Once upon a time, long before he assumed the mantle of Space Pope, Tom Cruise was the biggest box office draw on the planet. It’s easy to forget something like that, especially when for the past few years most of his increasingly eccentric personal life has been splattered all over the covers of gossip magazines worldwide. He’s still an action star with the power to sell a fair few tickets on his name alone, but there’s an overwhelming sense that the people who are paying to see him are doing so primarily to sneer and laugh as he tries to be as cool today as he was in the 90s.
The funny thing about all this is that no matter how many bizarre things Tom Cruise manages to do away from a film set, whenever he’s on one he is absolutely the best in the world at precisely one thing: being Tom Cruise. And nobody plays the good-looking, smart-talking hero who is better than everyone else at everything as convincingly as he does.
Edge of Tomorrow is not only aware of this, but actively goes out of its way to remind the audience of it too; first presenting a thoroughly unlikeable weasel of a protagonist at the start of the film, and then moulding him increment by increment into the shimmering beacon of rock-solid hyper-competence you were expecting to begin with. You leave the film painfully aware that Tom is a lot better at being that second guy than pretty much everyone else.
So, Edge of Tomorrow is Tom Cruise’s film through and through, so much so that it often feels like it’s telling two stories simultaneously; the one it is “about” superficially, and the one at its core: that of a real actor struggling to retain relevance in the face of an overwhelmingly invasive celebrity culture which sees no distinction between personal and professional lives. And in both cases the result is a man being broken down and reassembled over and over again before our eyes.
Cruise plays Major William Cage, an adman for military PR during a near-future invasion of earth by an extra-terrestrial force that looks like a cross between the Matrix trilogy’s Sentinels and Benjamin Zephania’s dreadlocks. His job is to show up on news broadcasts and encourage young men and women to enlist in the infantry by extolling the virtues of the Army’s new mechanized exoskeletons, which allow pretty much anyone to be an effective soldier with very little training or experience. Anyone, that is, except for Cage himself, who at the start of the film has never seen combat and has no desire to do so – which makes it particularly problematic when he is quickly demoted and deposited on the front lines of a huge battle which could potentially turn the tide of the war. He’s quickly killed in action, only to find himself back at the start of the previous day, fully aware of the events leading up to his death but forced to live through them again and again.
This kind of time loop plot device is certainly nothing new; we’ve seen it in Groundhog Day and more recently in Source Code. It works here, though, because it’s used intelligently to maintain tension and develop the characters, rather than just as a tool for setting up the action. Once the narrative progresses beyond a certain point, it’s deliberately never clear exactly how many lives Cage has gone through to get to a particular scene. We see his character drastically change as the story tells and retells itself, but there’s never a sense of the forward momentum being lost. By the time you feel the film should be moving on, it has in fact already moved on, and is now just leaving things out because they’re no longer necessary.
Because of this, Edge of Tomorrow feels distinctly like a video game. It isn’t based on any console IP specifically – it’s in fact adapted from a Japanese novel, All You Need Is Kill, by Hiroshi Sikurazaka – but it appropriates the medium’s logic and mechanics better than any other film I can think of. Each time Cage dies, he is essentially starting over from a save point. With every respawn, he is accruing more and more knowledge and ability which enables him to progress further; half of this is general muscle memory and recollection – dodge right to avoid an explosion here, fire left to kill an incoming enemy there – but the other half is the film’s own interpretation of “levelling up”. When he meets Emily Blunt as the surprisingly convincing super-soldier Rita Vrataski, Cage gets access to new “levels”, and also a training area where he can essentially spend the “experience points” he has gathered over his previous attempts on new skills and abilities. The point is to use this accumulated knowledge and experience to progress to the “final boss” and save humanity in the process.
Director Doug Liman and his screenwriting triumvirate of Christopher McQuarrie and brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth have luckily crafted a smart, witty script which imbues this rather mechanical concept with a lot of humanity. Cruise is incredibly appealing throughout, but the supporting cast, while having less to do, are all effective in their own ways – Blunt in particular, who is performing a delicate balancing act portraying a character known as both the Angel of Verdun and the Full Metal Bitch. The conceit is that Vrataski has experienced the same temporal dislocation as Cage, but subsequently lost the ability. She’s in a position to help him – often by shooting him in the head to speed up the learning curve – but they work well together because of how clearly she’d rather be doing the job herself. Cruise spends a large amount of time convincing her of his capabilities, much like how he is convincing the audience of the same thing.
Crucially, Edge of Tomorrow knows that audience well, and trusts us to largely figure things out on our own. It tactically withholds information, but it also relies on well-placed surprises which wouldn’t really work without our complicity. The film has an almost organic intelligence, adapting to suit the needs of its screenplay as needed. It might start as a typical sci-fi action romp about men stomping around in bionic suits festooned with automatic weaponry, but it rapidly becomes something much more. There’s no end of multimedia sources to which Edge of Tomorrow can be likened, but it is ultimately its own thing: a hugely enjoyable, slick and smart science fiction film which I can enthusiastically recommend.
Perhaps more importantly though, Edge of Tomorrow is the film that reminded people how cool Tom Cruise is after all.
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