At the Edge of a Good Movie
Although based on a Japanese light novel, Doug Limon’s Edge of Tomorrow is just about the perfect videogame movie. It’s not the big guns or hordes of marauding aliens that give the film away, but rather the movie’s widely advertised slogan – “Live. Die. Repeat.” – describing the unusual predicament faced by Tom Cruise’s Major William Cage. Thrust into the throes of a D-day-style invasion against extraterrestrials that have destroyed most of earth’s major cities, Cage finds himself quickly killed – and then respawned at the start of the same day with the chance to re-enter the fray carrying knowledge of what has happened. This time loop continues, and his actions grow more calculated as he learns what will occur and when. In this way, Cage becomes an amalgam of gamer and avatar, and his recurring present the level or map of a first person shooter (fps) – the events of the day don’t change with repeated visits. I’m surprised videogame-based movies haven’t run with some version of this concept prior to Edge of Tomorrow (correct me if I’m wrong). Rather than transposing a game’s story into the medium of film, why not work the fundamentals of the fps genre into the screenplay itself? If well-executed, it could work as a clever bit of intertextual homage, enlivening the dismal track record of console-to-screen adaptations.
The problem is, Edge of Tomorrow doesn’t have the benefit of this self-reflexive charm because it isn’t based on a videogame. Take away the wink of intertextuality and we are left with a gimmicky premise that starts unraveling the moment the film begins trying to explain itself. Unlike Run Lola Run or Source Code, two movies that take essentially the same concept into bolder, headier territory, Limon’s film aspires to little more than glitzy blockbuster with a temporal twist. There’s something refreshing about its straightforwardness, except there are places where the plot simply makes no sense. We are presented with the nifty concept of an undying soldier who can learn his way to victory, but this nascent flash of inspiration never matures into a full-blooded narrative. Often, it seems as if the screenwriters – and/or the author of the source material – are making stuff up as they go along, trying desperately to piece together a story to sustain this fledgling premise. It doesn’t help that, by presenting a seemingly endless stream of second chances to its hero, Edge of Tomorrow loses a sense of urgency across multiple scenes. Mistakes become less consequential because everything can simply be redone if necessary.
On top of all this, watching the same scenes over and over again gets old pretty fast. The invasion scenes, which occupy at least a third of the movie’s runtime, are stylistically monotone. The humans’ first landing on a wartorn beach packs a punch – metallic warriors trudge through the sand as alien warheads streak the overcast sky like meteors – but after the third or fourth time, the predominantly gray-orange color palette grows stale. This isn’t helped by the aliens being remarkably uninteresting to look at – amorphous clumps of muscle fibers that glow from within – or by the often disorienting camerawork that slips dangerously close to shakycam. There’s plenty of alien-killing to appease action fans, but really, every death looks the same. Curiously, the movie doesn’t even take time to fetishize its vast array of artillery, something that has become more or less a staple of gun-toting sci-fi actioners (think everything from Aliens to Pacific Rim). Here, letting us fawn over all the cool gadgets might have spiced up the fight scenes – check out that broadsword! That shoulder-mounted missile launcher! – but alas, all the movie does is shoot. When the film makes a sudden detour into the countryside, the experience is liberating – it just might be one of my favorite scenes in the movie.
All that said, the film isn’t beyond redemption. On the contrary, the movie’s lackadaisical plotting and overly homogeneous imagery do little to tamper the gusto with which the actors engage the material. Cruise, on action-movie autopilot, is an obvious typecast but no less effective than he usually is. After decades spent flying fighter planes, wielding katanas, and scaling skyscrapers, he is at home within the weaponized exoskeleton worn by soldiers of the near-future. He sees the movie through to its end by sheer tenacity alone. Emily Blunt matches him every step as the legendary alien-slayer whose austere elegance shouts “Amazon Queen”. If Gal Gadot hadn’t secured the role of Wonder Woman, Blunt would have made a killer alternative. Supporting these two leads is a diverse cast of characters whose wit and sass come as a welcome surprise. Highlights include the testy Sergeant Farrell, played by Bill Paxton, and the colorful members of the J Squad, the unit Cage travels with on the day of the invasion. Edge of Tomorrow, though nonsensical in some respects, doesn’t come off as dumb. Its dialogue has bite, its performances an air of earnest.
In the end, it is the movie’s human element that makes Edge of Tomorrow worth recommending, if just barely. For although the film has insufficient fun with its gadgets and weapons, we care about the men and women operating them. It’s true that each repetition of Cage’s day is a case of diminishing returns for the viewer, but we remain invested in the fates of the characters because they charm us and entertain us. Amid the alien apocalypse appear smatterings of humor to alleviate the gloom, and the actors deliver even as the story doesn’t. Unlike Cage, I probably won’t be repeating the Edge of Tomorrow experience anytime soon. But while it lasted, at least the film had enough kick to let us know it was alive.