As a general rule, movies based on video games are terrible. Beyond that, they also tend to fail at recreating the experience of playing the games they're based on. I've played my share of Lara Croft games, and Tomb Raider hardly resembles any of them. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within had its moments, but it certainly didn't feel like any Final Fantasy title I've ever encountered. I hesitate to even mention the fog machine-enhanced nightmare that is Super Mario Bros. That movie feels like a lot of different things, but a Super Mario Bros. game isn't one of them. As such, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw Doug Liman's Edge of Tomorrow, a movie that actually manages to capture what playing a video game feels like (never mind the fact that it isn't actually based on a game).
In the near future, the world has been overtaken by alien creatures known as “Mimics.” Humanity has set aside many of its geopolitical concerns and joined forces under the banner of the United Defense Force for the sake of combating these ferocious creatures. The UDF leader is General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges), a stern, no-nonsense man who believes that brute force is the best way to combat the alien threat. Still, there are other angles of the war that need to be covered, so Brigham assigns Major William Cage – a P.R. expert with no combat experience – to head to the front lines and take photos of intense battle on the beaches of France. Cage declines the assignment, and faces swift consequences for doing so: he's arrested, knocked unconscious and shipped off to France.
When Cage awakes, he discovers that his identity has been stolen. He's accused of being a deserter impersonating an officer, and is told that he'll be fighting on the front lines the next day. He attempts to explain his situation, but the hard-nosed Master Sergeant Farrell (Bill Paxton, Frailty) dismisses all of Cage's excuses as desperate lies. The next morning, the hapless Cage is thrust onto the battlefield, where he's quickly killed by an angry Mimic.
If Edge of Tomorrow were a video game, this would be the point where the player would see a screen with the following words:
Cage wakes up in the same time and place he had woken up the previous day: in France, where Master Sergeant Farrell is once again accusing him of being a deserter and delivering a colorfully-worded lecture. Everything plays out the exact same way it had before. Cage realizes he's being given a chance to do things differently; to learn from his mistakes and try again. Alas, he once again fails to survive the battle, and the whole process starts over. If Cage is going to to find a way out of this mess – and more importantly, if he's going to find a way to help win the war – he's going to have to do so inch by inch. With each new day, he makes a little more progress, finding his way past a difficult moment and finding yet another ferocious challenge to overcome.
As with many video games of yesteryear (and some of the more challenging video games of today), Edge of Tomorrow presents a scenario in which death and learning go hand in hand. Cage is forever taking two steps forward and one step back, beginning as a doomed novice and working his way toward becoming an unstoppable warrior. Cage's “reset” ability gives him the freedom for trial-and-error experimentation, which leads to many of the film's most amusing moments (suffice it to say that Cruise dies in colorful ways on more than a few occasions).
Cage isn't alone on this journey. He's accompanied by Sergeant Rita Rose Vrataski (Emily Blunt, Looper), an iconic badass featured on many of the UDF's recruitment posters. It seems that Rita cultivated her considerable battlefield abilities by taking advantage of the same strange condition Cage has. Alas, Rita lost her ability to reset the day before she was able to find a way to win the war, but she's able to use her knowledge to help Cage speed up his own learning process. Their relationship is one of the film's most complex and intriguing elements: he gets to know her a little bit better each day, but she's meeting him for the first time on each of those days. When he begins treat her with comfortable familiarity, she simultaneously finds his behavior baffling and begrudgingly acknowledges that she knows what he's going through.
For the majority of its running time, Edge of Tomorrow is largely the model of what a modern sci-fi blockbuster ought to be. It's smart, funny, exciting and filled to the brim with engaging ideas. The screenplay (based on the memorably-titled graphic novel All You Need is Kill) juggles a lot of narrative plates with surprising ease, and it's always nice when a film like this requires the audience to turn their brain on instead of off for maximum enjoyment.
The performances are solid. Cruise is refreshingly self-deprecating here, allowing himself to look completely out of his element for a sizable chunk of the film. It's fun to observe the way he slowly transitions from panic-stricken desperation to cocky swagger. Emily Blunt is equally strong, turning a part that might have been a conventionally one-note Strong Female Character into something complicated, engaging and human. Bill Paxton seems to be having a blast his role, dipping his lines in a thick Kentucky accent and expressing increasing befuddlement as Cage becomes more skilled with each repeat of the day. Brendan Gleeson is arguably a bit underused as General Brigham, but he makes the man effectively obtuse.
Disappointingly, things turn generic during the final conflict with the big bad alpha mother general boss monster, which may be an inevitability given the blandness of many “final boss” encounters in video game. If the earlier action sequences in the movie are the equivalent of thrilling, challenging stages that offer a lot of room for player experimentation, the climax is the equivalent of a lazily-constructed QTE. This is also the least compelling stretch of the movie from a visual perspective, making everything so dark and dim that it's sometimes difficult to determine what's happening, exactly (I'm reminded of the similarly underwhelming climax to Ang Lee's otherwise intriguing Hulk). It's disappointing to see the flick stumble at the last minute, but the third-act missteps aren't enough to discount the fact that this is a fun, inventive, original blockbuster which seems to have no interest in kickstarting a franchise. More popcorn movies along these lines, please.
Edge of Tomorrow
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Year: 2014