In almost every action movie, the hero never dies. If he does die, he’s always alive at the end. He is immortal by default. Doug Liman‘s Edge of Tomorrow provides a sly commentary not only on the action genre, but also touches on notions of destiny, providence, choice, and sacrifice. However, its most intriguing aspect is how it aligns with the career of its ageless, persevering star. Tom Cruise is the eternal action star, who is both dominant in and yet trapped by his career circumstances. His captivating performance in Edge of Tomorrow is both reflective and fresh as he doesn’t distract from the fascinating, exciting film, but his presence gives an extra pop to a film that will bring you back for repeat viewings.
The Earth is under attack by aliens known as “mimics”, so named for their ability to quickly adapt and even anticipate our counterattacks. Although humanity was able to score a big victory thanks to soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who was able to take down 1,000 mimics, the plan is to stage massive strike to wipe out the enemy in one fell swoop. Major Bill Cage (Cruise), a callow, media relations officer, is demoted and forced into service. During the battle, he sacrifices himself to take down a mimic, and as Cage is dying, he absorbs some of the creature’s blood. It allows him to keep returning to the day before this incident no matter how many times he “dies”. After finding Rita, she reveals the same thing once happened to her, and that the ability is the key to defeating the mimics.
Groundhog Day is the easiest comparison since both main characters are stuck in a time loop, but a more appropriate comparison for Edge of Tomorrow is the 2011 film Source Code, which features a protagonist who must die again and again in order to complete his mission. Groundhog Day features a different set of existential challenges since there’s no explanation for Phil (Bill Murray) reliving the same day nor does he have to die in order to do so. Although the mimic’s blood is a useful plot device, providing the weight of death in a sci-fi/action movie gives Edge of Tomorrow a unique perspective.
Because we understand Cage’s ability and mission, Edge of Tomorrow is always at war with its own certainty as well as the certainty of the genre. Cage knows he can learn from his deaths, and although he doesn’t particularly enjoy dying, it also gives him a godlike power. Death is what gives meaning to our lives, so the story has to give Cage a purpose as well as a new meaning that will free him from the cowardice and selfishness he displays at the beginning of the movie. The film is always trying to find the right balance of vulnerability and invincibility, and that means providing Cage’s mission with dead ends even if he can’t die.
One of the remarkable aspects of Edge of Tomorrow is how it’s always threatening to become stale but remains surprising. There’s a videogame aspect where characters use terms like “Game over” and “Let’s reset”, and they could easily undermine the life and death stakes. A game like Super Meat Boy, which is about making sure your character doesn’t die horribly as he makes his way to the end of the level, is fun, but doesn’t have much in the way of emotional investment. Edge of Tomorrow finds its emotional center by giving Cage something, or rather someone, to live for: Rita.
Although Rita lost the ability to time loop, she’s the only one who understands Cage’s predicament, and forces him to become her equal and share her values. When Cage tells her he’s not a soldier, she replies, “Of course you’re not. You’re a weapon.” Cage has to build past this dehumanization by convincing a woman who hardly knows him how much he cares for her, and how her safety becomes more important than his own. Rita makes saving the world into something more personal and adds some of the movie’s key moments of humor as she takes it upon herself to casually murder Cage over and over again. He has infinite lives, but he always “awakens” in a state of shock.
The dark comedy is another way Edge of Tomorrow uses its premise to skillfully play with the tone as it can’t completely ignore the fact that Cage’s life is now somewhat cheap even though his reset ability is invaluable. The combination of Liman’s direction, James Herbert‘s editing, and the screenplay from Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth superbly balances both the comedy and the drama. The comic timing in particular keeps the movie upbeat and becomes crucial at the moments where the movie starts to sag.
We’re always pushed just far enough to where we’re wondering how far Cage has come and where his previous experience ends. The time-loop device gives the movie a brilliant out where it never has to worry about plot holes. Cage always knows as much as he needs to know, and rarely deals with any minor impediments in his task. If he needs to convince someone to do something, all he has to do is display intimate knowledge of that person’s life or point out an imminent event such as someone about to perform a specific task. And yet the movie never loses its energy despite Cage coasting through potential conflicts. Again, there are so many places where Edge of Tomorrow could go wrong, but Liman keeps us on our toes by throwing us little twists and turns.
Edge of Tomorrow is easily Liman’s best non-indie film. The Bourne Identity is a series that didn’t become good until Paul Greengrass‘ two sequels, and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, while enjoyable enough, lacks an ending (the less said about Jumper, the better). Edge of Tomorrow has the director firing on all cylinders. The knack for comedy he displayed in his indies Go and Swingers, is on full display, the action is fluid and dynamic, the mimics look terrific, and he never forgets the dramatic stakes. It also doesn’t hurt that the lead character is perfectly cast.
In an interview last year on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Stewart remarked that he and Cruise were both fifty even though Cruise looked so much younger. Starting out as a baby-faced actor helps, but Cruise has never lost his youthful vigor. Even in his worst films, his energy is undiminished, and even if the performance doesn’t click quite right, there’s never any doubt he’s giving 110%. All successful actors have their various talents, and Cruise is adept at giving everything he has to keep the audience entertained.
As Amy Nicholson wisely pointed out on her excellent piece regarding Cruise’s career, public opinion has apparently dissuaded the actor from taking on riskier work. His last daring project, War of the Worlds, a dark 9/11 parable in the guise of a summer action flick, came at the same time when he was recast in the public eye as mentally unstable, and so he’s shied away from more challenging films like Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia. Four of his last five movies have been action-oriented, and while he’s one of the best at doing these kinds of popcorn flicks, they’ve also become a bit of a trap.
The plot of Edge of Tomorrow does provide a bit of parallel to Cruise’s career. Even though the role was written to take a 51-year-old actor down to the level of a recruit, Cruise makes it work perfectly as he taps into the fear and confusion of a person half his age. Watching Cage grow into a calm, collected, battle-hardened hero is like watching a condensed version of his career but with the added dimension of fear. The Cruise of Top Gun and the Mission: Impossible series are confident men of action from the moment they walk on screen. Cage may be cocky when we first meet him, but his cowardice is quickly exposed, and Edge of Tomorrow provides a new journey as we see a Cruise action-hero gain his confidence throughout the picture rather than briefly lose it midway only to regain it at the film’s climax.
His latest film accommodates him perfectly as it does almost every other single element. Edge of Tomorrow is always on the edge of imploding. It could have been killed by repetitiveness, an invincible hero, an old actor in a familiar role, gimmicky action, and misusing the premise. Thankfully, Edge of Tomorrow never has to learn from its mistakes since it hardly makes any. It’s always vibrant, humorous, thrilling, and surprisingly thoughtful. I look forward to going back again.