Apocalypse now (and again and again and again): Time loops, action and drama mount in the science fiction/action hybrid ‘Edge of Tomorrow’

June 26, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
June 26, 2014

Author’s note: This post originally indicated that the novel on which Edge of Tomorrow is based was first published in 2009. However, that was the year that the first English-language edition of the book appeared; in July 2015, I changed the post to show the year of the book’s actual debut, which was 2004. MEM 

Edge of Tomorrow is an action-packed science-fiction movie that could be remembered as a classic of its kind.

The elevator pitch for Edge of Tomorrow is basically Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers, only it’s far better than either of those predecessors. I rather dislike Groundhog Day, but its premise closely tracks Edge’s.

The man at the center of the action is one Maj. William Cage (American superstar Tom Cruise, looking much younger than his 51 years), a public-relations specialist. In the not-too-distant future, Cage is suddenly drafted into what is supposed to be a surprise counterattack against the murderous aliens who have colonized most of Europe. The operation is a complete disaster, but humanity gets a stroke of luck: The bumbling Cage comes face to face with a special variety of one of the aliens and is able to kill it.

In doing so, Cage co-opts the alien’s power to warp time — that is, to reset the day. Every time he dies, he finds himself shunted back to a moment before the operation starts, which gives him a chance to try different tactics in the battle against the alien species, called mimics. (If the movie ever explained why the invaders have that name, I missed it.)

Cage’s efforts to turn the tide of battle seem hopeless at first, but then he gains an ally: the beautiful, charismatic and deadly Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a ruthless soldier whose heroic efforts spearheaded the first successful counterattack against the mimics. She’s uniquely suited to help Cage, not just because of her proficiency at killing but because she previously possessed the time-bending power.

In theory, the task ahead of Cage and Vrataski is simple enough: Kill the head mimic — a sort of combination brain and power source — and win the war. Day by day, aborted life by aborted life, Vrataski trains Cage in the use of the armed mechanical exoskeletons that enhance the strength and firepower of the human soldiers. The duo also painstakingly plots, through deadly trial and error, the best way to escape the charnel beach of Normandy and make their way toward the secluded installation that the mimics’ giant leader has made into its command bunker.

The time-warping power gives the heroes a tremendous advantage, because they can learn from their mistakes. (Rather, Cage can learn from their mistakes and report the knowledge to Vrataski, shortly after he introduces himself to her for the umpteenth time.) But as deaths repeat themselves over and over again, despair begins to set in for Cage.

Director Doug Liman and writers Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth go about their business with efficiency and gusto. The action is superb, the dialogue crisp, the forays into humor successful. Character is decidedly secondary in this movie, but when the story pauses to develop the interplay between Cage and Vrataski, it works. The fact that Cage begins the movie as a decidedly unheroic figure helps keep things interesting.

The plot of Edge of Tomorrow plays like a video game, and the filmmakers are unafraid to toy with the conventions. Some of the movie’s mystery comes during a handful sequences when we (and Vrataski) don’t know whether or not Cage has previously attempted this string of actions. Repetition is a factor in most time travel movies; Edge does a good job in rerunning some scenes without doing it so often as to induce boredom.

There’s also a sly wink or two to the viewer; when the characters infiltrate a military headquarters at Whitehall in London, for example, the sequence briefly echoes one of the Mission: Impossible adventure films that also starred Cruise. One key difference between this movie and the Mission: Impossible series is that here, when the heroes recover the special gadget they seek, neither really knows what to do with it. (Another is that the female lead is more dynamic and decisive than Cruise’s character.)

This movie is based on the 2004 book All You Need is Kill by the Japanese author Hiroshi Sakurazaka; I may well seek it out. That’s exactly what science fiction and action movie aficionados should do with Edge of Tomorrow. It’s got a freshness and dynamism similar to that of other genre classics, such as Aliens. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if in the future the two movies are frequently mentioned in the same breath.

One Response to “Apocalypse now (and again and again and again): Time loops, action and drama mount in the science fiction/action hybrid ‘Edge of Tomorrow’”

  1. Well written review Matthew! Makes me actually want to see the film, even though it’s not my type at all!

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