As with Oblivion, the last “Tom Cruise in the future” blockbuster, The Edge of Tomorrow feels like a gigantic big-budget episode of The Outer Limits. It’s low on character and high in concept. The film moves fast enough to gloss over the assorted problems that come with a typical time travel narrative. The script is witty enough to keep the audience engaged, and Tom Cruise is solid enough leading man to hold it all together.
The Edge of Tomorrow is wonderfully enjoyable high-concept thrill ride, and one of the stronger offerings of the summer so far.
There are logical problems. Of course, there are logical problems with any movie involving time travel that isn’t Primer. One has to wonder how the logic of all this holds together, and it seems massively convenient that the rules of time travel work in just the way that they do, and that our protagonists understand them so clearly. In particular, the movie’s ending relies a pretty arbitrary twist that seems to exist purely so the movie can get its desired closing sequence.
Still, this is par for the course. These problems exist in the vast majority of time travel stories, and suspension of disbelief is required here. The Edge of Tomorrow doesn’t hesitate and wisely opts to assume that the audience is along for the ride. Once it has explained the basic premise – a soldier trapped living the same day over and over again – it proceeds to take that logic as granted and play with the possibilities stemming from that starting point.
The confidence with which The Edge of Tomorrow embraces its high concept is thrilling. While all manner of comparisons invite themselves – it’s Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers! it’s Source Code by way of Saving Private Ryan! – the manages to find its own unique voice quickly enough. The Edge of Tomorrow wisely decides to avoid too much time travel jargon and metaphysical pondering. Instead, it seizes a central metaphor and runs with it: this is video-game movie-making.
The term “video game” is often applied pejoratively to film – usually to dismiss rudimentary plotting or excessive computer-generated imagery. (I will concede that I have been guilty of it on occasion.) However, this glosses over the reality that video games are their own medium with their own narrative techniques and conventions. What is interesting about The Edge of Tomorrow is that it plays with these conventions, applying them knowingly to the screen.
Our hero refers to the experience of restarting the day as the process of being “reset”, invoking the logic computer games. In many respects, it is like we are watching a talented gamer trying to complete a tough level, constantly dying and getting sent back to the start point. The story logic hasn’t changed, the character doesn’t keep any of his accomplishments; however, the player does have the advantage of memory. They can play through again, familiarised with the beats in the code and maybe getting a bit further.
(Of course, video game fans will recognise quite a few video games that have incorporated this technical conceit into their stories. Most obviously, the underrated-at-the-time-but-currently-getting-critically-reappraised Zelda game Majora’s Mask employs a similar technique – forcing the player to relive the same day over and over again, sending them back to start new quests and new avenues on various resets.)
The film plays with this idea. When our hero jumps back after the first few failed attempts, he tries to do a “speedrun” to get through the expositional opening sequence. There’s an argument that his survival becomes more predicated on pattern-recognition than on skill, suggesting that timing is more important than instinct or innovation. Our hero keeps trying until he gets it right, getting a little further each time. At one point, facing a challenge, his colleague asks what to do next. “I’ve never gotten this far,” he admits.
At certain points, he goes through the motions as if quoting from a walkthrough – there’s no spontaneity to repeating the learned patterns. During one sequence, he tries to avoid various personnel at military headquarters in White Chapel, where it key is knowing how to move in time with their own movements and field of vision. Even his game parameters reflect video game objectives. Our hero isn’t playing to reach the end of the story, he is playing to reach the end and satisfy a particular set of conditions. If those conditions aren’t met, he resets and tries again. (Indeed, one of those conditions is the survival of an NPC.)
There’s something quite enjoyable about this. The script to The Edge of Tomorrow isn’t the most nuanced or sophisticated character study ever produced, but it is very self-aware. It accepts that the movie’s basic premise minimises storytelling suspense, and so plays with that idea. The notion of “resetting” is never treated as some sort of gut-wrenching body horror, it’s something that is done as casually as flicking a switch on a games console. Broken leg? Might as well reset. Time limit running out? Let’s start over. Compromised secondary objective? Once more from the top, please.
It helps that The Edge of Tomorrow is big on its iconography. In every way that counts, the movie feels like World-War-II-wrapped-in-a-thin-science-fiction-metaphor. “Operation: Downfall” serves as a contrast to Operation: Overlord. The movie’s alien horde started in Germany and expanded both east and west. Much like the popular depiction of the Second World War, there’s no ambiguity here. Our heroes are fighting for the future of mankind against an anonymous genocidal horde that has been stopped at the English Channel. The officer overseeing the launch is even contemplating “a career in politics” after the fact.
It’s a clever of tying back into the broad themes of the movie. History repeats itself, and narratives tend to recur. After all, this isn’t a mirror held up to the realities of the Second World War. Instead, The Edge of Tomorrow is playing out its own version of the popular historical narrative of the Second World War; it is effectively repeating a familiar story. When the movie’s “beachhead” sequence replays D-Day but with aliens, it does so by playing on the iconography of Saving Private Ryan. Even the movie’s opening expositional sequence is layered with characters repeating dialogue and phrases, history repeating even without a time travel.
Outside of these rather clever hooks, The Edge of Tomorrow is very much a familiar action film. We have a fairly generic hero who finds that the fate of the world rests on his shoulders. We have hints of romance. We have an unwinnable conflict. We have chaos and action and set pieces and a very clear structure around these elements. However, even if you stripped away all the fascinating stylistic elements, The Edge of Tomorrow is still a well-produced action film.
There is a reason that Tom Cruise endures as a leading man. Our protagonist is given a fairly standard character arc – snivelling PR coward to war hero – but Cruise does an excellent job selling it. Cruise is charming and effective, perfectly capable of giving the science-fiction gimmick at the heart of The Edge of Tomorrow a human face. He’s ably assisted by the always reliable Emily Blunt, and wonderfully gruff supporting performance from Bill Paxton as the obligatory grumpy drill sergeant.
Doug Liman’s direction keeps things moving along, handling the action sequences with particular flair, pacing the “play through” repeat sequences in such a manner that they never seem overbearing. Despite all the time travel logic at play, Liman and his script writers keep everything finely balanced and easy to follow, no mean accomplishment. The production design and the concept of the evil alien “mimics” is another well-constructed detail of the over-all film, this idea of a single planet-consuming horror from outer-space a familiar science-fiction trope handled well in the context of the larger film.
That said, the film’s last act does suffer a bit as the script tries to address the storytelling problems that come with a concept like the “reset.” After all, the fact that the hero can just die and start all over again does tend to make it difficult to build tension and suspense. The script compensates in its last half-hour, but that does mean moving away from the core premise just a little bit – the movie becomes a much more standard action piece in its last thirty or so minutes. Then again, it’s a perfectly understandable and justifiable storytelling choice.
The Edge of Tomorrow is enjoyable high-concept pulpy storytelling. While hardly unpredictable and not necessarily profound, it is an enjoyable science-fiction blockbuster with a catchy central hook, some very talented execution, and a wry sense of self-awareness.