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Review: Edge of Tomorrow

Note: I haven’t read the original Japanese novel, manga, anime, etc. So this is just my reaction to the movie as its own movie.

Just when would we get the next great sci-fi action movie? That’s a question that’s been floating around for a while, ever since we got Predator, Aliens, and the first two Terminator films. A worthy successor to those classics of yore wouldn’t come until 1999’s The Matrix. Yet the subsequent sequels utterly failed to live up to that original’s legacy. The next great work in the genre wouldn’t appear until Neill Blomkamp’s out-of-nowhere tour de force District 9 in 2009. And once again, the question arose… how long would it be until we got another sci-fi action flick that would earn a place among the pantheon? Well thankfully, I think that question’s once again been satisfactorily answered with Doug Liman’s superbly satisfying Edge of Tomorrow.

The Japanese author of the original novel stated that he got his inspiration for the story from playing video games, and that’s been well translated to the movie. The scenes and indeed the entire narrative are structured like a video game, with death after death, retries again and again. There’s a true sense that Tom Cruise is reverting back to the same checkpoint save again and again, without any convenient F5 quicksaves in sight. Edge does not purport to be a true video game movie, but in its depiction of repetition of action and experience, it succeeds far better than any existing video game movie at conveying the raw essence of the video game experience. It’s quite an amusing thought and made me wonder… why is it that we keep getting bad video game movies but movies *about* video games tend to be great (The Last Starfighter, King of Kong, Wreck-It-Ralph, EoT)?

Simply put, the movie is imbued with a great balance of comedy, tension, and emotion. That careful balance of humor and action is often difficult to get just right, as evidenced most obviously in Michael Bay’s filmography. They need to harmonize with each other to form an appropriate tone that’s inviting and encourages the audience to climb aboard and go with the narrative. Marvel’s been incredibly successful on this front and Edge is another example of nailing the tone exactly right. That interplay of comedic timing and kinetic action is probably most effectively conveyed in these hilarious montages of Tom Cruise getting knocked on his ass over and over again by training spider drones. The humor truly works and feels natural and also completely serves the overarching story being told. Doug Liman’s past work has been a bit varied as far as tone goes, with the Bourne Identity being a very deadly earnest sort of spy thriller, while Mr. and Mrs. Smith was a completely flippant and over the top comedy romp. Edge neatly fits into a middle ground between these two extremes, with equal doses of seriousness and silliness. It never feels forced, but evoked a strong sense of what Zhang Yimou once said about his movie To Live: “There are tears and laughter, one following the other in a gentle rhythm like the breath of a bellows.”

Now, for everyone who watched the trailer, one thought generally came to mind: “Hey, this looks like Starship Troopers crossed with Groundhog Day.” And ya know what? After watching it, I would say… yes, that’s pretty much what this movie is. Totally. It is very accurate to summarize it in one sentence as being Starship Troopers (the novel) combined with Groundhog Day. But that’s perfectly fine, since that’s still not a movie we’ve ever seen before. Why not combine a gritty, war torn, power armored dystopia with Harold Ramis’s feel-good time travel classic?

The triumph of the movie is how effortlessly it weaves the two concepts together. You don’t feel that it’s just been cobbled together in a hazy, disorganized evening by Hollywood scriptwriters high on caffeine and coke. The universe actually feels cohesive and lived in. And while you’ll feel greatly reminded of Groundhog Day, you’ll also notice that it utilizes all the good ideas of Groundhog Day. First of all… they know exactly how to edit the time loops. The scenes are paced in a way that you’re able to gradually sink into the premise and overall universe, and then speeding things along and eventually cutting out unnecessary filler scenes once the audience is fully immersed and no longer need the hand holding. The movie takes off the training wheels and suddenly you realize that Cruise’s character has jumped from dying a few times to dying a few hundred times. The core concept requires a solid grasp of editing and compressing scenes for maximum effectiveness in order to not lose the audience’s attention with the repetition, and Edge succeeds as well as Groundhog Day did all those year ago.

Secondly, they film all the takes from different angles and perspectives, in order to again bring a little something new each and every time Cruise repeats his day. One scene may play out only slightly differently, but it’s filmed from the opposite end of the room. Or a closeup might change to provide a long shot. These little techniques, again derived from Groundhog Day, all work to reduce the time loop repetition and keep the viewer engaged in the story.

