A witty, clever, character-driven bit of science fiction wonderfulness, full of suspense, surprise, tension, and an unexpected poignancy.
Oh, hooray. I am a happy geek today. Science fiction has made me happy. Because director Doug Liman has given us exactly the kind of sci-fi action drama we were hoping for — expecting, even — from the indie filmmaker who snuck up on the action genre and booted it into the 21st century with 2002’s The Bourne Identity. Edge of Tomorrow is, unsurprisingly, smart, cleverly playing with clichés it knows we’re familiar with and even goofing on its own storytelling. It is also, surprisingly, funny, an unanticipated treat since it’s set during an alien invasion that humanity seemingly cannot throw off. It seems to do lots of stuff wrong, and yet it all works beautifully.
First “wrong” thing: Our hero, William Cage, is no hero. (At least not initially.) He’s a coward, even in the face of the possible end of human life on Earth, and worse, he’s a sniveling weasel about it. He wears the uniform of a major in the U.S. Army, but he’s no soldier: he volunteered to do PR when he lost his ad agency in the wake of the invasion. Cage’s backstory includes some of the many intriguing hints the film drops about what’s happening on planet Earth that are never fully elaborated upon (and don’t need to be); I like — well, am transfixed by, in a sort of horrifying way — the rather misanthropic notion that even a war for the survival of our species that has already consumed Europe needs some spin every once in a while. We see some of Cage’s smarm as he appears in bits of the montage of TV news reports that opens the film, and he himself embodies a sort of untruth. For Cage is charming, movie-star handsome Tom Cruise (Oblivion, Jack Reacher) in a smashing uniform, the very image of inspiring soldierly spirit when that is, in fact, nothing but image.
Cage’s weaseling we witness when he turns it on General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson: The Smurfs 2, Safe House), head of the “United Defense Force” that is about to launch a 21st-century version of D-Day with an invasion from England of alien-held France. His weaseling ends badly; I won’t spoil how, because the scene is a little marvel of witty writing in which character drives plot (which can be said of the whole script, by Christopher McQuarrie [Jack the Giant Slayer, Jack Reacher], Jez Butterworth [The Last Legion] and John-Henry Butterworth). And so Cage ends up on the front line of that invasion.
Second “wrong” thing: Like Cage himself, we get dumped right into the middle of this war. This alien invasion movie isn’t an alien invasion movie. We see only snippets of the aliens’ arrival and initial attacks, in that opening news montage, and we don’t ever know — and never learn — what they want with us or our planet. (Another witty little scene deals explicitly with this question, and comes up with an excellent answer.)
So what is Edge of Tomorrow, then? It looks very much like a videogame movie, in some respects, because what happens to Cage almost instantly on that invasion battlefield is this: He gets killed by one of the slithering aliens (they’re called Mimics). And then he “wakes up” the previous morning, just as he has arrived at the invasion’s forward base at Heathrow Airport, having accidentally absorbed the aliens’ ability to do a limited sort of mental time travel. As he lives this day over and over and over again, his actions are like those of a game: he gets better at using the suit of powered armor the human soldiers wear, and gets better at using the weapons (he doesn’t even know how to turn off the safety on his gun on the first iteration of that day), and accumulates knowledge that helps him get a little further each time. He “plays” that battle multiple times, and every time he dies — which is every day — he jumps back to that “saved” moment on the tarmac at Heathrow. Soon he has teamed up with fellow soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt: The Five-Year Engagement, The Muppets), who knows what is happening to Cage because it happened to her. In fact, it’s the reason why she has become the renowned “Angel of Verdun” — aka “Full Metal Bitch” to her awed comrades — because she lived that battle over and over again until she won it for the human forces.
Unlike movies actually based on videogames, though, this one never feels like we’re watching someone play a game we can never join. Even as the day loops repeatedly through the same events, there’s still a sense that things are moving forward… and, indeed, they are, for with Vrataski’s knowledge, she and Cage are able to set a military goal that the foresight he is amassing can help them achieve. Sometimes this is supremely suspenseful, as when Cage knows stuff that Vrataski can never know: she is not reliving this day and has to be approached cold by Cage and reconvinced, again and again and again, of the truth of his predicament. (Unlike Cage, during subsequent iterations we viewers get to skip over the problems he has already learned to solve. He has to get past those barriers each and every time: there’s no saving the game at a later point for him.) And sometimes we don’t have that knowledge, either, because we don’t witness every iteration of Cage’s day. There is much that is deeply poignant here, as Cage gets to know Vrataski in a way that she can never get to know him, and as we discover that she experienced a similar such “relationship” at Verdun; this is made all the more poignant by how the film does not linger on it, just accepts it as a tragic side effect of this war. There is an astonishing level of tension in events that repeat themselves, and that tension gets ratcheted up in the finale in a wonderfully ingenious way.
What Edge of Tomorrow ends up being about is this: perception. How we see ourselves and how the world sees us are two very different things, and the difference is a wider gulf for Cage and Vrataski than for the rest of us. She is lauded as a hero thanks to a bizarre accident of fate that no one will ever know about, an adulation that, it is hinted, she doesn’t care for. And that officer’s uniform that commands such respect for Cage is ironic in a completely diametrical way at the end of the film than it was at the beginning. Heroism, for them, is more a matter of “you have no damn idea what I’ve been through” than it has ever been for any heroes ever before.