Edge of Tomorrow Lives on the Edge of Greatness

Edge-of-TomorrowIt probably hasn’t escaped the notice of the average moviegoer that Tom Cruise seems to be treading water lately. Since Lions for Lambs and Tropic Thunder he’s just been churning out decent but uninspired action films, trying to squeeze in as many superheroics as possible before he’s too old to do it anymore. Even so, with Edge of Tomorrow, I was really hopeful that he would once again feature in a film with heart, character and voice, that could also be absurdly fun. Thankfully those hopes were well-founded, and Edge of Tomorrow turned out to not only be an incredibly fun action film, but a great use of a scifi concept to explore the personal effects of war.

Let’s get something clear right off the bat: while we’ve all been framing Edge of Tomorrow as a Tom Cruise movie, and how it relates to Tom Cruise’s track record, special attention needs to be payed to Emily Blunt’s ferocious performance as Rita Vrataski. There’s no question that she is Cruise’s full equal (sometimes superior) and partner, and she’s a magnetic presence onscreen… one that is not wasted as a love interest/damsel in distress. Indeed, if it weren’t for the special circumstances that allow Cruise’s Cage to restart the day, I have no problem imagining Rita going off and winning the war single-handedly. However, Cruise himself also gives one of his best performances in recent years, putting his superstar charm to use not as the flawless badass, but as a snivelling wuss who has to learn to be the badass we’re use to seeing Cruise play. Bill Cage is a great deconstruction of Cruise’s action hero persona, with a simple but effective character arc. Also props to Bill Paxton, playing perfect antithesis to his Hudson from Aliens as the fire-and-brimstone Sgt. Farrell. These characters are well-drawn and given some real depth, which is key to the other major success of the movie: the theme.

While a lot of attention has been paid to how Edge of Tomorrow perfectly captures the experience of playing a videogame (and yeah, it’s there), I’m surprised that none of my favorite reviewers made mention of the more serious thematic undertones at play. What I think Edge of Tomorrow does very well is use the time-loop conceit as a means of exploring survivor’s guilt and the traumas of war. It’s particularly clear during a montage in the middle of the movie, where we see Rita die again and again and again, and Cage has to keep going back and keep seeing it happen over and over. It takes a toll on Cage’s mind, as he actively tries to keep Rita from one particularly unavoidable death, fearful that the day he finally ends the time-loop that she’ll stay dead permanently (as will the others). It made me think of veterans who continue to be haunted by the friends they lost, constantly reliving their war and wondering how they could have saved those that died.

In the end, Rita has to convince Cage that her life (not to mention his) is not more important than the mission, and that he has a responsibility to finish the war, with or without her. It’s a poignant and bitter pill for either of them to swallow, made better by the fact that they avoid the romantic overtones. Cage just doesn’t want to see his comrade die, but after seeing it happen over and over he almost becomes numb to it. At one point he even tries to just run away, rather than continue to torture himself, but to no avail. It’s a great use of the scifi premise to explore something deep, which is then also perfectly balanced out by the very effective humor throughout most of the movie. If you told me that a movie built on PTSD subtext would also be this damn naturally funny I wouldn’t have believed you, and yet here I am, still chuckling at Tom Cruise trying to action-hero-roll under a moving truck, only to get run over.

Having said all of that, there’s something that holds me back from unreservedly loving Edge of Tomorrow, and I can’t nail down what it is. Maybe it’s the deus ex machina happy ending, or that the combat sequences, while being well-crafted, aren’t as prolonged or immersive as I’d have liked (an unfortunate side effect of the film’s tight pacing, and back-and-forth cutting from one attempted day to the next). Or maybe this is just a case of a movie that does everything right and still doesn’t fully hit home, something that always frustrates me when it happens. Regardless of this random detachment, Edge of Tomorrow does so much right that I will certainly recommend it to anyone, and will certainly revisit it in the future, and maybe on repeat (heh) viewings I’ll connect with it in the way I’d expect to.

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