Tom Cruise's Latest Sci-Fi Flick Might Seem Like a Flop, But It's Actually a Hoot
On the face of things, Edge of Tomorrow looks like a perfectly conventional science fiction epic starring Tom Cruise, and on one level that's exactly what it is. But there are multiple levels at work here, and like any good video game you must fight through to the end to find out whether it was worth playing.
I wasn't planning on seeing the film, but it's one of those rare creatures that people tell other people to go and see. Most folks describe it as Groundhog Day meets War of the Worlds, and really, what's not to love about that infernal combo?
Let's set the scene. It's end of days yet again. This time, it's an unstoppable army of tentacle aliens called Mimics that have invaded Earth. The creatures, like the Martians or Triffids of old, have little on their squiggly minds except human annihilation. Having overrun central Europe, they begin marching towards the coast of France to launch an invasion of old Blighty. All of this backstory is told in a blitzkrieg of news clips and televised press conferences, featuring a press officer by the name of Major William Cage, played by everyone's favourite bit of teeth and hair Tom Cruise. Major Cage's job, which he is extremely good at, is to sell the war effort, convince young men and women to do their duty for God and country, and walk into the buzzsaw. Like any good pitchman, Cage is 90 per cent bullshit, with a nice sheen of oily charm and a smart uniform. (Think Don Draper in a science fiction adventure.)
So far, it's been almost a complete rout, but luckily the humans have a nifty new weapon that allows them to do battle with the whirligig aliens. Automated exoskeletons (essentially giant robot suits) let soldiers clump about, shooting anything that slithers. The allied forces are marshalling their own massive counterattack under the leadership of one Sgt. Rita Vrataski, a.k.a. the Full Metal Bitch, a bronzed Valkyrie played by Emily Blunt. Blunt brings yogic poise to the role and a certain coolness of tone. A female version of Steve McQueen, not quite, but she's got the stuff, all right. Rita earned her other nickname (the "Angel of Verdun") by leading one of the few human victories against the aliens at, you guessed it, Verdun.
If the overtones of another large-scale invasion are beating loudly in your ears, it's intentional, as the film was launched on the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The echoes hang heavy over the action, imbuing the film's rather goofy premise with a weird form of gravitas. But before we get to the beach landing and the bloodshed yet to come, the setup, characters and narrative logic must be established.
War is hell, over and over
In a meeting with a grim army general (played by dour Brendan Gleeson), Cage is informed that he's being sent to the front, along with the first wave of troops, to capture the glory of the invasion. After a bunch of charming entreaties, veiled threats, and subsequent fleeing fail, Cage finds himself branded a deserter. He is stripped of his rank and consigned to a group of misfits called J-Squad, under the watchful eye of one Master Sgt. Farrell (played with relish by good old Bill Paxton). The invasion is scheduled for the following day, and things are ramping up. Cage makes every effort to escape his fate; displaying a full arsenal of weasel tricks, he shucks and jives, talks like a carny on speed, and grins like there's no tomorrow. Unfortunately for him there are plenty of tomorrows, innumerable amounts actually, and that is essentially the entire premise of the film.
It's such an unusual feeling these days to surrender yourself to a film and let it take you where it will, that I actually noticed the moment it happened. As the J-Squad mounts up and prepares for the parachute drop on the beaches of Normandy, Cage is hanging in midair, completely unprepared for the carnage of the beach below. At that moment, I felt as if I was somehow in a dream from which I couldn't awaken.
On making contact with the sand, Cage finds himself living the adage that war is, indeed, hell. Everywhere men are being ripped into confetti pieces and blown into ruby mist. Cage is dead less than a few minutes later, but not before he bumps into the Full Metal Bitch and manages to blow up an extra special alien called an Alpha. The creature explodes like a balloon and Cage is soaked in its blue acid blood. One moment his face is melting into his skull; the next he awakens right back where he started, at the army base the day before the invasion, being screamed at by drill officers and forced to repeat every single detail of the previous day.
