I didn’t realize exactly why I was loving Edge of Tomorrow, the latest Tom Cruise-starring fantasy action flick, until an obscure moment rather late in the film. Without giving anything important away, Cruise’s character, Cage is his name, has a seriously wounded leg. Nothing special happened, just an impalement right on the quadriceps muscle and a couple sizable falls. After one such fall, he visibly stumbles and has a difficult time bearing weight on that leg, but after a few strides, he buries the pain and keeps on running – not smoothly, mind you, because it obviously still hurts, but running nonetheless.
For those who don’t know, Edge of Tomorrow is a high concept science fiction film about a Major in the United States Army public relations wing who, by what can only be described as a series of unfortunate events, winds up among the privates preparing to join the front line in a crucial battle against alien invaders. When he gets killed, he wakes up at the base again. And again, and again. So, to my point about him managing to run through the pain, it was not on the first try. In his first trip to battle I was afraid he was going to wet himself. He kept crying out for help and that he wasn’t a soldier. There is no way he had a formidable tolerance for pain. But by the end, after countless days of training – not his body, which always returned to the same status when he woke up, but his mind and mind alone – his will can triumph over the pain.
In this light, Edge of Tomorrow is a nuanced epic about the human spirit. Rich not only with creatively depicted action and moral ambiguities, in addition to the most ‘Tom Cruise’ performance Tom Cruise hath performed, it is as illuminating and inspiring as anything in years. The American Everyman who took his obvious talents for media relations to the military for its job security and benefits after his own business went under saves the day by refusing to accept fate and by trying to learn, to grow and to develop everyday until he has to capacity to win. That might have been stretching the plot a little bit, and it certainly isn’t the main point of the movie (Aliens!), but if it doesn’t get you deep down, nothing will.
Ben Cage (is that the closest name to “Tom Cruise” they could think of or a too-obvious metaphor for the fact that he is trapped, I can’t decide) is the out-of-luck officer upon whom this blessing/curse bestows itself. He is first seen a few minutes into the movie in a flash as part of a really confusing montage of news clips. What are all of these disjointed, disembodied voices and archival footage of Hilary Clinton and animated maps trying to tell me? And that mess of an introduction only devolves into the equally confusing, unexplained run-in that leaves Cage with a demotion for the record books.
He wakes up on a base near London, is handed a pair of boots and a notice that he is wanted for impersonating an officer. How or why this took place is never solved, a gaping hole in our understanding of the situation at hand. In an intergalactic war for survival (the Independence Day comparisons are inescapable, but at least the film doesn’t try to escape), one would think that sending an untrained pretty boy to the front line would be counter-intuitive. From this point he is introduced to the squad with which he will serve, and the excessive military satire, a cousin to both Full Metal Jacket and Starship Troopers (but on different sides), these scenes prove over-the-top and they drag on. These few bits of sci-fi silliness, as well as another tiny plot gap later on, are the major flaws in an otherwise pretty and powerful picture. That isn’t to say that having a jumbled opening, a crucial part of a concept film, is supposed to be forgiven either.
All in all, the point I’m getting at is that Edge of Tomorrow could have been an excellent feature about a man growing as if years pass in one day, because for him this day is truly an infinite amount of days. But it got caught trying to sell tickets with a sweaty heroine and loud explosions. It’s characters are excellent. Cage, a two-dimensional poster of exactly what you’d expect a professional modern propagandist gains complexity throughout the run time. He is at first confident, then utterly confused, then fearful, then repeat until he has undergone enough suffering to evolve to determined. The other significant player is Rita, played by the incomparably versatile Emily Blunt. As the most decorated hero in the army, Cage seeks her help in saving his butt during their invasion, only to find out that she is the only one who knows what is going on with him. Everyday from then on, Cage escapes from his commanders in the same way and finds Rita at the same place and explains why he is there. See, no one else remembers what goes on except him. One other character – the obligatory mad scientist archetype of sci-fi movies – asks him how many fingers are behind his back. When Cage can’t guess he says, “So this is the first time we’re having this conversation.” You can guess what happened in all successive days.
Over the countless days he spends in this loop, Cage remembers everything, which is a crucial to his gradually devising a way to win the battle, but is also an impossible cross to bear. He sees the horrors of war countless times, and while everyone around him has only known him for a few hours, his memory of them last infinitely longer. When he breaks from a plan and suggests they just lay low and cherish time, we find out that it is because he cannot stand to go through watching someone he is so close to die again in the same way she has before. He has slowly been falling in love with Rita, and who can blame him – she oozes confidence and drive, and is not exactly harmful to the eyes – and all the while she only has the emotional connection to him as someone she met this morning.
The supporting players are a motley set of misfits who hardly belong in the army. They include a man who prefers to go into battle in his weapon suit and nothing else, a girl who is never one to back away from a chance at a bitchy comment, and a fierce young man who is revealed to have Don Draper-ed himself (assumed the identity of a fallen comrade, hopefully the first use of “Don Draper” as a verb).
It also includes the bad guys. While they do look fake, because they are, when you get a good look at them, the Oscar-winning director of photography of Memoirs of a Geisha and Chicago saves that from holding the picture back. The camera is always moving, and not in the annoying-shaky way that thrillers are trending towards, in the good way. The movie turns into a thrill ride, constantly panning but revealing exactly what you need to see. The first time Cage deploys from his transport, he falls to the earth in a beautifully planned sequence of shots that feel like the viewer is dancing in mid-flight with its frightened hero. The monsters this quick camera action captures throughout the movie are, in a word, terrifying. They are fast like nothing of this earth – on land and in water – and their lightning movements obscure their reaching, spider-like forms. And of course they are really difficult to kill.
Video game players will recognize the freedom as well as frustration of Edge of Tomorrow. Cage is not afraid of death or other sorts of failure. He knows that he will simply respawn at what amounts to the beginning of the level. But oh, he has to start all over, do the tricks he knows by heart. In one day, very far into his experience, he is followed by a couple tough guys. “Can we not do this today?,” he says as if there were a way to avoid it.
In the mix of genres – distaster, coming-of-age, science fiction, military – embodied by Edge of Tomorrow, it reminds its audience that there is one central tenant in story. No amount of well designs monsters, well-performed lady-sidekicks or crafty camera moves can save a movie that lacks humanity. As a leading man, Tom Cruise is like no other and has been unjustly, harshly judged ever since the advent of internet entertainment coverage dragged him out of his comfort zone. When it came out, Mission Impossible was like nothing we had seen before, so the ambition is there. His Maverick of the exquisite Top Gun is one of cinema’s most unforgettable characters, so the charisma is there. And no one can question his ability in dramatic roles, putting aside guns and jets. The way he depicts Cage’s personal growth, his responses to newfound intelligence and emotions, and his coping with the moral ambiguities of his situation mark Cruise as capable as ever of providing a backbone to an otherwise shallow blockbuster.