Warning: Spoilers for Edge Of Tomorrow lie in wait.
Scott: Let me come right out and say it: Edge Of Tomorrow is my favorite movie of the summer so far, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and an unseen Adam Sandler vehicle notwithstanding, I’ve been enjoying the summer a great deal. The last third of Godzilla and the first two-thirds of Edge Of Tomorrow—put them together and you’ve got a great, albeit wildly incoherent, Franken-movie—are proof that a director with a strong sense of craft and a real sensibility can make a lumbering tentpole movie seem fleet. Edge Of Tomorrow recalled the Doug Liman of Go for me, someone who’s always thinking about rhythm and pace. The film’s Groundhog Day conceit has Tom Cruise’s William Cage dying over and over again, and learning to get through the repeated patterns of a day he keeps having to relive. That opens up so many opportunities for snappy montage sequences and quick-hit visual jokes, and Liman and his screenwriters not only take advantage of those opportunities, they do it a beat or two faster than I expected. That includes the final shot, where Cage finally reunites with Emily Blunt’s Rita in an alien-free world: The cut to the “Directed by Doug Liman” credit happens just a blink after that Tom Cruise smile, when I expected a more protracted denouement.
There are lots of things to talk about here, including the fact that Edge Of Tomorrow may be the best videogame movie ever made, despite not being based on a videogame. But first, I want to put in a word for Tom Cruise. What struck me about him here, in his most appealing performance in years, is how much of a difference his movie-star presence makes in a movie of this scale. There are a lot of appealing young actors in Hollywood right now, but I’m not convinced any can hold the center of a film like Cruise does here. It’s a big challenge for a performer to have any presence at all in a $200 million CGI production—here’s looking at you, Aaron Taylor-Johnson—and Cruise’s work in Edge Of Tomorrow makes me realize how important humans can be in our age of post-human blockbusters. I know both of you liked the film, too. What stood out for you about it?
Keith: What mostly struck me is that this is the big summer blockbuster movie I’ve been waiting for for a while: an original story, crisply directed, with screen-filling action that never loses sight of the human element. And I think you’re right that Cruise is essential to that last quality. He quickly establishes what sort of character he’s playing, and he plays it well, even if it’s the same sort of character he’s played since at least The Color Of Money: a slick charmer who quickly learns that slick charm will only take him so far. Here, he goes one step further, making the hero a coward, initially at least, and the film is in lockstep with him, capturing the terror of being plunged into battle without skills, or courage, on his side. Even before the gimmick kicks in, it’s an immersive, unpredictable movie. Tasha, did this one grab you from the beginning?
Tasha: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I’d seen trailers, so I knew what was coming and I looked forward to it, but I particularly appreciated the beginning, with its news-montage quick-hit exposition. It’s difficult to get exposition right in science-fiction films, because there’s often a lot of world-building to cover, but Edge Of Tomorrow trusts the audience to keep up as it channel-surfs through the few facts they need to know: There are aliens. They’ve taken Europe. We’re fighting back. We have new weapons that help. One person is especially good at using them. Huge important battle coming up. And that’s it. After a series of big films opening with what a leaden helping of I always think of as Extra Explainy Voiceover (Maleficent being the most recent), it was such a relief to charge into the story fast, hard, and lean.
And speaking of trusting the audience to keep up: This movie gets top marks from me for assuming that everyone watching it is intelligent enough to grasp not just the fundaments of the plot hook, but all the myriad implications as well. Once the film starts speeding up, with that first montage of death-resurrection-improvement-death, it never loops back to explain: Viewers just get to see the results and interpret them. In that regard, it reminded me of Looper, and I think it’s the smartest science-fiction film since Looper.
I confess I don’t much see Tom Cruise as a person, an actor, or a star anymore: After so many roles that seem similar to me, this among them, he feels more like a highly specific, highly polished cog in this finely tuned machine than anything else. I don’t see this performance as being particularly different from the initially chipper, eventually weary role he played in Oblivion, for instance, and it’s just a few steps down the cocky-ometer from the Mission Impossible movies. I appreciate that he’s more suited for this role than he was for Jack Reacher, but even when he’s consciously trying to depart that charmer-in-over-his-head routine (in Rock Of Ages, say, or Tropic Thunder), he’s still playing the steely eyed, confident star with just enough of a hint of approachable humanity to act as bait for anyone who wants to try approaching him. His performance here struck me as entirely functional. What I loved about the role was the writing—yes, the character is a coward, and I think it takes courage to let him be one. And it’s thrilling to watch him evolve so radically, and so rapidly—from a viewer’s perspective, at least.
