We live in a society where a movie can rake in twenty-nine million dollars on its opening weekend in American theaters and still be declared an immediate failure. The new Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow was expensively constructed even by summer blockbuster standards, but it was bumped back to third place this past weekend by both the young-adult juggernaut that is The Fault in Our Stars and the ongoing smash Maleficent. Audiences are sticking to their standard demographic preferences and don’t much care that Tomorrow has the highest Tomatometer rating of the three.
The over-50 action/sci-fi veteran meets his match (or better!) in Emily Blunt, last seen being overlooked in Looper, but their pairing plus alien warfare weren’t enough of a draw in a slightly crowded field in theaters. I’m not feeling drawn to Disney’s Angelina Jolie Fairy Tale Masquerade, but when I was faced with choosing between the other two on Tuesday night, I decided to give the pricy-looking underdog some attention. (To be honest, I think I’d rather read the novel first before seeing Stars.)
Short version for the unfamiliar: Based on the 2004 light novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Tomorrow is James Cameron’s Aliens meets Groundhog Day. Cruise is a selfish, cowardly military PR flack named Cage who mouths off to the wrong officer and finds himself shanghaied into front-line service in Earth’s virtual D-Day against invaders nicknamed the Mimics. They bear no resemblance to the Guillermo Del Toro film, but their inky, slinky, whip-like nature reminds me of the Heartless from Kingdom Hearts, generously seasoned with bits from the original John Romita Jr. rendition of Ghost Rider’s old foe Blackheart.
Our would-be alien overlords have defeated humankind at nearly every turn for years and are on the verge of staging their victory march. An icky battlefield accident moments before Cage’s death reverses time for a day and gives him the chance to do it all over again, hopefully without the flailing and screaming and dying and fumbling with the weapons he was never trained to use. Between his recurring paradox and the assistance of Blunt’s experienced soldier Rita, who knows exactly what he’s going through, the two of them represent Earth’s last hope for survival. The only catch is it may take them a few thousand tries. Luckily for Cage his life has turned into a third-person shooter with vivid graphics and infinite lives, as long as he doesn’t cross a Point of No Return.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Cruise is sent to his doom by Brendan Gleeson, a.k.a. Mad-Eye Moody from the Harry Potter series. Bill Paxton is the Kentucky sergeant-major tasked with making his life at one-night boot camp miserable before sending him off to his untimely demise. Later in the film, Noah Taylor, a.k.a. Teen Shiny McShine from Shine, steps in as the requisite hero scientist with vital plot-saving gizmos.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? The Moral of the Story is copied-‘n’-pasted from Groundhog Day. In all of Cage’s attempted variations, he plays furthest into the game each time when he’s at his most honest, selfless, and considerate of the lives and talents of others. The angrier or more depressed he gets, the sooner he’s killed and sent back to the save point. Like Bill Murray, he learns to be a better person. Unlike Bill Murray, Cage’s motivation is six billion human lives, not the love of Andie MacDowell and fear of the Punxsutawney lifestyle.
Naturally there’s a point where Cage heads down that romantic road and starts getting all doe-eyed and banter-y with Rita, but she doesn’t need that narrative at the moment and shuts him down. In fact, some of his deaths are at her hands, for the sake of resetting the clock and moving on to their next high-stakes run-through. Over time they take turns saving each other and finding shortcuts to bypass the daily meet-cute.
Nitpicking? As with Groundhog Day, I was sad when Cage inevitably passed the Point of No Return, because it signaled the end of so much dark-humored fun and set Our Heroes on a somewhat more traditional course of sci-fi action. Not that the final act is boring by any means, but we lose surprise and inventiveness once we pass that checkpoint. That complaint goes double for the ending, which I suspect was ghost-written by a Hollywood focus group.
So did I like it or not? The film’s central setting is a future version of Saving Private Ryan, where the battlefield is nonstop pandemonium in all directions at all times, combatants dying as much from accidental collisions (on the ground or in midair) as they do from weapons fire or monster damage. It’s to the credit of director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) that all the busyness and the focus on Our Heroes is involving enough (or maybe just distracting enough) to stave off the dull sensation of live-extras-vs.-CG-extras that’s marred too many of today’s blockbusters. The war against the Mimics is scary and intense and disorienting and electric. For that alone I’d give it high popcorn-flick marks.
Better still: I finally got the Groundhog Day sequel I never expected. Other fans can keep petitioning Hollywood for a disappointing Ghostbusters 3 all they want. Despite Pete Venkman’s celebrated snotty charm and irreverent heroism, I’ve always identified more with Bill Murray as Phil Connors, the weatherman who’s given himself a lot of wrong ideas about life but, when forced to confront his issues and given all the time in the world to rethink his life, eventually recalculates everything and comes around. Tom Cruise takes the same journey as Phil in his own carefully cultivated style as he spends the course of a single, perpetually rerun day learning how to transform from a smug, vainglorious weasel into the hero Earth needs.
Until competence sets in, Cruise haters can delight in watching his agonizing learning curve as he’s beaten, shot, drowned, blown up, bludgeoned, batted, stabbed, eaten, pummeled and murdered again and again and again and again and again, more times here than in all his previous movies combined, hindered only by the PG-13 rating. There’s no shortage of laughs at his expense.
Meanwhile, as the masterful soldier’s soldier who becomes his mentor and ally, Emily Blunt holds her own and frequently surpasses him. In a better world and with the slightest rewrite, this would be her film to headline. I’ve noticed other viewers likening her to Sigourney Weaver in the Alien series, but forcing comparisons between the two and judging who’s the Greatest Sci-Fi Heroine of All Times is unfair to both of them. Each of them has their own mannerisms and motivations, and their commonalities are superficial or environmental. The fact that everyone’s quick to draw lines between the two isn’t because they’re two peas in a pod; it’s because they’re a pair of needles in a haystack.
All things considered, Edge of Tomorrow earns flagrantly subjective kudos for reminding me of all the best parts of a lot of favorite films, reconstructed into a thoughtful new shape all its own, topped with a performance that I hope earns Emily Blunt her fast-pass to the A-list, despite the pundits’ worrisome fixation on box office math.
Did I mention it’s neither a reboot nor a sequel? Let’s celebrate that for a few more minutes, too, if we may.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Edge of Tomorrow end credits, though I noticed one of the costumers was a fellow named Steve Kill. When the producers decided All You Need is Kill shouldn’t be the movie’s title, I imagine no one was more disappointed than poor Mr. Kill.