Now, Edge is a time travel story. As such… there has to be some sort of sci-fi explanation. Groundhog Day didn’t, but it’s more the exception than the rule. The time travel rationale in this movie is… well, crazy. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you dwell on it. They do sketch out a reason for the time loops, but it’s incredibly far-fetched. But at the end of the day... so what? It doesn’t much affect the rest of the movie, and they don’t actually dwell on it. It’s a flimsy device that enables the movie to go where it needs to, and that’s all they demand of it. You’re not focused on the reason why, because Liman is too busy showing off all the crazy spectacle and action and human drama that’s the actual heart of this film.

Now that I think about it, Source Code is another one of those sci-fi movies that resembles Groundhog Day. And its rationale for the repeating time travel trips was just as crazy and far-fetched. A military computer simulation that actually turns out to be a real honest device to access alternate timelines in the space time continuum? Sheer bonkers, right? Yet that didn’t stop me from enjoying the narrative and rooting for Gyllenhaal in his quest to save that commuter train. See, in my view… if a movie works emotionally, then it really doesn’t matter if the actual internal logistics don’t fully make sense. It just has to work on that gut level. “Frequency” is a good example, because while the time travel depicted in that movie was sloppy and incoherent and ultimately nonsensical when you try and analyze it, it did work for me at the end of the day because it had emotional resonance and catharsis and delivered all the feels.

Now look guys, I’m no Tom Cruise fan. Personally, I think the guy is off his rocker. I didn’t care for him when he robbed the world of a young vibrant Katie Holmes, and I certainly don’t care for his nutty embrace of Scientology. But… you can’t fault the guy as an action star. Tom Cruise’s performance here is not completely out of his wheelhouse, but he does provide a neat little twist at the beginning, where his character is made out to be a flat out weaselly coward. It can feel a little reminiscent of Sharlto Copeley’s Wikus, but Cruise does pull it off in a convincing manner. You can find a lot of fault with the guy in his personal life, but I didn’t think about any of that while watching Edge. When he turns it on, the guy does remind you why he’s one of the last remaining Hollywood action stars.

Emily Blunt. You wouldn’t think of her in this sort of action heroine role, just off the top of your head. Or at least, I didn’t. She doesn’t come immediately to mind when you’re asking for someone to play the next Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor. Yet that’s pretty much exactly what she did. Blunt’s Rita Vrataski is right up there with those indomitable women of action, thanks to her acting chops and uh, amazing yoga prowess? Boy, I could stare at that long, loving pushup shot of her, all toned and sweaty, all day. Tom Cruise’s last sci-fi flick Oblivion was majorly let down by a miscast love interest, in my opinion. Edge thankfully avoids that unfortunate mistake and gives us someone who fully deserves the nickname “Full Metal Bitch.” There aren’t too many kickass female action roles in general, so it’s especially nice to see that Blunt does full justice to hers.

Of the rest of the cast, Bill Paxton sticks out as an amazingly delightful platoon sergeant who probably represents what Hudson might’ve eventually become if he’d survived that unfortunate xenomorph incident on LV-426. The guy looks like he’s having a ton of fun and you can’t help but smile along with him, the Kentucky hardass with a shit-eating grin. The supporting cast of roughnecks, J-Squad, doesn’t make much of an impression and almost feels like set dressing. At least until the end, where they finally do reappear and we get to see them in action at last. I was waiting for that and it felt good that Cruise was finally able to relinquish a bit of screentime to the lowly grunts, courageously fighting with their admittedly non-superhuman abilities.

If there’s anyone that feels wasted in Edge, it’d have to be Brendan Gleeson, who plays the gruff and stubborn General of the allied invasion force. The problem here is that they apparently told him to way underplay his role, to the point where he lacks any real energy and feels completely flat and insubstantial. The reason we love watching Brendan Gleeson act is because he always exudes this lively, cantankerous attitude… a sort of larger than life screen presence. So to see that completely drained in favor of restraint on his part just seems to miss the point of casting him in the first place. He doesn’t do a bad job at all, and the part isn’t particularly noteworthy in how it’s written, but I still felt like they made a wrong choice with going in that direction.

Now, the one big criticism that I imagine most can level at Edge of Tomorrow is simply that it’s very derivative. That’s a striking similarity it shares with Cruise’s last sci-fi film, Oblivion. One of Oblivion’s key criticisms from reviewers was how it felt derivative of other films. And the same can be said of sections of Edge. There’s the movie’s opening, which shows Liman ripping off the opening to Saving Private Ryan about as blatantly as possible. There’s even a shot of a guy wandering around while on fire. Liman’s basically smacking you over the head with Omaha Beach sand at that point. Of course, the time travel loops are all reminiscent of Groundhog Day and Source Code, by necessity. Cruise’s role as an initially cowardly and contemptible desk jockey has strong parallels to District 9’s Wikus. The military exo-suits can’t help but remind you of the Mech suits in James Cameron’s Aliens and Avatar. And even a brief car chase through a parking garage evoked a sense of Liman’s past work in Bourne and Mr and Mrs Smith.

