Movie Review: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
At first I thought: “Oh, they’re doing ‘Groundhog Day.” Then I thought: “Oh, it’s like a video game.” At the end I realized: “It’s like a movie. But not because it is a movie.”
More on that later.
First, why it’s like “Groundhog Dog” but not as good as “Groundhog Day.”
“Groundhog Day,” co-written and directed by Harold Ramis, took a shallow weatherman, Phil (Bill Murray), and forced him to live the same lousy day over and over until he became a decent person. It’s about the growth of the soul. It’s funny and inventive.
“Edge of Tomorrow,” directed by Doug Liman, takes a shallow PR exec, Cage (Tom Cruise), and forces him to live the same lousy day over and over—the day he dies, actually—until he becomes such an expert soldier that he saves not only himself but all of humanity from an alien attack. It’s often funny and inventive. But it’s less about the growth of the soul than about getting good enough at soldiering (leaping and dodging and shooting) to make it to the next level.
Which is why it’s like a video game. You play until you die and then you start over again.
For some people—gamers, hipsters, folks trying to monetize the popularity of video games into the movie business—this is a plus. Not me. I got bored. Tom Cruise is the avatar, Liman and company are making him jump and dodge and shoot, and I’m just sitting there. Hey, watch out for the ...! Right. GAME OVER. Reboot.
As the movie starts, we get news reports of a meteor landing in Germany. It turns out to be an alien attack. These aliens are like sand worms mixed with the Tasmanian Devil, and they spread out from Germany, even as the United Defense Force, under the command of Gen. Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), readies a counterattack from Britain called “Operation Downfall.” So it’s basically a sci-fi version of World War II. It’s sci-fi Normandy. Because that’s cool? Because that’s the only way we can comprehend it? Because the filmmakers are lazy?
We first see Maj. Cage on cable news, promoting the “Angel of Verdun,” Rita (Emily Blunt), a super-soldier who stopped the alien attack in northern France. “We fight,” he tells the camera with authority. “That’s what we do.”
Well, he doesn’t. Gen. Brigham wants Cage to film “Operation Downfall” but Cage wants no part of it. “I’m not a soldier, really,” he says. “I can’t stand the sight of blood.” Brigham doesn’t take no for an answer. So Cage tries to blackmail him. For that he’s arrested, tased, and wakes up on some duffel bags at Heathrow airport. “On your feet, Maggot!” a sergeant yells at him. This will be the reboot point for the rest of the movie. The START OVER point.
It’s a nightmare point for Cage. He’s been busted to private and assigned to combat in J Squad, none of whom like him particularly. Why should they? Suddenly they’re fighting next to a guy who can’t fight. Why would the general even do that? Doesn’t he like J Squad? And why doesn’t anyone recognize him from TV?
In an inspired bit of casting, the Master Sergeant for J Squad is Bill Paxton, the original “Game Over” dude, who gets off some good lines. Asked if he’s American, he replies, “No, sir, I’m from Kentucky.” Before the mission, he tells Cage, in words that echo, “Tomorrow, you will be baptized. Born again!”
The invasion, of course, is a trap, the soldiers are slaughtered, Cage dies. Ah, but because in his panic he kills an “Alpha,” an alien that can reset time, and its blood mixes with his, he develops this ability. For a while he doesn’t know it. For a while, he’s merely experiencing a massive sense of déjà vu. But eventually, in the third or fourth incarnation, the Angel of Verdun herself tells him what’s going on. She had that ability for a while. Thus Verdun. “An enemy that knows the future can’t lose,” she says. Now Cage has that ability. So what will he do with it?
(BTW: For a race that can know the future, they do an awful job of keeping this ability out of the hands—or the blood—of the enemy, don’t they? And isn’t that a fairly easy security breach? “We’ll be fine in this war as long as no one bleeds on anyone.”)
Here’s what Cage does with the ability to reset time. He trains and trains and trains. He goes from PR flak to supersoldier. Then he has to make it off the beach and into the countryside. Then he and Rita have to leave this farmhouse and attack this mountain. Then ...
Right. Different levels.
The end game is the Omega, the aliens’ “hive mind.” But the Omega isn’t in the equivalent of Berchtesgaden, as originally thought; that was a ruse. It’s under the Louvre, man. So that becomes the fight. Except in one iteration, Cage isn’t killed but merely wounded. And he’s given a blood transfusion. And there goes his power to reset time.
A quick aside. Years ago, I tested video games for Microsoft PCs and Xbox; and one night we were testing, I believe, “Midtown Madness,” a car racing game, and we went late, 2 or 3 a.m., after which I drove home. And it was odd. I had to remind myself, “Oh, this is real.” I’d been crashing and dying and rebooting without consequence for so long that I had to consciously remind myself that life had consequences.
It would’ve been nice if Cage, after losing his reboot abilities, had had a similar epiphany.
Instead, he and Rita and J Squad simply team up to attack the Omega, and they all die in the process. Including Cage. But then—because he killed the hive mind?—he’s reborn earlier than at his reboot point, before his encounter with Gen. Brigham, who informs him that the aliens have died off on their own. He did it, Cage did it, but no one knows. Except him. And us. Hoorah.
We've seen this hero before
So here’s why this movie is like a movie. And why it’s disappointing in that regard.
In the beginning, Cruise’s character, Cage, is somewhat shallow and cowardly. He doesn’t have special abilities. He’s like us entering the darkened theater with our tub of popcorn. Then as the movie progresses he becomes the wish-fulfillment fantasy, just as we, munching our popcorn in the dark, transfer ourselves into this heroic character on screen.
The process that Cage goes through in the movie is the process we all go through watching movies.
And that’s why I was ultimately disappointed. The shallow, fearful Cruise at the beginning? He was refreshing. The hero he became? We’ve seen that guy a thousand times.