[Please note: the following review contains a couple of spoilers, which I’ve had to divulge in order to discuss the movie, but rest assured I'm not giving away major plot twists like the fact that Darth Vader is revealed to be a woman in The Empire Strikes Back, or the revelation that the woman in The Crying Game is actually Luke’s father. In fact I reveal less below than the movie's trailers did, but thought I'd give a polite warning in case you've managed to avoid all info so far.]
In Edge Of Tomorrow Tom Cruise’s character is forced to live the same day over and over again, which is ironic because I often feel a cloying sense of deja vu myself when I’m watching a Tom Cruise movie. The actor usually plays it safe with variations on the same grinning uber-capable hero, and has done so for quite a while now, although with such a long career at the top there are a few very good performances and leftfield roles in the midst of the many tired, predictable ones. Still, most of the time there’s a nagging feeling that you’re watching Tom Cruise play a version of Tom Cruise, rather than a distinct, fresh character.
In this high concept sci-fi action film by Doug Liman he plays Tom Cruise Major William Cage, a man who has achieved his high rank not through heroism in combat but a background in advertising; his value to the military as a spin doctor is considerable, as an allied force drawn from all four corners of the globe is at war with an alien race, and the total number of soldiers is dwindling. The aggressive aliens are called ‘mimics’, an imaginative name bestowed upon them due to their ability to copy and respond to human military strategy, and in a clear reference to the Wehrmacht during World War II they have invaded and occupied most of Europe (landing in Germany via meteor strike first of all before spreading out across the mainland).
The spin here is that Cage is a coward, of sorts, although given the fact he has no military training and is thrown into battle against the vicious mimics as part of an incomprehensibly odd PR stunt by the stubborn General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), it’s hardly surprising that he’s scared and desperate to avoid the scrapping. Most people without military training would be petrified, quite honestly, but at least Liman and his screenwriters make it crystal clear why Brave, Bankable Tom isn’t playing Brave, Bankable Tom at the start of the film, lest your head explode as a result of the confusion.
In case you hadn’t worked out the Second World War allegory it’s rammed home by the allies’ plan to launch an assault on the beaches of Normandy, and despite his protestations that’s where Cage eventually finds himself, desperately trying to find out how to switch off the safety trigger lock as he enters the fray. (There are also references to a previous and important tide-turning battle in Verdun, which is a town more closely associated with the First World War. It is a cynical move to release the film as the 70th anniversary of the landings approaches.) His fellow soldiers couldn’t be more unhelpful or unfriendly if they tried, which made me snort with disgust when the honourable Cage later tries to save some of them, the chump. The mimics they must battle – four legged beasts with many tentacles that can move fast above and below ground, a little bit like the sentinels in The Matrix trilogy – are gruesome, heartless killing machines, but the human soldiers improve the odds of survival by wearing Aliens-style metal exoskeletons, and count in their numbers legendary special forces soldier Rita Vrataski (played by Emily Blunt), nicknamed ‘The Angel Of Verdun’ and ‘Full Metal Bitch’ for her previous mimic-bashing exploits. The aliens have prepared an ambush, though, and amidst all the confusion and slaughter that takes place on the beach, Cage is killed.
Oddly, he wakes up in the same position he was in several hours earlier, back at the military base in England. As stated earlier, like Groundhog Day and Source Code, Liman’s film deals with a main protagonist who is forced to live through the same day – and in this case the same battle – over and over again. Gradually Cage must memorise patterns, improve his own abilities as a solider and make decisions in order to affect the outcome of the day. If he dies, he returns back to the military base before going through the whole harrowing process once more, attempting to figure out the whys and wherefores as he tinkers with the day’s events.
No doubt the pitch went along the lines of ‘it’s Groundhog Day meets Source Code meets Aliens meets Starship Troopers (an attempt to replicate the tone of Paul Verhoeven’s satirical news stings is wisely ditched after the first couple of minutes) meets Saving Private Ryan’, and I suppose if you’re a studio executive that’s the kind of talk that quickly gets the blood flowing down to the nether-regions (right before a certain popular actor’s face pops into your head as if he’s Grin-o, The Magical God Of Predictability, Scientology And Huge Profits). Though it’s adapted from the Japanese young adult novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Edge Of Tomorrow feels like a calculated, unoriginal amalgam of those five films, but the magpie pilfering actually works.
