Wednesday, 11 June 2014

This is as far as you go: "Edge of Tomorrow"


Edge of Tomorrow is the kind of action blockbuster of which I don’t feel we get enough. It’s a good film in the way that many modern day blockbusters aren’t. It has strong characters, one of which goes through a satisfying and clear character arc, a layered and involving story- and it doesn’t rely on easter eggs or teases for future films to make an impression. It simply tells a standalone story that’s smartly written and develops organically. Edge of Tomorrow is essentially the film people wish Hollywood would churn out on a regular basis.

As the film opens mankind has been fighting an alien race called the Mimics for several years. Tom Cruise plays Major William Cage, a spokesman for the United Defense Forces, which has created weapon/exoskeletons called jackets to win the war effort. General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) summons Cage to London and orders him to cover the war effort from the frontlines in France. Cage attempts to blackmail the General to get out of being on the frontlines. When that doesn’t work Cage attempts to escape but is arrested and stripped of his rank. He is sent to Heathrow airport and later is dropped in to the war zone. The Mimics have anticipated the invasion and the soldiers are slaughtered. Cage kills a Mimic, resulting in him being covered in the Mimic's blood. He then wakes up back at the airport.

Cage begins to realize he is in a time loop and every time he dies he "resets" to the day before the invasion. On the battlefield he meets Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), the "Angel of Verdun," who won a major battle in the war against the Mimics. In one of Cage’s loops Vrataski discovers Cage has foreknowledge of the future. She tells him to find her when he resets. They’re both killed and Cage seeks out Vrataski before the invasion. He discovers that Mimics are part of a collective consciousness called the Omega. The Omega has the ability to control time, which is why they knew about the invasion in France; and being covered with the Mimics’ blood is what allows Cage to reset after he dies. Vrataski once had the same ability but lost it after a blood transfusion. With Vrataski’s help Cage trains to become a better soldier.

The film that comes to mind when talking about Edge of Tomorrow is the late Harold Ramis’ 1993 film Groundhogs Day. And while it’s an understandable comparison, Edge of Tomorrow exists as its own story. Groundhogs Day had a more spiritual and metaphorical reason behind its premise. In Edge of Tomorrow the time looping has a more specific, sci-fi indebted reason behind it. The explanation for Cage's situation isn’t forced; rather, it's an integral part of the film’s mythology and story. And while the film may become too exposition-y at times the internal logic never becomes too confusing or bogs down the film.

Part of the pleasure of the film is seeing Cage' growth throughout the film. He starts out as somewhat shallow man, never having been in combat nor understanding the sacrifice of men and women during war. He’s also a coward, which makes Cage a different kind of action role for Cruise. But as Cage keeps reliving the same events we see him become  more self-aware about things around him and how he can use foreknowledge of things to his advantage. Like a video game, Cage has to move further in the “level” in order to win. If you’re a gamer at all it’s hard to relate. I  love the bit where Cage attempts to roll under a truck to escape from the military base- and he gets crushed. In other action films the hero would do it right the first time but here Cage can’t immediately be a perfect action hero. The film emphasizes how exhausting it must be for Cage to constantly die over and over again, always getting a really rude wakeup call from a soldier. “On your feet maggot” is this film’s “I’ve got you babe.” Through his training and his relationship with Vrataski Cage not only becomes a better soldier but a better man as well. It’s a simple but satisfying character arc.

Cruise is one of the most polarizing figures in Hollywood but this film shows he can still be a convincing action hero. It’s fascinating to see Cruise go from the more cowardly Cage to a more recognizable Cruise action hero; and he's strong enough an actor and action star to sell both sides. This is one of his best recent performances.

Blunt is also really great here. I’d hate to use the phrase “strong female character” It’s a little condescending- “look at you being strong”- and it’s unfortunate that a well rounded female character has to feel like an anomaly rather than a something to be expected. But for lack of a better phrase, Rita Vrataski is a strong female character. She’s a no-nonsense badass who actually has more depth than Cage. She’s not merely Cage’s love interest nor the "damsel in distress." I also think it’s cool she’s already went through Cage’s ordeal and has to teach him the ropes. And despite Vrataski’s hardened exterior we get hints of her vulnerability and her pain at losing someone close to her. While Cage doesn’t get much of a back-story we feel there’s a lot of history in regards to Vrataski’s character.

Bill Paxton also has a lot of fun here as Master Sergeant Farell. It’s a great character actor parts that’s a highlight of the film, though I wish there was more of a payoff for the character. Gleeson is underutilized but is  good in the two scenes he has with Cruise. I like the J Squad that Cage joins and I wish they were developed a little more, particularly since they’re a huge part of the climax.

One of the trickiest aspects of the film director Doug Liman and screenwriters- notably Christopher MacQuarrie- had to face was how to develop Cage and Vrataski’s relationship when Vrataski is constantly meeting Cage for the first time. It’s through Cage’s growing affection for Vrataski and encountering a situation where he can’t save her no matter what he does – as well as the script giving bits her back-story over the course of the film- that allows the relationship to develop despite the restrictions of the film’s structure.

A film in which events keep repeating themselves runs the risk of seeming too gimmicky or rigid in its structure. But what’s impressive about the film is it has an ongoing story despite being stuck in a specific period of time . The film eventually expands outside of the battlefield and we’re able to see different locations and events. It’s also through the film’s editing- by James Herbert and Laura Jennings- which gives the story a rhythm that makes the structure not feel rigid. The film knows when to show things in full, as early on in the film, and when to use montage and quick editing.  We also don’t see every loop but through Cage’s dialogue we clue in to what events he’s been through, notably in a farmhouse scene which defines the emotions and themes of the film. 

Doug Liman isn’t name that sparks much passion in the hearts of cinephiles but he directed what’s my favourite Jason Bourne film, 2002’s underrated The Bourne Identity, as well as 2007’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith, which began the world’s fascination with the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie relationship. While Liman isn't considered an “auteur,” what links the aforementioned films and Edge of Tomorrow is all three have a high concept hook- an assassin who has amnesia, a married couple that doesn’t know each other is a spy, a sci-fi version of Groundhogs Day- but  are also very star driven and it’s the stars that make the concepts work. Matt Damon reinvented himself as an action hero for the Bourne series and Pitt and Jolie’s chemistry is what got people in seats for Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Edge of Tomorrow’s concept works because of Cruise and Blunt.

Liman stages several stellar action sequences and make the war between humans and Mimics feel like an authentic conflict. The first time Cage and J Squad are dropped in the war zone is positively thrilling and invokes the sense of dread before battle and the chaos of war. Liman balances heavy sci-fi ideas and bombastic action while allowing the human elements to breath and to develop smoothly over the film. While some of the climatic action felt dragged down the third act for me, it’s hard not to be impressed with this film's set pieces.

If there’s one wonky element of the film it’s the ending. It’s confusing  in relation to what was established earlier. There needed to be rules established beforehand that made the ending click in to place. The ending is also a little too neat but that element is forgivable considering how likable the protagonists are. And the final moment is kind of perfect.

Edge of Tomorrow is a wonderful piece of entertainment that despite its high concept feels like a throwback to the type of action blockbuster that’s become rare these days. It’s unfortunate it’s struggling at the box office. This is a film you should see and maybe even see again. Cruise is at his best, Blunt is awesome and Liman has arguably made his best film since The Bourne Identity. Like Bill Cage, Edge of Tomorrow will get more chances at life in the near future on DVD/Blu-ray, Netflix, or what have you, which is a very good thing. For sci-fi fans and for fans of good Hollywood films, Edge of Tomorrow deserves your time.  

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