The trailers do the film a disservice, and not just because we barely see anything in them beyond the first half hour—The Edge of Tomorrow is decisively not The Twilight Zone meets Starship Troopers meets Groundhog Day. It’s very much its own animal, and one that’s relentlessly ambitious. It’s a genre busting opus, one part alien invasion, one part mecha fantasy, and one part time travel. Liman and his multiple screenwriters (Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth) refuse to settle, and the result is a visual sprawl that extends every bit as far as the complex story. Adapted from Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s light novel, All You Need Is Kill, the story follows Major William Cage, a military man by name only, and his mind-bending flight through time. More specifically, every time he dies, he wakes up exactly a day before. Same place, same time. The mechanics of the world slowly become clear, but The Edge of Tomorrow is in no rush. The centerpiece of the film is a D-Day like skirmish between the British military, which now uses gigantic exo-skeleton power suits that turn each soldier into a superweapon, and the alien force. We learn Emily Blunt’s famous special forces soldier Rita Vrataski is necessary for any kind of human victory, but the circumstances surrounding her character will not be spoiled here.
Instead of beginning the film with a bang and forcing us into the action prematurely, we have to wait. This is the first of many instances reminiscent of the classic action movie, where the audience is forced to experience the action through the tunnel vision of a protagonist. If Major William Cage isn’t called into action, neither are we. The film begins with a series of newsreel clips, detailing the exploits of the human-alien war with a sly smile that avoids the over-seriousness of recent blockbusters. The alien monsters are deliberately avoided in the opening newsreel montage—once again, we have to wait. We sit in suspense, and instead of contriving early action scenes, we meet the characters. For a film of this size, it’s impressive they’re all we need to get invested. Tom Cruise combines all aspects of his persona to play Cage, borrowing little bits of gold from each of his performances to deliver one of his glimmering best. He always plays an everyman, but here he plays a coward. He’s scared of battle—terrified—and we can’t blame him. I didn’t. I would be too.
Cruise plays vulnerability well, and his character’s development is told through the visual rather than incremental disruptions of exposition. Cruise’s physicality slowly evolves throughout, and he shows a level of subtlety rare in his catalogue of intense characters. It’s visual storytelling first, and dialogue second. We follow the action; it isn’t told to us. It’s just as well, since the speech from the script dances between unnatural and goofy. As Cage keeps dying and resetting his life to the same spot, he learns more about what’s happening to him, why, and what he has to do. It’s in Cage’s arc that the film finds its surest footing. The premise is perpetually expanding. Once you fall into a particular rhythm or routine, the film breaks the pattern, and by the time you get used to the new one, it does it again. Cage’s goals are in a constant state of reinvention. The film evolves past you, and it finds increasingly daring ways to upend audience expectations. One of them is humor, and it’s so well placed it’s as though the filmmakers have a pulse for when we might get bored.
More than anything, Liman understands pacing. He knows when to have an explosive action beat, when to skip time, and when let it linger. The result is a film that’s ceaseless in its movement and daring in its momentum. By the time the first act curtain hits, you’ll realize your palms tightened on the cinema seat, your heart was beating, and your breath was stolen away. There’s a word that defines The Edge of Tomorrow, and that word is exhilarating.
Without being specific, there is a love story that operates on similar principles to the one in Source Code. One character becomes ever more enamored with another, but only one has any memory of this happening. It’s important to mention that, like the rest of the film, a perfect balance is struck. It’s not given so much attention that it becomes a distraction, but it doesn’t have so little screentime that it becomes an afterthought. It’s a rare instance of movie romance where less is more, and that’s the perfect amount. This is very much in line with how the film develops the characters. The Edge of Tomorrow has a furious focus in how we come to know our heroes: the frenzied pacing is punctuated with moments of genuine humanity, and it gives the otherwise action-filled proceedings just enough of a soul to mean something.
There’s an easy test to identify the strength of a story’s characters: summarize them without identifying what they look like and what they do. Godzilla didn’t pass, but this does. They aren’t characters we’ve never seen before, but we understand them enough to care. Cruise and Blunt have obvious chemistry that invigorates both of their characters. She’s fierce, and it takes seconds to believe she’s the most deadly character in the film. It isn’t merely the script positioning her that way; she carries a physicality of domination, and dominate the screen she does.
It’s hard to call The Edge of Tomorrow old school when it’s full of the finest visual effects money can buy, but it certainly seems like the high concept sci-fi of the 70s and 80s. Just as Captain America: The Winter Soldier cast Robert Redford to recall the 70s paranoia thriller, Aliens (1986) veteran Bill Paxton was cast as a snarky general to recollect the birth of intelligent and gritty science fiction. Even the characters are reminiscent of the action heroes of the 80s and 90s. Cage is simple enough to be an everyman, but complex enough to be interesting. It’s as though a long lost screenplay from 1983 was produced 20 years later and on a scale James Cameron and Ridley Scott could only dream of, giving a great idea and premise the opportunity to achieve the full breadth of its visual ideas. Chief among them is the design of the alien creatures, which, to my amazement, have been kept completely out of the marketing. They are nothing short of fascinating, and follow the laws of great science fiction: they aren’t beholden to a standard humanoid form since, if they’re from another planet, why would they? Their design is terrifying: imagine a thousand convulsing metallic snakes in the form of an abstracted lion, with a giant glowing head. Alien creatures are typically forced into one of a few pre-set designs, but seeing an alien creature of such visual virtuosity is something science fiction fans have been wanting to see in film for a long time, and I’m among them. More productions should pursue the path that something new is easier to thrill audiences with than something old.
Liman’s direction is modest but able, and mixes by the books action photography with in-your-face cgi action shots that have a lot of muscle. Take for example a scene shown in most of the trailers where characters leap from a dropship on the battlefield. Tom Cruise’s descent to the war zone is captured in one chaotic shot, and it’s as dizzying as it is breathtaking. The spectacle is spectacular, not only in the edge-of-your-seat war scenes, but in how the action is creatively staged in each new location. The production design is marvelous and memorable, adding significantly to the believability of the world that becomes so important as the film rolls to its climax. There are flaws, but the film barrels past them at such velocity they’re all but forgotten. The time travel has holes, but what time travel story doesn’t? Nutty scientists (played with amusing kookiness by Ben Mendelsohn) are conspicuously placed to help out the heroes, but these few moments of contrivance are celebration of their genre. The philosophical possibilities of the premise are only flirted with, but this is a blockbuster that really works.