A long while ago, I spent a summer writing movie reviews for my personal blog. With all the things I wish I had time to write about today, it sort of boggles my mind that I was searching around for something so trivial just to fill my time. The number of movies I really want to critique isn’t very large, but there have been a couple in the past few years I would have liked to dissect in writing. The oft-maligned Superman Returns and Man of Steel, for instance, or the remake of that 80s classic, Fright Night.
Most recently, the movie I’ve been dying to talk to everyone about is the Tom Cruise vehicle, Edge of Tomorrow. Massive, massive spoilers incoming, so if you haven’t seen it yet (and trust my recommendation), go watch it now before it leaves theaters for good. Worth seeing on the big screen. This review’ll be here when you get back.
Last summer I began the arduous process of committing to a whole new movie-watching philosophy. That is, not watching trailers beforehand.
For me, a movie lover, it was a very difficult transition to make, but the only anti-trailer lifestyle advocate I know of – Mike Fehlauer – made a convincing argument: If you hate spoilers, stop watching trailers. At least for the movies you know you’re going to watch anyway.
For me, that amounted to pretty much every sci-fi and fantasy genre release (without lovelorn vampires as protagonists.) When the trailer for Oblivion – Tom Cruise’s most recent sci-fi movie before Edge of Tomorrow – came out, I got about half way through it before I recognized a huge spoiler: The woman he’s surveying the planet with turns against him. I was already feeling guilty for giving into the allure of the online trailer, so the decision to shut it off in disgust was easy. That saved me some surprises, at least (namely that Morgan Freeman would later turn up and introduce a whole ‘nother wrinkle to the plotline.)
Thinking back, that moment of Oblivion being spoiled was the final outrage I needed to kick the trailer habit completely. I removed Apple’s QuickTime trailer page from my RSS feeds and when the trailers started up at the movie theater, I started stepping out into the lobby until they’d finished. It’s not as bad as you’d think. The concession line is suddenly empty and it’s also a great time to check online for any after-credit stingers.
Ultimately, Oblivion was okay, but not very memorable. The only thing forgettable about Edge of Tomorrow is its title.
I image the elevator pitch for the movie was “Groundhog Day with aliens.” Tom Cruise plays Lt. Col. Bill Cage, a military public relations flakey forced onto the frontlines of a D-Day-like invasion to take Europe back from the “Mimics,” a mysterious conquering alien horde. Very quickly, we learn that no matter how he dies in the rapidly FUBAR conflict, he’ll wake up again the previous day, just before being forcibly reassigned to his new squad.
Time loop stories are nothing new. There’s Groundhog Day, of course, but just off the top of my head, there’s also that Gyllenhaal movie Source Code, the low-budget indie Primer, the Butterfly Effect… even a Star Trek episode. It’s very difficult to do these movies well because you can only trust an audience to sit through the same scene so many times, even with the inevitable differences.
In this respect, Doug Limon (Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Jumper) directed Edge of Tomorrow with a perfect balance of action and humor. The repeated combat scenes were never dull because the protagonist, Cage, was always changing their outcomes. The military interactions often released any built-up tension with comedy. I never once felt that the looping scenes were repetitious or boring.
Bill Paxton was great again in a small role as Cage’s CO. Throughout his recent run on ABC’s Agents of SHIELD, I felt like he was hamming it up, but in Edge of Tomorrow he was in top acting form as a no-nonsense, southern officer busting Cage’s chops. I loved that that gleam of madness in his eye – the look that made Hudson a fan favorite in Aliens – was back once again!
There are some nice bits of foreshadowing – or at least some unspoken questions posed – during the movie’s introduction and first pass through the time loop. We learn that Emily Blunt’s character, Rita, the Angel of Verdun, the Full Metal Bitch, was able to take out 100 or more Mimics in a prior engagement using the military’s new battle suits. What are these Mimics like? I wondered. Does their name imply they’re human doppelgangers? What defenses do they have that makes a clunky, armorless, exoskeleton so effective?
We learn the answers to some of those questions immediately after Cage gets his first taste of combat. Considering the setting, it’s not surprising that we’re reminded of Spielberg’s chaotic beach landing in Saving Private Ryan. Very quickly, Cage’s squadmates are scrubbed, one by one, as he scrambles to stay out of the fighting long enough to figure out how to turn on his own exoskeleton’s weapon system. The Mimics, when they finally appear, are all flailing red and black tentacles, fast and brutal, far more like the menacing robotic squids in the Matrix than the human doppelgangers I was expecting.
Cage is eventually killed by a larger blue Mimic, its blood burning holes in his face, just before he awakes with a shock in front of Bill Paxton again. The time-traveling, blood-of-the-alien thing is the movie’s sci-fi MacGuffin. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it doesn’t need to, as long as the rules on the world we’re in are bound by it. (Groundhog Day didn’t even have a MacGuffin. The time loop just happened.) The only thing that bothered me was the point in time which Cage always returns to. Why does he always wake then, on the base? Why not before (as at the movie’s end?) Or after? This is why it’s never a good idea to examine the MacGuffin too closely.
After a few iterations of Cage’s squad being decimated, you wonder how, even with a battle suit, the Angel of Verdun was able to kill even one of these buzzsaw-like Mimics, let alone one hundred. The answer to that question was finally answered when Cage tries to save her (for the umpteenth time) with a breathtaking display of precision weapon prowess. Rita, with a giant steel sword complementing her exoskeletal armor, looks on in shock. For a moment, we believe it’s because of his almost preternatural combat prowess, but then she stops, drops her sword, and tells him, “Come find me when you wake up!” Then the drop-ship behind her explodes, engulfing them both in flame.
