it’s his most satisfying script since that one with the big Kevin Spacey twist. For the character actors like Gleeson and Bill Paxton, it’s a chance for winking tributes to past performances. For Blunt, it’s an unexpectedly effective badass action role added to a delightfully eclectic and impressive résumé. And for Tom Cruise, it’s an ideal star vehicle that delivers everything audiences want from him while also adding in layers of comedy, tragedy and unique acting challenges.
In short, this is top tier popcorn filmmaking and a wonderful bit of summer movie fluff that will likely end up being the most pleasant surprise of 2014’s blockbuster season.