Indy Datta on the new Tom Cruise SF blockbuster, in cinemas today.
The first half hour or so of the new Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow (directed by Doug Liman, and adapted from Hiroshi Sakuarazaka’s light novel All You Need is Kill by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth – and Cruise’s current pet script doctor Christopher McQuarrie) sets out its near-future world and premise briskly, if artlessly. Cruise plays US army spin doctor and yellow-bellied chickenhawk Major William Cage, who we see arriving in London (by helicopter direct to Trafalgar Square, for some reason) to shill in the media for an imminent D-Day style offensive by a multinational army against a force of invading extra-terrestrial “Mimics” that has occupied mainland Europe. One super-awkward meeting with crusty Brit general Brendan Gleeson and a cut to black later, Cage wakes up at Heathrow airport to find himself, for some reason, busted down to private and shanghaied into a platoon of misfit grunts played by, among others, Brit TV stalwarts Jonas “Robin Hood” Armstrong, Tony “Mongrels” Way and Private Vasquez from Aliens Charlotte “Wuthering Heights” Riley. Strapped in, for some reason, to a presumably hideously expensive mech-suit that the army had lying around spare, Cage soon finds himself in the midst of a scene of epic carnage on a Normandy beach, like Saving Private Ryan but with CGI aliens that look like evil sentient Pot Noodles – totally untrained and unprepared, a dead man waiting to happen.
So far, so unremarkable and generic: a grab bag of soft, worn-in, hand-me-downs from other movies; great stodgy lumps of exposition (a moratorium, please, on info-dump by TV news montage); expensive but anonymous action choreography, and a general lack of visual flair. But what happens next is that Cage picks a fight with a Mimic and loses, with fatal consequences. Cut to black, and he wakes up at Heathrow airport to find himself busted down to private and shanghaied into frontline combat. It’s like Groundhog Day, but instead of Sonny and Cher, Bill Paxton is shouting at you, and everyone around you is obliviously preparing to lose humanity’s last battle, unless you can change it.
The free will/determinism question is one that animates many science fiction films, but in mainstream Hollywood, determinism is never going to be more than a straw man. The question for the hero of a movie like Edge of Tomorrow is never going to be whether they can truly exercise free will, and assert it over the world, but whether their will is strong enough to prevail, no matter how dark the outlook seems. I’m not going to spoil the ending of Edge of Tomorrow (although; more on that subject below) but if casting can be considered a spoiler, what is Tom Cruise but the will to power made ever-youthful flesh?
Edge of Tomorrow lifts the key plot mechanic from Groundhog Day – everyone but the protagonist is stuck in a repeating loop of conscious automatism – as the day repeats, only the protagonist is given the ability to voluntarily change his actions. Both films therefore effectively posit that their protagonists can become willed beings only by effectively becoming omniscient about the future actions of all other people (and aliens). In the case of Groundhog Day, this serves to fatally undermine the film’s message, as Phil can only transcend his own conscious automatism by effectively reducing all other people to artefacts of his own consciousness, but that’s a subject for another time.
Edge of Tomorrow is less affected by this problem because, frankly, it’s never really crucial whether we believe that there are people in it. As Cage iterates the fateful day, he discovers that another soldier, Emily Blunt’s Rita Vrataski (a character who proves that, in the long run, allowing immigration into Britain from eastern Europe could one day save humanity itself, take that UKIP!) has previously had, but has lost, the power that Cage now has, and the two of them start to forge a relationship, although at the start of each day it is only Cage who knows their history. But, and despite witty playing by both actors and attractive chemistry between them, the pleasure of Edge of Tomorrow is not really located in audience investment in the relationship, or even in the fate of humanity (this is a pretty morally weightless apocalypse, which is not actually a complaint, in the context of the recent genre movie portent-mountain), but in the way the film sets itself a series of narrative problems which it then solves with elegance and playfulness that’s a pleasure to play along with – for an hour in the middle of this film I was having more fun than I’ve had in a blockbuster movie for years. And unlike Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow on some level recognises that Cage’s omniscience at some point makes him more god than man, and that everyone else in his world is akin to a prop, or a video game AI (the film is more reflective, in the end, of the narratology/ludology debate than the determinism/free will debate – right down to the cut scenes of ridiculously overinvolved rulebook exposition that you’ll wish you could skip, Noah Taylor or no Noah Taylor).
The film’s last act is a change of pace – the narrative premise changes again, and the narrative strategy has to change with it – and its climax is rather conventional, with the emphasis back on the CGI and away from the script. In mitigation, I would note that Liman and the writers deftly avoid most of the more noxious clichés of the form (Blunt’s Vrataski is never reduced by the film to either damsel in distress or kick-ass bitch; the black team member – played by Franz Drameh – doesn’t stay behind to sacrifice himself for the hero’s benefit). But I would still have walked out of the screening on a high if the film had ended before its coda that, while it may (just about) be narratively consistent with what went before, makes no emotional sense, and plays like a test-screening driven failure of nerve. Even for Tom Cruise, it turns out, final cut is not the same as free will.