Review: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

One of the many pleasures Edge of Tomorrow yields is the happy irony that a movie about repetition is the most original action spectacle this summer. Edge of Tomorrow is not a sequel, a reboot, or a reimagining. Yes, it’s based on a book, but one I’d never heard of, and I bet you haven’t either (see the credits below, and tell me if I’m wrong). Unlike most blockbusters these days, Edge of Tomorrow is not in the franchise business. From the point of view of your average North American filmgoer, this movie builds itself from scratch right in front of your eyes, and it’s remarkably successful at doing so.

There are some familiar things about the movie though. The foremost is Tom Cruise’s face. To hell with the valuations of celebrity gossip and fashionable opinion! Cruise is one of the great movie stars, and here he delivers yet another totally-committed and engaging lead performance.

But the film also plays with Cruise’s familiar image. To start, his character’s a coward. Cruise’s Major William Cage is a marketing manager and poster boy for humanity’s war effort against the legions of extraterrestrial “mimics” that have taken over Europe. Humanity’s military forces, equipped with armed, mechanized exoskeleton suits, can barely contain the enemy on the Continent. The setup recalls WWII circa 1942, and the opening scene uses snippets of fictional news coverage to explain this new world war. I don’t want to spoil the rest of the story, since it’s another of the film’s pleasures to see it play out, so I’ll just say that Cruise’s Cage finds himself repeating the war’s equivalent of D-Day every time he dies. He’s on the beach. Bang! Or—boom! And he wakes to relive the event.

Which leads to another familiar thing: the film's video game logic. Every time Cage dies he resets. And just like when you play a game, every time Cage resets, he uses the knowledge he has gained to make it a little bit further up the beach. You might think this sounds repetitive, but the film is really good at keeping things fresh. Wrong directions are taken. Entirely new ones are explored. As Cage adapts to the time loop he's trapped in and learns to exploit its potentials, the audience becomes comfortable with the conceit and the film is able to develop and even alter the situation.

Even though it’s about a time loop, Edge of Tomorrow is incredibly easy to follow. Director Doug Liman repeats scenes and creates montages of dialogue and images skillfully, never boring us with the repetition, but rather using it to tell the story. The film often keeps us in the dark as to whether the scene we're witnessing has happened before, teasing out Cage's knowledge of the event to great effect—sometimes for humour and sometimes for poignancy.

Much of the film's impact also comes from Emily Blunt. She deserves her starring credit since she carries the film alongside Cruise. Blunt plays Sgt. Rita Vrataski, the “Angel of Verdun,” who turned the tide of the war at that battle. Refreshingly, the film doesn’t make a big deal about her being a “female” warrior, even though the character herself is a big deal in the world of the film. Blunt’s also not on display like most sexy female action stars, such as Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Apart from some yoga, which shows off her strength as much as anything, Blunt’s usually in a clunky exoskeleton and not a slinky catsuit. Liman reveals Vrataski bit by bit over the first act, building anticipation, but it’s Blunt whose able to keep the character’s appeal going throughout the entire film.

The time loop narrative and allusions to Normandy and Dunkirk refresh familiar action sequences between futuristic soldiers and tentacular aliens. But even without the neat idea and historical allusions, Liman’s action scenes deserve credit for their skillful use of shaky camerawork, which stands apart from the ham-fisted, oppressively shaky cinematography in most action scenes today.

I mentioned earlier that Edge of Tomorrow seems to build itself from scratch before our eyes. I admire the film’s construction, which actually made me fear for the heroes after an important plot turn late in the film. I thought to myself, when was the last time I was genuinely worried about an action hero? When was the last time I watched a big-budget spectacle during which I thought anyone or everyone could possibly die because it’s not based on material I already know, or because it isn’t part of a series in which the heroes must be off-limits in order to preserve the longevity of the franchise? The current mode of franchise production is diminishing the sense of real stakes in action movies. Like Cruise’s Cage reliving the same day again and again, I’ve become numb to the modern blockbuster. Edge of Tomorrow thankfully offers something new.

8 out of 10

Edge of Tomorrow (USA/Australia, 2014)

Directed by Doug Liman; screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth from the novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka; starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Brendan Gleeson, and Bill Paxton.