Even though Edge Of Tomorrow was only the third-most popular film at the U.S. box office this past weekend, it’s likely to be one of the most talked-about films of the summer, at least among movie buffs and science-fiction fans. We’ve got a lively Conversation column about Edge Of Tomorrow up on the site right now, and Dissolve readers have been commenting steadily on both Keith Phipps’ main Edge Of Tomorrow review and that review’s “Reveal” section, which discusses the movie’s somewhat divisive ending. One of the comments below the Reveal, from a Dissolver named “Sam,” offers an analysis of the movie that that I’d like to explore a little further. (Warning: While the comment below doesn’t deal with the ending of Edge Of Tomorrow, it does discuss a plot-twist that affects the final third of the film.)
“If we’re spitting about theme here, I’d like to know if anyone else saw the same degree of commentary on the state of modern blockbusters that I thought I was seeing sneak its way in here. The arc of Cage as a character is really fascinating, as he starts the film so unlike your typical Tom Cruise character. Yes, he’s brash and cocky, but those are just the defence mechanisms of someone who’s quickly revealed to be a coward and an incompetent.
A karmic reading on the opening would suggest that, seeing as he’s the face of a recruiting campaign designed to trick young people into believing joining the fight and getting a suit will transform them into a total badass, it’s only fair that the universe force him to fight alongside the people he’s been suckering. And sure enough, he doesn’t belong with the jacked up jarheads his propaganda machine has created, each of whom boasts about what a badass they’re going to be when the invasion begins. Cage is the antithesis of this sort of invincible man-of-action that director Doug Liman reinvented with Bourne, and Cruise himself has played so many times before. During the first ‘run,’ how alien was it to hear actual, legitimate fear in Cruise’s voice when he realizes a mimic is about to ambush his squad? (The designs of the creatures, and the fact that they’re actually called mimics, seems like a shot across the bow at every whirligig of undulating metal and robo-tentacles that has menaced us each summer from The Matrix, to Transformers, to Battleship.)
Which brings us to the movie’s central conceit: replaying not just the same day, but the same fireballing, exploding, machine gun-blaring action scene, over and over and over again. The accepted wisdom these days for action movies is you need four big set-pieces to hold everything together, but Edge Of Tomorrow gives different takes on the same set-piece for a good hour. The ironic thing is that in its repetition, the film manages to be far more interesting than a lot of action movies that bend over backwards to justify globetrotting or getting the heroes and villains in a car chase for the sake of variety. With each iteration of the beach landing, or his training with Rita (and really, the montages are just the absolute best parts of this thing), Cage creeps his way towards becoming the super-soldier/hero these sorts of movies usually give up front.
In showing the viewer all these iterations of this protagonist that gets splattered/stabbed/blown-up with one false move, I think Edge Of Tomorrow is, even if unintentionally, drawing attention to the absurd good luck and durability that's required to be an action movie hero. Of course, this whole theory falls apart by the third act, which simply replicates the usual beats of most other action movies, unsurprisingly as a result of ditching the main hook in order establish dramatic stakes that can't be mulliganed. Still, I think Liman, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie and company knew they were making this film in a field crowded with others like it, and their playfulness with some of the familiar genre conventions is a reflection of that same playfulness inherent in the premise, allowing Edge Of Tomorrow more moments of levity and wit than you often expect from a summer blockbuster.”
There’s more to Sam’s comment, but in the above, he (or she) gets at the essence of what I personally found so enjoyable and unusual about Edge Of Tomorrow. The “self-aware blockbuster” is nothing new. The Lego Movie counts as one, I’d say; and judging from the early reviews, 22 Jump Street makes fun of the demands of blockbuster sequels. Last Action Hero famously flopped back in 1993 while poking at action movie clichés, and Beat The Devil had an even rougher time at the box office in 1953, spoofing international caper pictures. But what sets Edge Of Tomorrow apart is that while it’s frequently very funny, it’s not a parody. The movie does rely on the audience’s familiarity with some stock action-adventure scenarios—that’s how the story is able to jump ahead at several points, and count on the viewers’ ability to fill in the blanks—but it’s neither mocking nor winking.
The big question is whether the third act of Edge Of Tomorrow—and the ending—represent a cowardly capitulation to the requirements of blockbusters, or a knowing one. I’ll leave the problematic ending aside here, but I do want to talk about the big change before the movie’s final half-hour. (So, again, for those who haven’t seen Edge Of Tomorrow yet, you may want to stop reading.) I have to say that even though the last act of the film reverts to the “one last crazy mission” mode of action movies, I found its “no resets” twist highly effective, because a lot of the fun of the first hour of Edge Of Tomorrow comes from knowing that the hero can die at any time and it won’t matter, while at the end, every mistake does matter. The last part of Edge Of Tomorrow restores the stakes, in other words—not just to this movie, but to blockbusters in general. It’s not that there’s no stakes in something like Godzilla, but by contrasting the disposability of the characters in its first two-thirds to the “you die, you die” of its final third, Edge Of Tomorrow gives The Big Mission more urgency.
Does Edge Of Tomorrow’s playfulness have anything meaningful to say about blockbuster action movies, or is it just piggybacking off of other films in an entertaining way? I’m still wrestling with that question, which strikes me as the kind of thing that could be better answered one year from now than at the moment, while I’m still buzzing from how enjoyable the whole experience was. In the end, it could well be that Liman, McQuarrie et. al. have only found a way to make a standard science-fiction shoot-em-up feel fresher, and haven’t fundamentally rewired the whole genre. It could also be that the inherent decadence of the self-aware blockbuster—the kind that turned audiences off of Beat The Devil and The Last Action Hero—is going to doom Edge Of Tomorrow to also-ran status at the box office this summer. But movies like this do tend to stick around in the pop-culture consciousness long after the summer’s come and gone, which means there’ll be plenty more opportunities in the years to come to start all over again, and reconsider what Edge Of Tomorrow is really all about.
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