So yeah, that stuff is all there. But frankly, the movie is so damn fun and energetic and inviting that none of that really bothered or annoyed me. It definitely could have, if the movie had simply limped along and given you time to pause and notice. But the pace and humor work splendidly to carry you along on this great, well-oiled machine of a story. Sometimes, a movie is more than just the sum of its parts, and it can succeed on sheer quality of execution. I think “Predator” is a great 80s example of this. When Siskel and Ebert reviewed it, Roger Ebert acknowledged that it was basically Commando crossed with Aliens, but so what? At the end of the day, Commando crossed with Aliens made for a fantastic action flick. Edge of Tomorrow follows in the footsteps of that McTiernan classic.

Now, let’s talk about the “Jacket” exo-suits. When they were first unveiled in studio pics last year, they looked pretty damn clunky and awkward to me. And while the film does initially portray them that way, with soldiers doggedly trudging forward in a dense, mechanical cadence… you do get to see them used later on in some awe-inspiring, surprisingly balletic maneuvers when Cruise finally gets the hang of it after 100+ deaths. The evolution of his expertise and gradual leveling up, so to speak, is well communicated to the audience. And again, the video game parallels are easy to grasp, since a newb to a brand new game will often feel as if his control of the player character is clunky or awkward. How better to visually show that then to stick the main protagonist of your film into an actual clunky, awkward, heavy exo-suit? But later on, once you’ve mastered the controls of the game and grown confident in your own death-dealing abilities, the player avatar starts to feel like a second skin and your button presses and aiming maneuvers feel synchronized and natural. That’s exactly what Cruise and Blunt show off once we get far enough into the film and you do get wonderful eyefuls of the exo-suits at their full potential.

I was surprised they didn’t have some sort of neuro-link for the pilots to interface with, in order to control the two over-the-shoulder cannons. Something along the lines of the neuro-links you see in shows like Exo-Squad, for example. It seems a little hard to believe that a soldier would be able to aim both the arm weapons and the shoulder cannons from one joystick/pad on the right hand. Though honestly, I do think the most unbelievably aspect of the entire movie has to be the fact that in this war torn future, we still decide to fight our battles against monstrously large, armored alien beasts with… 5.56mm ammo. This seems incredibly silly to me, considering that 5.56mm has been complained about in the past as lacking sufficient stopping power to kill humans in battlefield conditions. And yet they still use this for fighting off giant, insanely quick monsters from space? C’mon. Considering the exceptional strength granted by these new exo-suits, I would’ve thought they’d want to mount .50 cal machine guns or something. With 5.56mm, well… I think I can kinda see why the human race has been losing this war.

Liman consistently delivers great action scenes throughout the movie. And not just the pure action setpieces themselves, either. The whole setup… building up to the action scenes is also legitimately thrilling and perfectly executed. A slow, long, loving camera shot of an enormous metallic sword, before being picked up by a practiced, confident, armored hand. Shots of giant metallic boots stomping in unison against the tarmac. A close-up of grim, paint-chipped skullheads on ominous heavy helmets. These are all action movie basics that are often forgotten by fresh-faced directors today, yet add so much when correctly shot. The anticipation of the action is often just as magical and mesmerizing as the action itself, and Liman has been around the block long enough to know how to carefully facilitate this process as effectively as possible.

The alien designs were new and imaginative for me, and actually brought something new to the table. Memorable alien designs are hard to come by these days, and the most enduring ones are still the Xenomorph and the Predator, both from the 80s. These aliens were legitimately surprising and threatening in appearance. About the only thing I could think of to compare them to might be the aliens in Crysis. Though even so… these aliens actually warped around the battlefield in a dizzying manner. Initially, you’re simply witnessing the human forces suited up in their big bulky robot suits and wondering how the aliens can possibly withstand this militarized metal juggernaut. But once you catch sight of them in their spectacular entrance during the Omaha Beach scene, you quickly realize why humanity is on the losing end of this five year long war. The sheer speed and ferocity of these monstrous alien drones is dazzling and overwhelming to the eye, and utterly outmatch the ordinary soldiers in their slow, clunky robot suits. The way they seemed to warp around the battlefield was also a nice touch that evoked video game memories, at least for me. Back when I used to play multiplayer Rainbow Six on a 56k modem, players would often seem to warp around the level, which made for an annoying target to kill in a firefight. I’m not sure if that was intended to be a video game reference or just a nice sinister attribute for the movie’s antagonists, but either way it makes for a cool visual effect.

