Tom Cruise. There was a time where starting a written piece with those two words (okay, names) would have guaranteed untold numbers of page views. It still might, but for completely different reasons. Cruise has become a ridiculed totem for his odd religion, often keeping his incredible talent from being recognized. Regardless of his personal life, Cruise is a huge star (otherwise why would we care about his personal life?) – one who has reinvented himself numerous times over the course of his career. His latest vehicle, Edge of Tomorrow, is about just that: necessitated reinvention. It is a very entertaining action film, but it also takes a look at the trajectory Cruise has followed thus far.
The film follows disgraced Major William Cage (Cruise) as he is coerced into fighting in the first wave of a force intended to wipe out an alien horde – called Mimics because of their uncanny ability to predict and counter human action – attempting to conquer the planet. Cage is more of a spokesman than a soldier, so he does not survive very long in his first skirmish. But then something strange happens. Cage wakes up 24 hours earlier, experiencing all of the same events again. And again. And again. That’s right, it’s Groundhog Day meets Aliens, and it is up to Cage and Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a war hero with an eerie understanding of Cage’s predicament, to try to use Cage’s knowledge to fight back the invasion.
Edge of Tomorrow (like the highly disappointing Transcendence) is an example of what is becoming more and more rare: a science fiction film that isn’t a sequel or part of a larger franchise (unfortunately it’s box office numbers seem to have suffered for that), but the movie isn’t a wholly original concept. The script, by Christopher McQuarrie (writer/director of Jack Reacher), Jez Butterworth (move over Benedict Cumberbatch, this probably my new favorite name ever), and John-Henry Butterworth (nope, move over Jez – you’re brother just edged you out), is based on All You Need Is Kill, a Japanese light novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. Not only that, but the film also clearly owes a debt to the late Harold Ramis‘s Groundhog Day – a movie I love without reservation. Despite this baggage, Edge of Tomorrow manages to take these ideas and tell a compelling and exciting story that grabs the attention and doesn’t really let go.
The action scenes can be a little hard to follow. Director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) and his cinematographer, Academy Award winner Dion Beebe (Memoirs of a Geisha), keep the camera pretty still (shaky cam didn’t enter the Bourne series until Liman’s tenure was already over), but the Mimics move too darn fast. I suppose that is supposed to be part of what makes them such a scary enemy, but it really just makes it difficult to be a part of the battles.
The other characters that surround Cage don’t help immerse the viewer, either. The screenwriters put a little effort into developing the members of J Squad – the unit Cage gets assigned to – but when we are expected to care about them later in the film, it is difficult to do so. Even the more prominent supporting characters are pretty spare. Brendan Gleeson is largely wasted as the general who sends Cage to the front, and Bill Paxton features in a couple of scenes as the platoon’s Master Sergeant, though Paxton at least gets to chew some scenery in the loud kind of role he played so well in his early films like Near Dark and Aliens.
These may sound like damning criticisms, but Edge of Tomorrow manages to work really well despite them. The story is well-conceived and well-executed. Even the exposition dumps are accomplished in ways that make sense in the context of the film’s world, including a news footage montage at the beginning and the explanations that satiate Cage’s curiosities, as well as the audience’s.
But the movie’s strongest factor is Cruise himself. Cruise has been splashing around in the action movie pool for years now, almost exclusively, but Edge of Tomorrow allows him to show some range within that genre. Even the places where the script falters, such as the specifics of how Cage ends up with the grunts on the front line, serve to reveal more about Cage as a character (except for the ending, which just feels like a mis-step).
The movie actually acts as a metaphor for Cruise’s career. When we first meet Cage he is the cocky hot-head that we recognize from films like Top Gun and Rain Man. As Cage comes to accept the responsibilities that have been placed on his shoulders he becomes the more mature protagonist we’ve seen in War of the Worlds and Minority Report. And once the horrors of war start to take their toll (kudos to this movie, by the way, for managing to find a way to treat death lightly at some moments and completely seriously in others), Cage becomes the hardened, emotionless almost-superhero Cruise has portrayed in Jack Reacher and the more recent Mission: Impossible films.
Edge of Tomorrow is a flawed (and financially failed) summer blockbuster, but a strong script and the charisma of its star make it well worth a viewing. It is fascinating to watch Cruise re-evolve over the course of the runtime. Cruise is a very talented guy, and perhaps the range he shows here indicates that he recognizes he ought to return to smaller budget films. Then again, self-awareness doesn’t strike me as one of Cruise’s strongest qualities. Maybe a box-office bomb will do the aware-ing for him.