This is in part due to a well-judged script by Christopher McQuarrie and brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, which makes no attempt to disguise the preposterousness of the story, keeps the faux-science simple and contains a considerable amount of humour. (There is an amusing moment where Cage wins a fight simply by stepping to the side a couple of times, as it becomes clear he has had to experience the incident time after time in order to perfect such a response. Additionally, Rita’s repeated killing of Cage in order to restart the day becomes ever-funnier thanks to Cruise’s tired acceptance of its inevitability. This is surely a nod to Groundhog Day, recalling the exasperation of Bill Murray’s Phil Connors, as is the array of confused faces when Cage is able to relay secrets or life stories to other characters despite the fact they have seemingly only just met him.) Cruise rarely works with the same director again; to date he has appeared in films by Steven Spielberg twice, Tony Scott twice and Cameron Crowe twice, but that’s it from more than 30 years in Hollywood. However he is obviously drawn to McQuarrie’s work as they have collaborated three times now in six years (McQuarrie wrote the screenplay for Valkyrie, adapted the screenplay for Jack Reacher, which he also directed, and will direct Cruise in the fifth Mission Impossible film later this year).
Edge Of Tomorrow is a gritty sci-fi action movie but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and thankfully it doesn’t tie itself up in knots with the exposition either. Granted, the time loop idea isn’t new: it was popularised in La Jetée in 1962 and in recent years it has been used in Twelve Monkeys, Looper, Donnie Darko, two of the movies mentioned above and many, many more besides. Similarly the use of powered exoskeletons in science fiction movies has become so commonplace there’s a Wikipedia page now. Ultimately, though, the suits of armour are pretty damn cool and Liman deals with the repetition of time well, employing similar editing techniques to those used in Groundhog Day and Source Code; as Cage’s day plays out over and over we see fewer and fewer details, to the point where we can safely assume hundreds of days have passed between certain scenes without us seeing a single moment from them. This gives the film momentum, and Liman is wise to avoid showing the same events too often and to vary the locations so that the action doesn’t simply career back and forth between barracks and beach.
The action is the real draw here. The battle on the beach at Normandy is quite gripping, bringing to mind the grandstanding of video games like Halo, which is a good move considering the task-based repetition and the seemingly endless supply of lives at Cage’s disposal. The body count is high, the fighting is frenzied, and the film manages to capture the adrenaline rush of war well, even if it ultimately lacks the nail-biting realism of Saving Private Ryan‘s Omaha Beach re-staging. There are twists to the battle each time you see it, based in part on Cage’s decisions to try and save certain people or leave them to the fate he is aware will befall them; if he leaves certain people to die he has a better chance of saving others further on in time. Unfortunately there’s little sense of Cage wrestling with these life-and-death decisions away from the fray, though to be fair he is constantly racing against the clock, struggling to complete necessary actions before the day resets.
Cruise is…Cruise. There’s an inevitability about his transformation from spineless army politician to fearsome warrior in the film, so it’s hardly surprising that the pretence of him playing a character that differs from the heroic, shit-eating grin norm is abruptly ditched. He still makes a decent action hero at 51, though, which is fortunate because he shares very little chemistry with Blunt or any of the other actors (he is most comfortable when acting with Bill Paxton, who plays a stereotypical ballbreaker of a sergeant, but his scenes with Gleeson will make you wonder why you are watching two actors who are themselves seemingly attempting to figure out why they’re in a room together). Blunt meanwhile really goes for it, apparently training in a variety of martial arts in preparation for her part, and she is convincing despite relative inexperience with this type of film.
The cast overall isn’t terrible, by any means, but Edge Of Tomorrow is hampered by some poor acting from those with smaller parts; there’s an attempt to include a roughneck unit like the merry bands in Aliens and Starship Troopers which isn’t very credible at all, and though the parts of Cage’s fellow soldiers are undeveloped some of the acting is well below par. Noah Taylor is given the thankless task of playing this film’s crazy-scientist-who-might-just-be-onto-something, but just about pulls it off, though his character isn’t particularly memorable. Jeremy Piven was apparently added to the cast late last year with some new scenes filmed and set to be inserted, but they appear to have been left out after all.
For all my jibes above, I actually think Cruise and science fiction are a good fit. I haven’t seen last year’s Oblivion, but he has made two very good sci-fi blockbusters with Spielberg in the past decade or so and this is a half-decent addition to his long CV as well. Liman keeps things simple and the confidently-handled action sequences here lay to rest the ghost of his previous attempt at the genre, 2008’s Jumper. The movie benefits from a smarter-than-average screenplay (though, y’know, my expectations were low to begin with), but it must be said the ending is a damp squib and it brazenly copies from a host of superior films. Still, Edge Of Tomorrow is energetic for the most part, it’s funnier than you may expect, and it delivers plenty of alien-blasting entertainment.
Directed by: Doug Liman
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Hiroshi Sakurazaka
Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Paxton
Running Time: 113 minutes