The Brilliant Significance of Casting Specific Movie Stars in ‘Edge of Tomorrow’

By  · Published on June 3rd, 2014

Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Note: the following contains no spoilers for the movie beyond what happens in the first act, nor any more than you’ll find in a review. Still, feel free to go in blind and return here after seeing the movie if you wish.

There are a few movies that Edge of Tomorrow obviously calls to mind. Groundhog Day is the big one, while the movie’s initial battle scene is reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan. The latter would be the more direct visual reference, almost remake rather than homage, but it’s really more than that. Within the plot, the battle is a literal redo of the Normandy landing, so it’s a double-layer repeat for a movie that’s already all about doing things over again. It definitely seems to be intentional, too, that Edge of Tomorrow opens in the U.S. on the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

Another movie relevant to the appreciation of Edge of Tomorrow is Aliens. Both have Bill Paxton and both have an extraterrestrial threat. The casting of the actor here has to be connected to his appearance in the Alien sequel, and he has even stated presumption of as much in interviews. Specifically, though, he tends to mention just the alien link and that he was desired so that he could say, “Game over, Man!” Yet his character never does say that. He doesn’t need to, because there’s enough recall here to have the audience thinking of the line, so long as they’re familiar with the earlier movie and are consciously aware that they’re watching something mimicking video game play.

That Paxton’s character here is the most consistently confident man in the movie is itself a nice touch in contrast against his whiny Marine in Aliens. We can imagine the earlier character, Private William Hudson, side by side with the new, yelling his signature line at moments where it appears, indeed, that the game is over yet where his Master Sergeant Farrell in Edge of Tomorrow never flinches and keeps on pushing forth to fight. And it’s his duty to push the movie’s protagonist forward, too. If anything, his slogan should be more like “game on!”

Someone does say “game over” in the movie, though. At a point while describing the battle he’s already experienced, Tom Cruise’s character says, “tomorrow, it’s game over.” It’s not emphasized in any way that will draw too much connection to Paxton, but it does fit the video game idea. The plot of Edge of Tomorrow is centered on Cruise’s Major William Cage, who in spite of being an officer is stripped of his position and sent down to the rank of private. He has no combat experience at all, let alone against the aliens who’ve taken over Europe. As he’s being led to the squad he’ll be a part of, Farrell tells him that here he’s on the same level as everyone else. Just as a player is when starting a new video game for the first time.

Also like in many games, when Cage dies he has to start over again. But that reset only pushes the player back in time. He keeps the memory of what he’s already experienced and witnessed, and that helps in the mastery of the game. Eventually he’s planning out his moves precisely to navigate the space and obstacles of the scene, just as people have been doing since the early days of platform-style gaming, where you could memorize the beats of the action on screen. He has to keep dying and coming back again until his mission is complete, and of course the more times he plays the better he gets and the further he’s able to advance.

How that all relates to Cruise’s casting in the movie is even more interesting, star-text-wise, than Paxton’s involvement. At first I thought the choice was all wrong. If Cage is supposed to represent the everyman playing a video game then he should be played by a nobody actor, or at least someone of less fame than Cruise (interestingly enough, Brad Pitt was the original choice for the role). But the character begins in the film as a higher-ranked military official with some celebrity as a spokesperson who makes appearances on television. So when he’s sent down to the basic level it’s even more clear that everyone starts out the same in this game, even big shot media personalities.

Cruise and Cage are aligned in that way at the start. But I also see the casting as having a metaphorical significance for Cruise’s career of late. He is considered to be one of if not the biggest movie star in the world, but you wouldn’t think it by looking at how his movies have opened in the U.S. – ever, really, though especially in the past decade. Some of them wind up performing relatively well in the long run, and they do pretty decent comparatively overseas, but his last two movies didn’t even gross enough combined in America to pay off Edge of Tomorrow’s budget. In a way, he might as well be starting fresh with this movie, like he’s just any movie actor starting out on the same level as everyone else.

He has a difficult mission in having to carry a sci-fi action movie with no pre-sold brand association. There’s no safety here (unlike his character’s battle suit, which has a safety he can’t figure out). And if he fails, he’ll just have to go back and reset from square one, as he’s basically doing here following the disappointing performances of Oblivion and Jack Reacher. He does have some advantage in having been here before. He’s an experienced actor, and we’re an audience experienced with him, and once Edge of Tomorrow gets going, as the character starts to become more successful in his mission, we do start to remember what we like about Tom Cruise the movie star, too.

An actor’s celebrity and career history can be a distraction with some movies, and with this one it’s difficult to ignore thoughts of Cruise in War of the Worlds, where he’s similarly trying to run from the fight against the aliens (albeit as a means of survival and protection not cowardice and unpreparedness), or of Emily Blunt in Looper, that other movie where she’s paired with a time traveler in scenes set in a farmhouse. Yet Edge of Tomorrow has a slight self-awareness, and so any reference adds a significance to the characters and story that seems to be anything but accidental.

Now I only wonder if more of these links will become apparent and provide additional significance the more times we watch the movie over and over again.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.