[SPOILER]The stakes are upped once we get to the final action sequence, because he can’t reset. It felt so much more intense and dangerous since we know these people are in real danger and only have one life left. I was reminded of Inception, once you finally learn that dying in the dream will send you down to Limbo, instead of simply waking you up. Suddenly, the safeguards were all thrown away and we were out in uncharted territory, without any backup. It was the “Shit just got real” moment of the movie. And here, the loss of the alien blood worked just as well. You’re right on the Edge… of your seat. Did I just do that? Boy, that’s a bad line. I’m a bad person. I’ll stop.

So yeah, they go and crash the troop transport right into the Louvre and get knocked down a bunch of concrete shafts. But hey… they’re actually okay. They’ve made it this far. Cruise brushes himself off, grabs his shotgun, and grimly declares “We’ve been through worse.” That right there is one of the great cheer-worthy moments of the movie, for me. It so simply and aptly summarizes the trials and tribulations that they’ve been through to reach this point, and acknowledges the way they’ve both honed their minds and bodies through a lifetime of retries, for this one final chance to defeat the alien invasion. In video game terms, you might say they’ve both leveled up high enough in order to face that ultimate boss. In another lesser movie, that line might not hold any real resonance, but after what we’ve been through with these two characters in the last hour and a half… it feels earned.

Okay, so let’s talk about the kiss at the end. I’ll be honest, I mentally screamed “No!” when they actually went for the kiss at the end there. I was angrily wondering why they went for that, when the entire movie as a whole had done such a good job of letting them form a connection through the loops without establishing a traditional Hollywood romance. I mean, it wouldn’t make sense to deliver a love story while in this war torn hell, where they’re fighting for their lives and trying to save the human race from extinction. Oh, and also dying over and over again. In the midst of all this chaos, there’s not much room for love. So that kiss at the end felt like a retreat from what most of the movie had established. I couldn’t help but think back to Pacific Rim and how Del Toro deliberately kept Raleigh and Mako from kissing at the end because it wouldn’t have been right, and wished Liman had had the good sense and restraint to make the same decision here.

But then I thought about it some more, and my mind changed. Given the situation they were in, where Rita had laid out the grim reality that they’re both probably going to die in the next five minutes… that kiss took on a completely different tone as a last human goodbye between soldiers who realize that death is imminent. So it wasn’t so much of a romantic kiss as much as a final exchange of weary camaraderie. A pure expression of humanity between comrades in arms, who are sacrificing themselves in service of humanity. When I mentally reframed the scene in this context, the kiss really didn’t bother me anymore, and it did feel justified and unobtrusive. Maybe not everybody will see it that way, but I think it’s at least a valid interpretation to ponder.

The happy ending. I’ve read a lot of people aren’t happy about the happy ending. And yeah, I can kinda understand why. It does feel like a little bit of a cheat. But I’ll be honest, it didn’t really bother me. The movie does visually explain it, with the Omega’s lifeblood completely enveloping Cruise’s dying body. I mean… if you were able to buy into the whole absurd notion of alien blood allowing a person to travel back one day in time in the first place, I don’t see how this new scenario is any more ridiculous or hard to buy into. Alien blood doing time stuff… it made sense to me heh. And when you really think about it… the happy ending seems rather de rigeur in this time travel subgenre. Groundhog Day, Source Code, Déjà Vu… they all have happy endings. Perhaps it would’ve been a refreshing change to see Edge break this tradition, but I felt fully satisfied with the ending we got. It made sense with what we were shown, and didn’t feel like a cheat in my eyes.[/SPOILER]

The movie knows exactly what it wants to be, but it doesn’t set out to be some low grade, mindless summer blockbuster. You can feel while watching that it legitimately wants to be an ambitious, satisfying sci-fi action flick with an emotional core that resonates with the audience, and it executes near flawlessly on that. As a finished product, it is a fine, fine example of something which ends up being so much more than the sum of its parts. And after having watched Godzilla recently, just let me indulge for a sec and say how happy I am to finally get a movie with some actual heart and humanity. To invest in and root for characters that aren’t just flimsy cardboard cutouts staring blankly. The contrast between the two films is astonishing and really makes one appreciate the carefully thought out direction and heartfelt dedication of Doug Liman.

I can’t think of a better movie this year.

8.8/10

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