Scott: Perhaps, Tasha, Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise, and his impact may be movie-dependent. Oblivion’s more muted, thoughtful (or “thoughtful,” if you’re into scare quotes) tone isn’t necessarily well-served by Cruise’s high-wattage, can-do star energy. Edge Of Tomorrow seems more in line with what he plays well: a cocky, driven, charming hero who’s given a clear mission and pursues it with great intensity. Cruise and Liman complement each other here, putting the emphasis on speed and constant forward movement—which isn’t easy in a movie that’s constantly circling backward. The challenge with Edge Of Tomorrow is to keep the narrative progressing while perpetually looping back to the same point, and Cruise’s relentless energy helps keep the movie from getting stuck in the bog.
What did you two think of the videogame structure? Videogame movies are usually hindered by following that level-by-level structure, with advancements in the action chased by cutscenes, until the hero finally squares off against the Big Boss. Edge Of Tomorrow only has the one level: Cage starts at base camp the day before a disastrous D-Day invasion, progresses as far as he can based on the patterns he’s picked up from previous lives, then gets killed and begins again—until he finally has to face the alien that controls all the other aliens. As with Groundhog Day, repeating just this one stretch of time—as opposed to advancing to various plateaus—calls on Liman and his writers to get creative with how they revisit the same events, whether that involves choreographed moves across the battlefield, Cage running through his base-camp hazing with a “yadda yadda yadda” impatience, or a zippy montage of repeated behaviors. Once Cage gets out of the loop and has his one chance to defeat the Big Boss alien, the film becomes a more run-of-the-mill CGI-fest, with an impossible enemy having a Death Star-like soft center that ends the war in one shot. But like other gamers, Cage and the movie have certainly logged enough time to earn the victory.
Keith: There’s a little bit of that, though, Scott, in the sense that Cage does keep advancing in his quest, living a little longer, and getting a little further as the film progresses. That’s part of what made it feel videogame-like to me, particularly the first time the film introduces a scene that takes place beyond the timeline of the big D-Day battle sequence where Cage keeps getting stuck. It made sense for the film, though, and the action scenes work in part because they’re not much like videogames, or at least not much like first-person shooters, the form Edge Of Tomorrow would most likely take. (Elements of it reminded me a bit of the PS3 game Resistance: Fall Of Man, on which I wasted many an hour back when I had more hours to waste.) The action scenes are immersive, but not limited to a single point of view. It’s nicely done.
Tasha: It reminded me more of a modern style of casual game, in the Super Meat Boy vein: the extremely difficult twitch-game where lightning reflexes are necessary, and players get infinite lives to get it right. Sometimes the only way to beat a given level in those games is through rote memorization and muscle memory, by finding the exact right mechanical pattern and executing it flawlessly. We see some of that here, in the montage where Cage drills Rita on the endless series of steps he’s memorized: Go 12 paces, shoot right, pause, shoot up, dodge left, etc. And we see some of how frustrating that mechanic is when Rita repeatedly can’t manage to get it right in what is always, for her, the first time.
One of the many smart ideas that makes the film work for me, though, is the way that just as we’ve gotten used to that dynamic, Liman and company change it up, by moving into a different kind of game: the kind with no save points, where one wrong move means Game Over, Man. I had a number of frustrations with the ending, where the story for me went from contrived-but-ingenious to just plain contrived. But the filmmakers did an excellent job of bringing across the tension of a man for whom death had become a casual teaching tool suddenly being faced with the possibility of real mortality—and real failure.
Keith: I think we all like the end of this movie least, while also agreeing it’s fine. But here’s a question: Could it have ended any other way? The big CGI fireworks explosion is kind of de rigueur these days with one notable exception: The claustrophobic finale of World War Z, reshot because the original, much louder climax didn’t quite work. Would a less conventional ending have made this a better blockbuster, or does the one we got feel inevitable?
