Too many blockbusters mistake moroseness for seriousness, often forgetting the key ingredient for a great summer movie: actual fun. Until now, this summer has been no different with its self-serious tentpole releases. Fortunately, director Doug Liman hasn’t forgotten how to craft real escapist entertainment, despite his last popcorn film Jumper suggesting otherwise. His latest, Edge of Tomorrow, is maybe his most accomplished work to date, a massive blockbuster with scale, heart, plenty of humor, and no shortage of coolness. This, ladies and gentleman, is what we call a summer blockbuster.
In the not too distant future, non-Earthlings invade Earth. After a series of devastating blows, new forms of weaponry like the mecha suits in the film are employed. The poster child for the war and the mecha suits is Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a great soldier who has earned the title “full metal bitch.” While she’s out there fighting the war in Europe, the wimpy Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is back home promoting it. Cage has never seen a day in combat, but that changes when a higher up played by Brendan Gleeson sees Cage for what he is. Gleeson’s character sends Cage to the front lines of an attack, which, of course, does not sit well with the Major.
His first few minutes on the battlefield don’t go so well: he dies. But as he does, a rare alien’s blood gets in his system, causing him to keep waking up before the slaughter has even happened. He lives again, dies again, lives again, dies again, and so on in a way that would make Phil Connors happy. Cage also discovers that another soldier has gone through the same hell. That soldier is Rita Vrataski. She takes full advantage of his power, in hopes to end the war.
This is all set up rather efficiently, including the world-building. The script does use talking heads on the news to explain what’s going on at the start of the film, but since the world is actually engaging, it’s done rather fast, and it’s Cruise and Gleeson doing the telling, so it’s not nearly as bothersome as it could be. It serves its purpose just fine before we get to the good stuff, including another aces, and ego-less, performance from Cruise.
Major William Cage will go to comical lengths to stay off the battlefield. He’ll bribe people or escape, to no avail. Not many tentpole movies begin with the hero running so fervently away from the fight, and that’s what makes Edge of Tomorrow immediately stand out from the herd. Most A-listers would demand a more conventionally heroic character from the start, but not Cruise. He plays up Cage’s cowardice whenever he gets the chance, to both great comedic and dramatic effect. It’s funny, but more than that, it coats the character in reasonable sympathy. This is a guy who recognizes his limitations. A warrior who knows he’ll die when his feet hit the ground. Cruise sells that fear, making Cage’s comical reluctance not too distancing.
Of course he’ll end up becoming a highly-skilled weapon in the film after Vrataski trains him every day, but Cruise never loses sight that he’s playing a genuine everyman. When Cage screams in the film, it’s a high-pitched warble instead of the typical action hero grunt. He becomes insanely heroic in the film, but it’s those small touches, like the decidedly non-manly scream, that make Cage a refreshingly different kind of hero. The true hero from the start is Vrataski, whose opening scene is just as memorable as Cage’s, proving her to be a no nonsense soldier who’s also vulnerable. The script, which Christopher McQuarrie worked on, gives her a beat in the opening battle that’s unexpected and conveys her strength while reminding us that she’s not invincible. Like Cage, she could die at any second in the fog of a chaotic war.
The first battle in the film is Saving Private Ryan with aliens. It’s a fantastic set piece. When Cage falls from a damaged plane, it’s captured with a photo-realistic long take that lets us take in the blinding impossibility of the situation. In a completely incoherent situation, Liman and his editor James Herbert find coherence. There’s a clear sense of setting, space, and personal geography, and the film maintains that level of clarity with its action throughout.
The rules of the film and Cage’s predicament are laid out just as plainly, perhaps even a little too much. The only notable misstep worth mentioning is a scene with actor Noah Taylor, who pulls up a visual presentation to give Cage key intel. Some of the character’s information is far too convenient, but more than that, it’s a narrative pit stop. The film wisely takes its time for quiet moments between Cage and Vrataski, making their relationship earnest and anchored, but when it all slows down for the equivalent of a Powerpoint presentation, it’s a problem (even if the film pokes fun at it). To be fair, in a summer where narratives are mostly composed of expository dialogue, this scene is subtle by comparison.
Plus, almost everything else about Edge of Tomorrow is so well-done that a few little issues hardly mute its adrenaline. Liman’s movie moves fast, and not only because it has a ton of set pieces, but also a sharp sense of humor. It’s obvious what jokes McQuarrie wrote, because his voice is unquestionably present in the film. His sly style adds more character to an already energetic, propulsive, and charismatic summer blockbuster.
This is exactly the kind of movie that the summers needs more of.
The Upside: Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt are excellent together; exciting, photo-realistic action; fast paced, but not devoid of small character moments; a compelling arc for Cage; Bill Paxton gets some huge laughs; skillful editing; the repetition never gets in the way of a clear buildup
The Downside: A very exposition-heavy scene; a small CG shot; some too-safe choices
On The Side: Despite being a last minute addition to the cast, Jeremy Piven is not in the film.