The world’s a hot mess! You remember the meteor that landed in Russia last year, and the subsequent video that went viral? As it turns out, there were aliens hiding inside the meteor and now they’re taking over our planet—those rat bastards.
Although perhaps it’s understandable. Imagine traveling millions of light years, landing in Russia and the first world leader you run up against is Vladimir Putin. Who can blame them for blowing up everything?
But now they’ve gone too far. The aliens (who kinda look like the Ents from the Lord of the Rings movies) have consumed most of Europe, even knocking over the Eiffel Tower in their relentless march to world domination. Sacré bleu! And here they are poised on the beaches of Normandy all set to invade Britain. What can we do? Where can we turn? Can nobody save us?
Quick, someone call Tom Cruise and see if he’s busy.
And that’s the setup for Edge of Tomorrow, the latest summer blockbuster.
The Plot. The Plot. The Plot Device …
Cruise plays a public relations specialist attached to the global good guys’ army. His job has been to create stirring propaganda ads meant to lure enlistees into the United Defense Force. But, through a series of merry mix-ups, he ends up as a private in one of the battalions about to storm the beach.
Even Cruise realizes he’s too old for such shenanigans and complains to his dictatorial sergeant, played by Bill Paxton in a scenery-chewing performance like you haven’t seen since Ethel Merman chomped her way through It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Paxton barks at him to shut up, suit up, and suck it up. Cruise does what he’s told and then out on the beach, gets attacked by an alien and dies.
Since this happens about 15 minutes into the film, you start fishing for your car keys and think: “Hmm, this might be the best Tom Cruise movie ever made.”
But no! The joke’s on you—because in the next scene Tom wakes up and he’s right where he started the day before, previous to hitting the beach.
And that’s what Edge of Tomorrow is about. For the longest time, it’s not about aliens and war and overacting and CGI. The movie, based on the Japanese novel All You Need is Kill, uses the plot device of a time loop. The solider-hero has killed a special alien, which allows the him to “reset the day” each time he dies … until he’s learned enough about the aliens to vanquish them.
It’s just like a video game where you keep learning the patterns until you win. Except, fortunately, it’s more than a hyped-up video game in several respects.
The Good Parts
Director Doug Liman and writers Christopher McQuarrie and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth have taken that original novel and really delved into the central time-loop concept. They’ve crafted a sort of visual puzzle and you actually have to pay to attention to get all that’s going on.
It also helps considerably that Jez Butterworth is one of the writers. Better known as a British dramatist, his play Jerusalem played in London and New York two seasons ago and he has been hailed as one of the most important playwrights in contemporary theater.
So, for once, characters in a tent-pole film don’t sound like they were written by a plate of mashed potatoes.
Liman also deserves plenty of props for his work. You might know him as the director of The Bourne Identity with Matt Damon. The smarts, style, and sheer cinematic verve from that film are in evidence here as well. Instead of an overreliance on overblown CGI, Liman digs deep into the film’s “reset the day” device and, with nuance and precision, takes it about as far as it can go. Less obvious, but even more important, is that he doesn’t get lost, and doesn’t allow us to become lost, in the film’s “gimmick.” He keeps a constant focus on the narrative and it’s thanks to his having crafted such a strong structure that he can then dazzle us with the intricacies of the concept.
One of the worst aspects of summer movies is that because of their retread plots and relentless bombast we, the audience, can’t help but become passive consumers. We’ve seen it all before and the only reason we stay awake is because this one is louder.
But Edge of Tomorrow involves the audience, staying just one step ahead, inviting in to connect the cinematic dots. How in the world did this movie ever get green lit?
Oh, that’s right—Cruise took a shine to it. And I’m relieved to report that he acquits himself rather well. Although it’s true that you’re always aware Tommy is probably a couple of decades too old for the role … which becomes increasingly problematic as his character, because of the endless resets, becomes a stronger, more virulent fighter. Listen, I’m only two years older and I got winded just buying the popcorn to see this movie; watching him jump and run and leap and swim and fly, you can’t help but hope he doesn’t break a hip. But even with that caveat, he gives a very efficient performance and when all else fails, he’s still got that Cruise charm to fall back on, which inevitably keeps us on his side.
Emily Blunt’s along for the ride as well. Mostly she just has to hack up aliens and snarl, but the great thing about Blunt is that there’s always a secret intelligence flashing behind her eyes and she knows when and how to deploy it.
But before we all get carried away shouting hosannas on high, we do have to grudgingly admit that Edge of Tomorrow is, ultimately, a product of Hollywood … and that can mean only one thing.
Like every blockbuster this one goes belly-up in the third act. Here the need for originality and logic must take a backseat to big explosions and ridiculously clichéd set pieces and an orgy of CGI effects. In the last 20 minutes, Edge of Tomorrow collapses under the weight of these Tinseltown prerequisites and becomes as drearily predictable and pointless as all the other 9,537 dreadful summer movies before it.
Which is a shame, really, because for the longest time Edge of Tomorrow teeters on the edge of being a really fantastic film.
Ted Hoover is a writer and critic based in Pittsburgh.