This is the end of Act I, the movie’s very best scene, a true “holy shit” moment upon which everything changes. It was written and directed with perfection. And this perfect moment, the one which forces the viewer to reconceptualize everything that has happened before and will happen later, was completely ruined for most of the audience because they saw it in the trailer.
It makes me heartsick.
Act II is all about Cage learning. Learning about the time loops – what caused them, how they work, and how Rita first gained and then lost her own ability to experience the same. He learns how to fight in the combat training room, with the Full Metal Bitch acting as his sadistic drill instructor, who’s willing to kill him after the slightest injury in order to start over again. We see Cage struggle to teach her – through what must be incredibly frustrating and boring reiterations for him – how to navigate and survive the upcoming beachhead battlefield.
I like that the movie shows all the different ways Cage copes with the problem of living the same day again and again. First with his assigned squad, then with Rita and her training, and even times when he just goes for a beer and waits for the world to end. When every day ends the same, you’d get tired of combat training real quick. Not to mention getting shot in the head by the girl you’re falling in love with.
The falling in love thing was probably inevitable. Whether it’s a natural conclusion to spending day after day with someone or just a Hollywood trope, it amounts to being the same character dynamic explored by Groundhog Day. Cage fall for Rita because he’s spending a lifetime in her presence, but Rita can never reciprocate because, to her, every day is the first day she meets him. Now imagine the psychological scarring Cage must have after being forced to watch the person he loves being killed every day…
This relationship culminates in an abandoned farmhouse and, unlike in Groundhog Day, does not have a happy ending. Rita wants to continue pressing toward the goal, but Cage is all for taking some time out of the fighting. We, as the audience, understand what’s going on, but it’s only after he knowingly offers her three sugars for her coffee that she sees what he’s up to. It’s a very creepy moment, not unlike catching someone slipping a roofie into your drink.
Rita suddenly realizes that Cage is in love with her. Not only that, but she also realizes there is absolutely nothing she can do about it. No matter what she does today, she’ll be powerless to stop him again tomorrow. Deny him a thousand times, give him a thousand more tries to perfect his methods. She understands that eventually he will hit upon the right combination and slip past her defenses. How many times will he sleep with her? How many times has he already? I don’t know if it was Doug Limon’s intention or not (I hope that it was), but I felt like I was watching a date rape unfold on screen.
Kind of casts Andie MacDowell’s character in Groundhog Day in a new light, doesn’t it? (Interesting! I just looked up her character’s name on IMDb. It’s also “Rita.” Coincidence?)
It’s probably this scene, above all others, that made it impossible to end Edge of Tomorrow with your typical, Hollywood-style, hugging-and-kissing-as-the-war-is-won ending. Tom Cruise still has high hopes as he flashes his winning smile in the last frame, however, so l don’t have high hopes for Emily Blunt’s happily-ever-after.
While the scene in which the Angel of Verdun throws down her sword after first seeing Lt. Col. Cage in action is my favorite in the film, my favorite bit of writing is the moment that ends Act II: Tom Cruise wakes up strapped to a gurney, watching his time loop powers drain away down a blood transfusion tube.
Allow me to pull a description of a traditional end-of-act-II moment from the internet:
The Low-Point is where your hero has just about run out of options. All hope is lost. His goal no longer seems attainable. Notice the words ‘just about’ and ‘seems.’ This is the key. Nothing is finished, but it must appear that way. Your hero, on page 90, must be beat-up, battered, and emotionally cooked. This is the first time he’s been this distraught, this helpless. […] The audience is suicidal. This is the low-point.
What’s amazing about the end-of-Act-II moment in Edge of Tomorrow is that, by taking away Cruise’s temporal powers, the stakes are suddenly ratcheted up to levels that haven’t existed in the movie thus far. What was Cruise trying to do in Act I? Avoid an engagement in the war at all costs. There’s danger there, certainly, but it’s not long at all – never, if you watched the trailer first! – before the audience learns he has nothing to fear from combat, nor even death, for that matter. The remainder of Act I’s stakes is related to him trying to save individual squad-mates from dying, but the peril feels false, because we know that if he fails, he can always try again.
Act II’s stakes are ostensibly to win the war, which seems important on the surface, but again, we think that Cage can always keep trying until he gets there. Really, Act II’s stakes are about getting the girl. If he can do everything just so, he may find a day (or a lifetime) of happiness amid all the endless death and destruction.
Act III begins with the loss of Cage’s powers; the stakes have gone through the roof! How many dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of times did he have to reenact the D-day landing on the beach before he was able to get himself and his girl to safety? And now that they know where the queen bee of the enemy’s hive mind is located, they’ve only got one shot at killing it?
For the second time in the movie, everything we’ve accepted for granted has been turned on its head and nothing is the same any more. That’s some great, smart writing right there.
No need to explain the ending. If you’ve read this far, you’ve either seen the movie already or you should just go out and watch it.
I will say that after three outstanding roles in The Adjustment Bureau, Looper, and now Edge of Tomorrow, I have the biggest sci-fi crush on Emily Blunt! Damn if she isn’t the next coming of Ripley!
By the way, the book this movie is based on is a Japanese novella called All You Need is Kill, by Hiroshi Skaurazaka (Kindle link). It’s a quick read, the translation is excellent, and it’s different enough from the movie to be an entirely new story while at the same time being similar enough to answer a few questions you might have had about the Mimics in Edge of Tomorrow. The ending of the book is not at all what you’d expect after watching the movie and I quite enjoyed the analogy the author draws in the afterward. Also highly recommended.