Between the months of May—or, if we follow the ever-increasing trend of cinematic climate change, much earlier than that—and August, I go through an intensive exercise of willful suspension of expectations whenever I set foot in a theater. Summer Movie Season, or better yet SUMMER MOVIE SEASON in all caps, is easily dismissed as a period of shameless studio profiteering in which the industry churns out dime-a-dozen spectacle films that cost a hell of a lot more than a dime. They’re too big, too loud, too expensive, too reverent to the altar of the lowest common denominator, too dependent on slick special effects and not enough so on narrative and character. I bemoan how otherwise gifted stars spend their estivate months squandering their talents in Hollywood products addicted to and addled by computer-generated monsters, robots, and explosions.
Then, every once in a while, something like Edge of Tomorrow comes along, and my faith in the mainstream, commercial American movie industry is renewed. I saw the film the Friday it came out. On Sunday, I had a 13-hour trans-Atlantic flight to get through. My first priority was not making sure I had a window seat, low-sodium meals on the plane, enough time to switch terminals between connecting flights, or, you know, that my passport was, indeed, in my bag. Between Friday and Sunday I was badgering everyone I know in Europe not only to go see this movie, but to wait until I got home on Monday and come see it with me.
Hands-down director Doug Liman’s best and most purely pleasurable effort in the twelve years since The Bourne Identity (if not longer than that), Edge of Tomorrow is less of a time-travel movie than an experience movie. One review called it “a cheeky little puzzle picture in expensive-looking blockbuster drag.” It’s a stylish, cleverly crafted, and continually involving mind- and clock-bending bit of action adventure that neither transcends nor redeems the genre, but, thanks to a superb creative team and star Tom Cruise, becomes a surprisingly satisfying exercise of that genre.
Based on Hiroshi Sikurazaka’s 2004 illustrated novel “All You Need Is Kill,” the movie is brilliantly adapted for the screen by writers Christopher McQuarrie, who knows his way around a mindfuck (The Usual Suspects), and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. Edge of Tomorrow is a true science fiction film, highly conceptual and narratively ambitious, set during the aftermath of an alien invasion. It begins and ends as a gripping summer blockbuster, with setpieces featuring the best special effects money can buy. But the long, ingenious, and richly realized middle act sets it apart from and above so much of the season’s outpour of generic studio products.
Synopsis is not our friend when summing up this movie. Edge of Tomorrow opens on a montage of stock disaster footage—at which point I started having After Earth-induced PTSD flashbacks that were, thankfully, unwarranted. The world is wrecked by war, its most photogenic cities reduced to ash, its populace killed off by the millions. The alien “Mimic scourge” has conquered most of Europe and quickly decimated human defenses, owing to its seemingly preternatural ability to anticipate all military forces’ next moves. If anyone was wondering, the Mimics are truly terrifying, metallic spidery nightmare creatures that look like a cross between dragons, octopi, and live wires, razor-tentacled squids that roll across the landscape like tumbleweeds on crack and pierce like javelins.
The only semblance of hope and a propagandist’s wet dream, the last (and only) victory against the Mimics was won by world-famous soldier and one-woman fighting force Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), known as “The Angel of Verdun” for her heroics at that eponymous alien battle—and, less flatteringly, as “Full Metal Bitch” for her brusque personality.
Cruise, who’s been spending his fifties saving humanity, plays the aptly named Major William Cage. The glorified Army PR rep had me at hello, but this is a surprising choice for a hero. Cage is a figurehead, not a fighter, a wily spin doctor but an acknowledged wimp. “I do this,” he quips to his commanding officer, “to avoid doing that.” The character has never seen a day of combat in his life and tries every trick to wriggle out of being sent to the front by Gen. Brigham (Brendan Gleeson at his most hard-ass), who’s asked him to join a platoon readying to invade France. Cage tries to talk his way out of it. When talk fails, he tries extortion. Given the final order in the general’s office, he raises his brow and breaks out in a small, disbelieving smile before beginning a soft-shoe shuffle towards the door. The song-and-dance makes you remember how light Cruise used to be, gliding through roles on his affable megawatt grin as genuinely genial guys you wanted to get to know. He’s become an action star—the action star—and we started to see his smile less and less, until, watching him lay it on Gleeson’s character in the opening of Edge of Tomorrow, I wondered, Where the hell has he been?
Despite the disarming grin, his character gets deposited none too gently at Forward Operating Base Heathrow in London among trained soldiers heavily armed and armored with giant exoskeletons. He’s never been in one of these things before. Cage is stripped of his identity, turned into just another grunt likely to be chewed up by the Mimics, then literally thrown into the fray. He learns how to use his weapons in the field and even meets the military goddess Rita, just before she dies.
And then he dies.
Then he wakes up at Forward Operating Base Heathrow in London among trained soldiers heavily armed and armored with giant exoskeletons. When asked if he’s ever been in one of these things before, he says, “Maybe.” Cage is stripped of his identity, turned into just another grunt likely to be chewed up by the Mimics, then literally thrown into the fray.
