Kill Aliens. Rinse. Repeat.
“I’m not a soldier, really,” says Tom Cruise in the first scene of Edge of Tomorrow, director Doug Liman’s surprisingly complex sci-fi time-warp venture. It made me laugh out loud. His conceit eventually serves a narrative function- he’s a PR man, not a fighter- but this is a Tom Cruise movie. You can never take his dialogue seriously, especially a confession that disregards the majority of his movie resume. That’s because Tom Cruise plays Tom Cruise in movies. He might have different character names (this time it’s Bill Cage) but he brings with him the same expectations of intense staring, limited facial movements, perilous fighting, and tactical humor. He’s in the same class as Liam Neeson and Bruce Willis. You go to their movies to see them do what they always do. When their characters initially claim otherwise, they’re just delaying the inevitable.
The inevitable for American officer Bill Cage is storming Normandy on the front lines, which he desperately begs against to General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), leading troops in an apocalyptic Europe. The enemy is a squid-like life form known as Omega, the center of a nervous system that spawns “mimics,” spiderlike aliens killing the entire continent. Brigham is in charge of the United Defense Force, throwing soldiers hopelessly into a losing war, severely misguided about the strength of his opponent. Cage’s military ranking is disregarded and is shipped to a base camp where he wakes up to another officer (Bill Paxton) yelling orders and fighting philosophy. He’s thrown into a cell with a group of rough edges, preparing to invade the beach the next morning.
They arm themselves with full body weaponry- metal suits more advanced than what Matt Damon wore in Elysium– that Cage has no idea how to work. Helmets are included but Cage takes his off (because he’s Tom Cruise and paying for his movie means seeing his full head). Instead of wading by boat, soldiers drop down from aircrafts attached to bungee strings. The force is severely outnumbered. Bombs and fire and bullets create a chaotic backdrop for Cage to scramble around in confusion. In just minutes he meets a mimic and pulls a grenade. The explosion kills him, the alien’s blue juice mixing with his bloody body. He’s dead…until he wakes up gasping into yesterday at the base camp to a barking Bill Paxton…preparing to invade Normandy.
It’s a visceral opening stanza and Liman throws us right into the massacre. He has a knack for the first person, exhibited deftly in three dimensions when Cage free-falls out of the crashing hanger. You feel like you’re grasping onto a plummeting CGI county fair sky swing. Liman likes playing with subjectivity, inhabiting the viewer through his protagonist’s perspective. He did it in Swingers, directing empathy towards a Jon Favreau lost in nostalgic comatose. He did it better in The Bourne Identity, making Matt Damon’s amnesic state a surrogate for his audience, surprised with new information right along with Jason Bourne himself. There’s a puppeteer power in withholding narrative details and soon Liman toys with our omniscience. He turns this movie into the latest shaky cam Role Player Game.
And it wouldn’t be wrong to see Edge of Tomorrow as an elongated battlefield videogame. When Cage wakes up, he retains the memory of his death while everyone else stays on repeat. Soon enough he’s thrown off an airplane the next morning, stumbles, dies, and comes up for air at camp again. The only thing we don’t see is “Level 1: Restart.” Tom Cruise has become a militarily equipped Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. There’s a more detailed explanation of why life repeats for Cage, but Edge of Tomorrow generally resists the requirement of understanding its hamster wheel philosophy, unlike recent films Source Code and Looper.
At first Cage has fun filling in his soldiers’ sarcasm before they get a chance to throw their insults. But they don’t believe him, even as Nostradamus. Liman speeds up the editing to the point of comedy, efficiently cutting between Cage awaking, convincing, fighting, and soon enough sacrificing himself. One wrong move on the beach and he submits to doing it all over.
Death becomes a chore, but it also provides Liman, and screenwriters Chris McQuarrie and brothers Jezz and John-Henry Butterworth, with narrative creativity. That includes introducing Emily Blunt, a queen warrior named Rita, seen at first as propaganda and then in the flesh, slashing enemies in the outnumbered dunes. She quickly realizes Cage is trapped in a time loop, a condition she experienced and soon broke in battle at Verdun. Eventually the two start tag teaming in the field and scheming on their computerized maps, searching to destroy Omega. Every time Cage dies, he has the task of convincing Rita they know each other. She’s like an online security question Cage repetitively answers.
It’s nice to see Blunt on screen in a dominant position even as Cruise’s predictable trajectory into esteemed combatant takes shape. Rita is a futuristic Ripley, wearing dirt, sweat, and respect. She’s intimidating enough where she has her own security detail and warehouse to train, her own Robocop testing facility. “Full Metal Bitch” is sprayed in graffiti over her posters, which might be an insult or a realistic nickname. Like Sigourney Weaver was made hero in underpants, Liman noes not reject Blunt as a fetishized presence. There are the exploited angles of her femininity – which serve no larger purpose than to reaffirm her as a sexual being, an object of pleasure, even when all she delivers is pain. Cage’s condition means we see these things multiple times.
But Liman never patronizes her. Edge of Tomorrow’s romantic tension mostly yields to its narrative drama, engaging until its denouement becomes saturated with just noise and effects. It’s a mixology that’s hard to achieve and Liman holds out longer than most. He’s much more engaged in his duo: an unusually breezy but determined Cruise with a lovably astute Blunt. You feel their connection and then you see it, swapping fire in perfect tandem. It’s as though Liman took his plot’s thesis and applied it to his direction. The summer blockbuster doesn’t seem reinvented in his hands. Thankfully, it seems like he’s done this over and over again.