The conceit is that the way the aliens work is by controlling time. Basically, they have a cosmic reset button that allows them to learn from each failure and eliminate it from their repertoire. The action is controlled by a large brainy creature called an Omega that hides in a hole. Maybe it also drinks Slurpees and eats Pringles as well, like any good gamer. The echoes of earlier films, like Starship Troopers and Aliens, are immediately obvious in Edge of Tomorrow, and that's okay. There's a long tradition of science fiction films borrowing from earlier precedents. There's nothing new under the sun, not even exploding aliens with the power of predestination. Being soaked in the blood of the Alpha imbues Cage with this same power. The same fate also befalls Rita. Together the pair must join forces, find and destroy the Omega, and save the world.
It's live, die, repeat -- the video game world of endless starting over. Each time our hero perishes, it's game on all over again, and so on and so on. This may sound agonizing, but the film has a merry way with narrative that whirls and twirls, with endless variations of death and dismemberment. To his credit Cruise gives it his all, whether he's being melted by alien acid, obliterated by a truck or smushed into strawberry jam. His death squeaks are some of the best parts of the film.
I won't spoil the end game. The film is a hoot, and sometimes all you want or need is a story that takes you firmly by the scruff of the neck and has some fun with you. Kudos must be paid to the editor, whose deftness and lightness of touch makes for elisions and ellipses so smooth and curvilinear as to be positively Euclidean. I don't quite know what that means, but it feels as if time is curling in on itself, like a cosmic serpent.
Various elements of gaming have entered film before, but there's something new happening here. A way of using narrative -- not as a linear through line that pulls you along like a landed fish, but as accretion, layers of experience laid one on top of the other so that it adds up, through repetition, to something else. The end result is almost a different type of storytelling, not plodding forwards from A to B and finally C, but looping around and around like a spiral. As much fun as this is, and it is fun (there's a reason video games are a $21-billion industry), I found myself wondering what the ultimate reward is, other than the satisfaction of skills acquired and mission accomplished.
The sting of death is treated just like that, a brief blip of pain, like pulling out a nose hair and then it's game on again. The film's release on the anniversary of D-Day was cited in Richard Brody's review in The New Yorker, in which he writes: "The metaphorical overlay of fantasy and history is the best thing Edge of Tomorrow has to offer -- and, for much of its running time, that overlay is enough to lend the movie a shiver of curious power." I know what he means. Even the faintest echo of the thing is enough. We're still reliving those battles, in film, story and words, over and over again.
The last issue of Harper's Magazine featured a short piece in the Readings section called Army of Shadows. It's part of a young woman's diary that recounts the night of the D-Day invasion. It is brief, but so immediate and precise in its detail, as cinematic and fully realized as any filmic re-telling, I read it and then re-read it again, drawing it in like a certain scent. There is something of that sense of romance that people attach to the Great War, if people still call it that, in Edge of Tomorrow. I thought about it reading the final paragraph of Army of Shadows, in which the D-Day landing sounds like a scene from a dream, or perhaps a film.
"At first the parachutes seem carried by the wake of the plane; then they drop vertiginously downward; finally, the silk domes open. In a few moments, the sky is nothing more than an immense ballet of parachutes. The spectacle on the ground is no less extraordinary. From all corners of the countryside bursts of multicoloured rockets shoot out as if thrown by invisible jugglers. In the fields around us, big black planes slide silently toward the earth... "
At the risk of getting metaphysical on your ass, it all starts to feel like we've been here before. The film's central conceit of being trapped in a time loop from which we cannot escape, endless cycles of death, rebirth and so on are a form of hell. But it turns out that we've all been played. Even as the film was racing us through the action, shooting guns and exploding aliens, an entirely different game was unfolding. Through endless repetition, Cage moves from being a whingy tit to a man with a mission. As he develops, so does his relationship with Rita. Love adds up in bits and pieces, gradually coming together so that it's only finally revealed in the film's final frame. Game over.