As an action-packed, special effects-driven, sci-fi blockbuster, The Edge of Tomorrow is pretty entertaining. It’s not as groundbreaking as it thinks it is, but neither is it outright dismissible. On a scale from “Yay!” to “Nay!”, it’s a solid “Sure!” In fact, I was prepared to not really like it, but as I will usually give any potentially mind-bending psuedophilosophical movie a shot, I trudged along inside and I was pleasantly surprised.
It’s a Fine Line Between Sci-Fi and Horror
Ever since The Twilight Zone, or heck, even the birth of the genre with things like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the best of sci-fi blends with what we expect from horror stories. In EoT, that’s true as well, with a variety of suspenseful shots, such as purposeful silence and surprises or pop-atcha moments. Interestingly, like many monster movies, it’s hard to actually get a good look at the creatures, and nothing is even hinted at in the first 15 minutes of the film, making their initial appearance more suspenceful (even if I was a bit disappointed in the design overall.)
The true horror of the film, perhaps, is the existential horror of sympathizing with the lead character as he must re-live the events of the same day over and over. If you haven’t heard, it’s Groundhog Day made into an action shoot-em-up. But whereas the Phil Connors/Bill Murray in Groundhog Day gives the audience pathos and humor and ultimately warmth and redemption, Major Cage/Tom Cruise gives us resignment, desperation, and escalating tension. I kept thinking about how horrible it would be to be trapped in this cycle, as Cage seems an intractable victim way more so than Connors ever does. In the same way, the tone just continues to spiral downward, since every sequence must end with the main character’s death, which may require shooting the hero in the head point-blank; it gets downright nihilistic (which isn’t to say it isn’t a bit darkly humorous– but it’s weird to hear an audience of movie-goers laugh when the lead gets purposefully shot in the head.)
A Truly Reluctant Hero
Of course, part of the horror of Cage’s situation is the death and destruction all around him. If Connors had to see the same people being dismembered every day on Punxsutawney’s knoll, we’d expect a much different heroic journey. But Cage is ham-fisted so forcibly into the plot of this story that it almost destroys the narrative before it can even be built. His character is literally dropped into a situation that he is not even prepared for, so much so that I thought this was going to be the “hook,” that Cage was the victim of some virtual reality and would wake up outside the matrix, so to speak. But no. In this world apparently the war is so crucial to be won that they will hijack completely untrained personnel and put them on the front lines. Perhaps K Troop was actually made up from the secretary pool that week.
What it does is to make it hard to take the main character seriously. There’s no reason to see his attempt to win the war as genuinely striving for a personal or sacrificial goal– and the end of it all he’s still just trying to get out of combat duty, even if he has to blow up the Big Bad in order to do it.
Yes, there is a little bit of camaraderie between Cruise and Blunt’s characters, which thankfully is not necessarily a romantic lead kind of interaction but is moreso a very real partnership/friendship forged by wartime. It’s a credit to the screenwriters (Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, & John-Henry Butterworth) since it stays true to the fact from the perspective of Rita Vrataski/Emily Blunt, the events she experiences are really all in the space of 24 hours or so. It’s an easy fact for the audiences to overlook, as “we” grow with Cage in his understanding of the world and of his partner, but her character has a completely different experience.
A Matter of Time
Both Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow have very limited points of views they share with the audience– there is never a sequence or scene where the point-of-view hero isn’t there. But what EoT does do that G-Day doesn’t is play around with this set up. There’s a key sequence between Cage and Vrataski in the fourth act, when the two of them share some (relatively) intimate quiet time in the field. That’s when the audience (and Vrataski) learns that we *haven’t* always been there with the hero, that Cage has actually been on many more of these time-loops, ones that we didn’t see and where the heroes still continually fail. That’s a nice narrative touch and keeps the audience on its toes.
Other sequences work beautifully because of the time-loop, such as Cage and Vratraski’s infiltration to White Hall, which is choreographed with perfect timing. It’s fun to see the heroes in control over what’s arguably a “narrative” they are already a part of, something very metatextual. And it raises the stakes immediately once the hero announces that he “doesn’t know. We’ve never made it this far before.”
Still, time travel will always have it’s share of wonky “rules” that if you think too hard about them, then it will fall apart. Did Cage “steal” the ability to reset time, or do the aliens still have the ability to do that? How does it just “go back” to the aliens once Cage or Vratraski loses it? And if the aliens reset to beginning, does it just reset with Cage getting the ability again? Maybe there are others also resetting things in this weird Moebius strip of changing and not-changing…
The sound and visuals in this movie are great. The battle scenes, especially, are more vibrant and visceral for the intensity of sound, and there is movement on almost every part of the scene.
That said, making the aliens nearly robot-like was perhaps not the best decision, as it makes them less interesting, visually. Are they robots or are they organic, since blood is a central component to the story? Look, no one wants a repeat of Starship Trooper’s swarm of bug-aliens, but we also don’t want still more Transformers. The designs are intricate and seem to involve many moving parts, but we can’t appreciate them when they are jump-cut and flash-panned so quickly that it doesn’t matter if you didn’t render the frame in postproduction. Most of the memorable horror-aliens like, well, Aliens (and Predator) still manage to get in a good close up every now and then.
I guess the design doesn’t really matter, though. We’re given no real reason why the aliens are attacking (“minerals,” some pub-goer speculates) so there’s no real reason to invest wonder in these monsters. They really are just robots, after all, then. Or perhaps they’re zombies, as they simply attack with base-level ravenous instinct. Or maybe, like the original War of the Worlds, we’ll never really know, because they are, in fact, “alien” to us.
And is that the takeaway here? That we humans will be caught up doing whatever takes, over and over again, until we finally achieve our goals over whatever faceless enemy is overwhelming us? I suppose that’s affirming on one hand, but on the other, that’s a horrible slog to have to go through. So we’re back to the existential horror I mentioned before– just keep doing your daily routine, until you finally get it right and can stop doing it anymore. Yay, us!