Tasha: I admit this one felt utterly inevitable to me, up to and including the posthumous resurrection. I was fine with it largely because of that ultra-abrupt finale you mention, which didn’t linger on the reunion or belabor the moment with explanations, or force Rita out of character to give Cage the romantic reunion he was probably hoping for. Dialing the timeline further back for the first time, so he gets to walk in as Major Hero instead of Private Deserter, felt narratively unearned to me—but it was emotionally earned, so I’m not going to harp.
What really bothered me about the last act, though, was the fact that Cage reeled in C Company to help him and Rita on their final run, and got them all wiped out to what seemed like unsatisfyingly little purpose. I get that the story is trying to bring home the lethality of the situation, and give it some stakes, but I question the stakes in having a bunch of one-characterization-each soldiers get killed to such little purpose. Only a couple of them make a difference—three of them get killed before they even leave the drop-ship—so it just seemed sadistic to me to spend so much time on including them, then literally waste them. What I admired far more as a narrative touch was Rita’s final death—which if I recall correctly, happens entirely offscreen, and just prompts Cage to wince in pain. That tiny moment suggests that even after everything he’s been through, he still isn’t inured. He’s still human. He still cares.
Scott: Tasha, that shift from Cage being able to hit the reset button to Cage losing his alien blood and thus having one life to live gives the third act of the film a necessary charge. As much as a hassle as it must be to go back to the beginning, especially after progressing so far, it’s terrifying to consider moving forward without a safety net as the fate of humanity is on the line. But there are two problems I have with this premise: One, you’d have to believe that facing that much violence and death on the battlefield—and dying yourself countless times—would raise the likelihood of PTSD in Cage, who doesn’t exactly start the film as a hardened warrior and would likely feel the psychological effects regardless. The film’s relentless focus on the mission, on moving forward, costs it some depth in this area. Two, the fact that we’ve scene Cage die so many times making one false step on the battlefield or in training makes his survival in the end that much more implausible. The fact is, humanity is badly overmatched by the aliens, and taking away Cage’s ability to anticipate their moves leaves him in a desperate spot, especially with the hoards surrounding the Big Boss in that Louvre sequence. I enjoyed the third act CGI action just fine, but the context exposes the trouble with CGI action generally—that digitally rendered threats don’t feel like real ones.
But these are quibbles, redeemed for me by a denouement that’s both poignant and in keeping with the snappy pacing of the rest of the movie. I savor the final shot ending just a beat or two before I expected it to, which is the style in nutshell. What details stood out for you, Keith and Tasha?
Tasha: What made this film for me first and foremost was the broad sweep of the high-concept plot, but I suspect I’ll want to re-watch it primarily for the impressively intelligent small touches: the first time Cage lands on his feet after the drop into combat, rather than flat on his face. The late-in-the-game moment where the drill sergeant who normally wakes Cage up with a kick and a curse is dumbstruck by the veteran thousand-yard-stare in Cage’s eyes, and holds his tongue. The sequence where Cage casually saves his squad’s life by blasting the Mimic in the pit under them, en route to something else, and the camera pauses long enough to catch their astonishment. Cage’s repeated attempts to slow Rita down as she moves to execute him one more time. These are all crackerjack little moments, put in place by writers and a directors who understand the videogamer’s desire to be a molten badass.
But possibly the touch that impressed me most in the film—apart from, as I said earlier, Rita’s final death, and the wince Cage can’t quite repress, even though he knew that death was coming, and even though he’s seen it so many times before—is the sequence where Cage deserts in the middle of his constant runs at the Omega, and heads off to have a pint in the bar. It’s such a jarring break from the flow of the story, and yet Liman and crew trust the viewers to understand that we don’t need to see how Cage got off the base, how he stole a motorcycle, how he got back to London—he has an infinite number of opportunities to get there, so all we need is the results. This is science fiction pared down to only the most necessary elements—and the most interesting, satisfying, or telling ones.
Keith: That’s a lovely sequence, as weird as it is to use that word to describe any element of Edge Of Tomorrow, and I don’t think a lesser film would have made time for it. I think Liman and everyone else realized they were onto something special with this premise, and while the Cage/Rita relationship feels a little obligatory at times, there’s a real charge each time the film returns to their first meeting, first on the battlefield then, later in the film, as she’s striking an impossible-looking pose as part of her battle training. Cage first looks at her in awe, but that look melts into more poignant emotions as the film goes on. It’s a small touch, but it’s the small touches as much as the central gimmick that set this movie apart. It keeps finding rich variations within its infinite loop.