Like “Slaughterhouse Five” hero Billy Pilgrim, Cage has come unstuck in time, locked in a cycle of eternal recurrence; he’s on seemingly endless repeat as the movie coils and folds back on itself. The character wages the same battle until he can do it with his eyes closed and his hands tied behind his back—in one instance, literally. Practice has made him perfect, at least up until a point, allowing Liman to rework the bedlam of the opening battle until it resembles a beautiful, deadly dance.
Cage makes for a demanding, complex role that changes constantly as the story is told and retold and retold. The character starts out as a Jerry-Maguire-type shallow, smooth-talking, cocksure manipulator who will say or do anything to preserve his comfort. He undergoes a myriad of tiny transformations, deftly navigated by the actor with a refreshing lack of vanity, until Cage exhibits exceptional competence, dignity, and honor, and finally the steely-eyed, day-saving grace under pressure the Mission: Impossible series taught us to expect. But that eventual awesomeness feels genuinely earned, rather than a foregone conclusion. In short, the star does a 180 and makes it completely believable—because who’s to say dying a few dozen times wouldn’t prove a transformative experience for anyone—and the film becomes a striking (if simplistic and sometimes downright silly) study in fate, human nature, and the ability to grow and change.
I’ve always found Cruise likeable, sometimes even perfect in the right roles, and age has only deepened him by bringing out a well-hidden vulnerability. Someone should give him some sort of acting award just for the sheer number of yelps, gasps, and barely cut-off curses he summons every time he’s killed by a Mimic or shot in the head by Blunt’s character, who trains him in a way that will make that scary guy that yells at you at the gym to keep going seem like the sweetest human-sized teddy bear.
Sure, the fatalities are fun because we know the day will just reset, but it’s that moment of sheer, unadorned agony Cage goes through every time he wakes up that my mind came back to after seeing the film a second time. Startled and gasping for breath, he shakes of his fear and prepares for a suicide mission every day of his life until he wins the war or goes utterly mad. The poignancy of his plight is never far from the surface, however frenetic the action. This is the rare action film whose quiet moments cut as deep as its fight scenes, and even rarer, a summer shoot-’em-up that understands the fragility of life.
Although this is Cruise’s movie through-and-through, the other characters are given moments of humor, terror, or humanity. With a barely discernible wink, Bill Paxton plays Farell, a drawling drill sergeant with an amusingly sour sense of humor. When Cage notes from his Southern accent that he’s obviously American, Farell flawlessly barks back, “No, sir, I’m from Kentucky!” Blunt invests Rita with grit and grace, not to mention she’s not too hard on the eyes, as the oft repeated, fiercely beautiful downward-dogging cobra-like yoga pose she’s introduced in will attest. The two leads get a morbidly funny, neo-screwball vibe going as they bicker and banter amidst battling aliens or sidestep soldiers and bullets in perfect synchronicity like a full metal version of Fred and Ginger.
The elaborately choreographed tracking shots, long takes, and unglamorous European hellscape bring to mind Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, but Edge of Tomorrow can be best described as a cross between Groundhog Day, Saving Private Ryan, and Wile E. Coyote’s worst morning ever. These references should give you an idea of the way the movie mixes gravitas and insouciance, at times popping with welcome, unexpected levity and wit, clever one-liners, and the barrage of physical punishments and slapstick indignities Cage undergoes.
As engagingly light as Edge of Tomorrow is on its feet, it balances that comic touch with impressively staged, gritty, and gruesome battle sequences. The final act is almost swamped by generic (if exceptionally well-done) pyrotechnics and noise, which is predictable, given the high studio stakes and the industry’s faith in spectacles of destruction. But the effects are at their most exciting and convincing early in the film, in the vivid, visceral reimagining of chaotic WWII combat as a high-tech aerial assault on Normandy. In IMAX 3-D, you might get vertigo and it’s gonna hurt when you hit that shore and get assaulted by flaming shards of plane raining and creatures that dart, dodge, scuttle, snap, swirl, lash, and lunge like a huge, hissing, summersaulting octopus from hell. Make no mistake, this is a brutal, bone-crushing film that bravely pushes its PG-13 rating almost beyond its breaking point.
Aided by the crackerjack cutting prowess of editor James Herbert, Liman skillfully conveys the endless repetition without making the film itself repetitive. One of Edge of Tomorrow’s most fascinating qualities is its intelligent, intuitive judgment of the audience’s learning curve, reflected in flawless pacing. The movie slyly teaches you how to watch it and then seems to track your progress before moving on. At first it repeats whole scenes and bits of dialogue until you get used to the idea, then expertly leaves things out because it knows they’re not necessary, in a playful sort of narrative shorthand—if not sleigh-of-hand. By the end, it’s tactically withholding information and letting us fill in the gaps and figure it out for ourselves, repeating key images and lines only because the familiar material has now changed its meaning. It’s as if on a certain plane the film exists, like its main character, outside of linear time, creating itself as you watch it.
Edge of Tomorrow will keep you on edge.