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Film Review: Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow (2014; Directed by Doug Liman)

Just as its milquetoast title was hijacked by its snappier and more descriptive tagline (“Live. Die. Repeat.”, coming across like brusquely reductive existential philosophy), Edge of Tomorrow‘s conventional sci-fi action-adventure blockbuster franticness is frequently redeemed by the rejuvenating cleverness of the application of its central narrative conceit. The temporal loop that is the main fulcrum of its construction is a highly amusing device with multiple referential echoes and witty possibilities that director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) takes (not-quite full) advantage of. But the adolescent power fantasies and busy impressiveness of Edge of Tomorrow‘s apocalyptic scale gives it a more leaden step that betrays this mercurial potential.

Liman commences with that introductory mainstay of recent post-millenial Hollywood world-shaking catastrophe epics, the channel-surfing expositional prologue. The particular catastrophe in question is a destabilizing alien invasion of Europe in the near-future. Initial setbacks for the human race are trumped by a victory at Verdun spearheaded by British Sgt. Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who becomes central to a mass-media propaganda campaign in favour of a planned pushback expedition to the Continent by the United Defense Force (or UDF). The commander of the UDF is the Irish General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), who pops up frequently in the montage of scene-setting television clips along with U.S. public affairs officer William Cage (Tom Cruise), the ever-smiling PR man for the coming attack.

These two men meet at UDF headquarters in Trafalgar Square, London on the eve of the invasion. Brigham, for reasons that are not abundantly (or even remotely) obvious, orders Cage to the front of the beachhead invasion of Northern France. Cage, an affable talking head with no combat experience whatsoever, objects and, when those objections are brushed aside, finally attempts to flee (Cruise is superbly smarmy in this scene, his excuses and dissembling bouncing off the stone-faced Gleeson like spitballs off a rhino’s hide). Arrested and busted down to the ranks, Cage is shipped out with the advanced-force cannon fodder, strapped into a heavy metal power battle suit, and dropped into the bloodbath on the beaches. Watching his squad and even the hero Vrataski get picked off by the aliens, who seem highly prepared for the assault and resemble scuttling, digging, deracinated dreadlocks, Cage takes down one such enemy with a chest-mounted mine before expiring himself.

But then Cage awakes back at the forward military base at London Heathrow, just as he did after his arrest and before his addition to the landing force. The same sequence of events repeats itself at the base and then on the beach, Cage dies again, and awakes at the base again. After a couple of repetitions of this, Cage’s foreknowledge of battlefield events catches Vrataski’s attention on the beach, and she tells him to find her when he wakes up again.

Once he does, Cage learns that Vrataski had the same experience at Verdun. The Mimics, as the aliens are dubbed, can control and reset time through some complex interlinked process involving the key berserker fighters called Alphas and a central hive mind called the Omega. Somehow, Cage has gained some echo of this ability to repeat time through his blood; Vrataski had the ability too, but lost it after suffering combat injuries requiring a blood tranfusion (maybe the Jehovah’s Witnesses have a point about that after all). Since the Mimic force will inevitably overwhelm the UDF assault and sweep into London, exploiting Cage’s time looping to find and destroy the Omega is the only chance mankind stands of avoiding annihilation.

The temporal repetition element of Edge of Tomorrow is its surest pleasure, and the middle section of Liman’s film is a clever delight as Cage trains with Vrataski (she shoots him in the head if he suffers even the smallest wound, to reset the tape) and they attempt to proceed as far towards the Omega as possible before dying and trying it all over again. The premise is an unholy action-flick lovechild of Groundhog Day and video-gaming structure, and Liman (working from the screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel All You Need is Kill) is adept at utilizing it both to streamline his film’s pacing and expand its suggested scope by hinting that Cage’s time-loop ordeal has cycled on far longer and given him much more experience than we are shown.

Of course, this is blockbuster Hollywood with the android-esque Tom Cruise as its lead, so whatever vibrant wit is mustered is directed mainly at buttressing overwrought, CGI-heavy action sequences and simultaneously grim and superfluous martial heroism. Edge of Tomorrow has overt characteristics of the World Wars epic repurposed for our contemporary speculative fiction ascendancy, with evocations of Verdun, a besieged London, and a high-tech D-Day Normandy landing against a blackly malevolent adversary that has overrun Continental Europe. This intertextuality goes nowhere compelling, despite an intimate respite in a French country house and the climactic finale beneath the flooded Louvre.

The film’s time-looping carries intriguing metaphorical and philosophical possibilities, especially with the embedded suggestion of a history-repeats-itself replay of World War II. Edge of Tomorrow indulges none of these potentialities, marshalling the inherent intelligence of its premise for depictions of violent action heroism and nothing much more. Arguably, it is beholden to no one to provide anything beyond that. But intelligence is a terrible thing to waste, and though it is not totally misspent in Edge of Tomorrow, its utility is drained in the name of mere diversion rather than also feeding into productive significations.

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