SMACKING DOWN HOLLYWOOD
Self-deprecating comedy smartly embarrasses industry's sequel-itis with snark and wit
Oh, hooray. Director Doug Liman has given us exactly the kind of sci-fi action drama we were hoping for from the indie filmmaker who sneaked up on the genre and booted it into the 21st Century with 2002's The Bourne Identity. Edge of Tomorrow is — unsurprisingly — smart, cleverly playing with clichés it knows we're familiar with and even goofing on its own storytelling. It is also — surprisingly — funny, an unanticipated treat considering it's set during an alien invasion which humanity seemingly cannot throw off.
Our hero, William Cage (Tom Cruise), is no hero. He's a coward and a sniveling weasel. He wears the uniform of a U.S. Army major, but he's no soldier; he's a PR flack. We see some of Cage's smarm as he appears in bits of a montage of TV news reports that opens the film, and he himself embodies a sort of spin. For Cage is charming and movie-star handsome — the very image of inspiring soldierly spirit when that is, in fact, nothing but image.
We witness Cage's weaseling when he turns it on General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), head of the "United Defense Force" that's about to launch a 21st-century version of D-Day with an invasion from England of alien-held France. His weaseling ends badly — the scene is a little marvel of witty writing in which character drives plot (which can be said of the whole script) — and Cage ends up in the middle of that invasion.
Like Cage, we get dumped right in the middle of this war. This alien invasion movie isn't an alien invasion movie. We see only snippets of the aliens' arrival and initial attacks, and we don't ever know — and never learn — what they want with us or our planet. (Another witty little scene deals explicitly with this question, and comes up with an excellent answer.)
So what is Edge of Tomorrow, then? It looks a lot like a video game movie, in some aspects, because of what happens to Cage almost instantly on that invasion battlefield is: He gets killed by one of the slithering aliens. And then he "wakes up" the previous morning, just as he has arrived at the invasion's forward base at Heathrow Airport, having accidentally absorbed the aliens' ability to do a limited sort of mental time travel. As he lives this day over and over and over again, his actions are like those of a game: He gets better at using his suit of powered battle armor, and he accumulates knowledge that helps him get a little farther each time. He "plays" that battle multiple times, and every time he dies — which is every day — he jumps back to that "saved" moment on the airport's tarmac. Soon he teams up with another soldier, Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who knows what's happening to Cage because it happened to her. In fact, it's the reason she's become the renowned "Angel of Verdun" — because she lived that battle over and over until she won it for the human forces.
Unlike movies actually based on video games, though, this one doesn't feel like we're watching someone play a game we can never join. Even as the day loops repeatedly through the same events, there's still a sense that things are moving forward — and, indeed, they are, in ways that often become supremely suspenseful, as when Cage has knowledge of things that Rita can never know: She is not reliving this day. There's much that is deeply poignant, as Cage gets to know Rita in a way that she can never get to know him, and as we discover she experienced something similar at Verdun; the film doesn't linger on this, just accepts it as a tragic side effect of the war. There's an astonishing level of tension in the repeating events; that tension ratchets up in the finale in a wonderfully ingenious way.
What Edge of Tomorrow ends up being about is this: perception. How we see ourselves and how the world sees us are two very different things, and the difference is a wider gulf for Cage and Rita. She is lauded as a hero for reasons no one will ever know, an adulation that, it is hinted, she doesn't care for. And that officer's uniform commanding such respect for Cage is ironic in a completely diametrical way at the end of the film than it was at the start. Heroism, for them, is more a matter of "you have no damn idea what I've been through" than it has ever been for any heroes gone before.