Let’s talk about Tom Cruise. Do you like him? A lot of people don’t. Well, if box office is any indication people used to like him a whole lot, but his stock seems to have fallen precipitously in the last ten years or so. At least some of his lack of popularity probably does have at least a little bit to do with some of his erratic public behavior a while back and his vocal adherence to scientology. I never got on board with that backlash, I’ve continued to enjoy movies made by people who have done much worse things than jump on Oprah’s sofa, and frankly I think that most people would have gotten over that a long time ago if they had been given a reason to. No, Cruise’s problems of late go a lot deeper than either him or his movies; it’s rooted in a larger trend away from star driven movies and toward franchise driven tentpoles. It’s no coincidence that his last real box office triumph was Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which is part of the one franchise in his otherwise sequel-averse career. Cruise’s desire to avoid the sequels, prequels, side-quels, and reboots of modern Hollywood would seem to be admirable, but unfortunately the original blockbusters that he’s lent his name to have often been lackluster affairs like Valkarie, Knight & Day, and Oblivion. His latest film, Edge of Tomorrow may well be his last chance to bring the star-driven-blockbuster-sci-fi movie thing work, so a lot is on the line.
Edge of Tomorrow is ostensibly based on a Japanese novel called “All You Need is Kill” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, but it might be more descriptive to say it’s a cross between Starship Troopers and Groundhog Day. The film is set in the future after humanity have been at war with an alien race called The Mimics for years and it looks like they may finally have a shot to win the war with one final push after having contained them in Europe. On the eve of this decisive battle a military PR man named Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is placed on the front lines over his own serious objections. When the battle finally starts the whole army finds that the enemy is much tougher than they expected and they’re quickly overwhelmed. Cage doesn’t fight very well but his is able to kill a big blue mimic before he’s killed. And then he suddenly wakes up 24 hours earlier. He has a full memory of his death on the battlefield, but it hasn’t happened yet and he suddenly finds himself reliving the day over again, and over again, and over again. He has no idea what he’s going through until he runs into a legendarily brave soldier on the field named Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) who recognizes Cage’s inexplicable knowledge of the battlefield and somehow knows to tell him to find her and talk to her “the next time he wakes up.”
Though it does eventually recover, Edge of Tomorrow gets off to a really rough start. In fact I might go so far as to call the first thirty minutes or so of the movie downright moronic. For the film to work as planned screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth had to contrive some reason for an untrained soldier to be on the battlefield during a decisive battle. The solution they came to was to make Cage a cowardly non-combat officer who is ordered to go to the battle for no specified reason, and after protesting and attempting to blackmail his way out of the battle is put in handcuffs and handed over to a commanding officer who believes him to be a deserter and compulsive liar who was never an officer to begin with. This plan somehow works even though it had just minutes earlier been established that the character had been a well-known PR man for the army who had been on numerous television interviews. Why no one on the base seems to recognize form these TV appearances is never explained, and given the looping nature of time in the movie we have to keep on coming back to this contrived beginning over and over again. In the real world deserters aren’t forced back to the front lines, they’re court-martialed, and for good reason because the last thing you want on the front lines during a critical battle is an untrustworthy fool (especially one with no combat training) who could easily get someone killed through cowardice or incompetence.
There are other problems here as well, mainly Tom Cruise. Cruise was a very reliable movie star for a while, but I think he’s been in something of a rut lately. He still desperately wants to be the likeable and energetic movie star who can carry a movie on sheer charisma, but I think that might work against him here. His character is supposed to be something of a weasel at the beginning of the movie and evolve over the course of his ordeal, but Cruise is never quite able to convey that arc and plays most of the movie at his usual action star register. I also question director Doug Liman’s qualifications to be making a science fiction epic. Liman is certainly a capable director and he did a great job of launching the Bourne series, but his isn’t a master of special effects and not really an auteur for that matter. He gives the film a relatively bland look, at least by the standards of modern Hollywood, and he peppers the film with some moments of levity that just aren’t as funny as he probably thinks they are.
So, this movie has a whole lot stacked against it, but once it finally gets over the hump it actually does start to work. We’ve obviously seen the “live the same day over” thing before in movies like Groundhog Day, Source Code, and various stunt episodes of TV shows but there is still novelty value to it and this one plays with the idea in some particularly amusing ways and incorporates some very sharp editing. I also really love what Emily Blunt is doing in the movie in her role as a haunted but still badass soldier who carries around a sword. The whole movie reminded me a lot of this anime series I used to watch called Blue Gender, which also had a tough as nails soldier escorting a slightly clueless man through a post-apocalyptic warzone. Toward the end you really do begin to feel how all these futile attempts to save the world have started to wear on these characters (maybe a little too much in the case of the Emily Blunt character, who isn’t supposed to remember each new day) and there are moments that feel genuinely affecting. It’s when the movie is doing cool stuff like that that I really wanted to support it, but then I’d remember that idiotic set-up and some of the other flaws and kind of cringe a little. Ultimately this is an effective blockbuster that’s easy to recommend to someone looking for a momentary diversion, but it’s not one that I think will stay with anyone for long.
*** out of Four