Masks have always fascinated Tom Cruise. There are masks in “Minority Report,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” and “Vanilla Sky,” and they serve a key purpose in all four “Mission: Impossible” movies (movies, it just so happens, that Cruise also produces). In films like “Interview with the Vampire,” “Valkyrie” and “Tropic Thunder,” Cruise transforms himself physically with the help of advanced prosthetics, to the point that these augmented bits become a part of him; he is the mask. It’s very apparent that Tom Cruise is obsessed with the idea of being anyone but Tom Cruise. This idea reaches its logical zenith in his latest movie, the brilliant sci-fi extravaganza “Edge of Tomorrow,” in which Cruise plays a man who dies on the battlefield and is instantly reborn. Every day, Cruise could be someone else. The fact that he chooses to be himself is what’s really impressive.
Tellingly, Cruise’s character Major William Cage is introduced as a spin doctor, a military man in name only who, before Earth became engaged in combat with a bloodthirsty alien race, was a marketing executive. His main goal is to package the war and sell it to the citizenry, but when he runs afoul of a European commander (Brendan Gleeson), he’s labeled a deserter and forced into combat even when, he readily admits, he can barely handle the trauma of a paper cut. Even before battle, he’s been transformed. On his inaugural mission, which echoes the D-Day beach invasion, his squad is slaughtered and, while attempting to kill one of the monsters (a deadly swirl of teeth and tentacles conjured up by the wizards at Industrial Light & Magic), he ingests some of its blood. This gives him the nifty, “Groundhog Day“-like ability to “reset” the day every time he dies.
Once he foggily realizes what is happening to him, Cage seeks out Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a warrior who had some success during one of these battles and, for a spell, had similar abilities. She teaches him how to use his gift, and together they plot a way to end the invasion, once and for all.
It’s hard to talk about “Edge of Tomorrow” without accidentally giving something away, so if you’re squeamish about spoilers, feel free to turn back now (just be sure to return after you’ve seen the movie). Before you go, you should know that the movie is great. Like really, really great. It’s snappy and funny and violent and weird and sets the bar impossibly high for the rest of this year’s summer movie crop.
Based on a Japanese “light novel” called “All You Need Is Kill” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, “Edge of Tomorrow” uncannily brings together a bunch of different influences, from old school video games (reset!) to Japanese anime (the character wear hulking, robotic suits in battle) to the science fiction films of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (early scenes have a typically satirical vibe and the battle scenes feel very “Starship Troopers“) while also feeling totally fresh and original. It’s weird to think of a movie that had this much money put behind its marketing and distribution as a surprise, but it really is; a very welcome surprise.
Part of what makes the movie so thrilling is its formal experimentalism, gleefully exhibited inside the parameters of a $200 million studio film. The movie was directed by Doug Liman, who made independent fare like “Swingers” before earning his living as a craftsman behind some of Hollywood’s biggest action films (like “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and “Jumper“), and in a way “Edge of Tomorrow” feels much closer in spirit to his tiny indie “Go” than something like “The Bourne Identity.” It has the same freewheeling energy as “Go,” as well as the emphasis on being unmoored from typical narrative convention. In “Edge of Tomorrow,” the same events happen again and again, but Liman is able, somehow, to show us different things each time. It’s like if “Rashomon” featured a bunch of men in robotic suits and giant scary monsters and Bill Paxton as a hard-nosed general (he’s great, by the way).
What’s even more impressive than Liman’s novel approach to the execution of the narrative is that he’s able to give Cruise’s plight actual emotional weight, utilizing a minimal amount of dialogue. Interestingly enough this is accomplished mostly through the editing of the movie, as you watch Cruise start to understand Emily Blunt’s character fully. She is first portrayed, both by her performance and the marketing surrounding her victory, as a fierce warrior. But as time goes on and Cruise continues to work with her through the restarting of the day, he notices that she has layers and, what’s more, that he is starting to fall for her. She is a rich, beautifully realized female character, strong and smart and sensitive, which is already a welcome change from the summer movies we’ve seen thus far, where women are mostly seen falling from tall buildings and hiding from giant monsters. Blunt doesn’t hide from monsters: she’s sticks a really big fucking sword through them.
But the movie belongs, wholeheartedly, to Cruise. This is his liveliest, most fully engaged, dimensional performance in years, and considering the entire movie hinges on the audience identifying with his character as he goes through this patently unreal experience, that’s a very good thing. Cruise starts off superficial and scared, a man unwilling to enter combat because of his lack of self-confidence and physical ability. By being able to replay the day, though, he becomes stronger, faster, and is able to anticipate what is going to happen next. He also starts to feel more. As an actor you sense Cruise letting go of some of the unnecessary artifice that has hindered recent performances like “Rock of Ages.” He is letting go of the mask and becoming more human, and because of all this it’s a performance that winds up being close to transcendent. Tom Cruise is back. Big time.
And it’s weird to think of a $200 million sci-fi spectacle like “Edge of Tomorrow” flying below the radar, but with all the hype and hoopla about this summer’s superhero movies and animated sequels, that’s exactly what’s happened. It shouldn’t. “Edge of Tomorrow” is a witty, trippy, emotionally engaging, impressively strange movie, beautifully staged and photographed (by Dione Beebe). Most importantly though, is that “Edge of Tomorrow” is an outrageously fun thriller that sees the biggest actor of our age come back to vibrant life in a film that allows him to lose the mask and remind us all why he was a movie star in the first place. It’s a razzle-dazzle triumph, and one we can’t wait to experience again and again and again… [A-] – Drew Taylor.
On page 2, a totally different take on the movie by Gabe Toro
Standards have changed in the blockbuster game. Computer generated effects have allowed us to realize just about anything we’ve ever seen or can imagine, and years of summer offerings have begun to bleed into each other, creating one summer blockbuster organism where we see the same visuals in different movies, the same ideas with the same people in the same places. Somewhere floating in this mélange is “Edge of Tomorrow,” a generic programmer that has absolutely no reason to exist beyond pushing the brand of Tom Cruise, Still Youthful 50-Year-Old Action Hero.
Cruise is Major Bill Cage, a soldier who has strenuously avoided active duty by becoming a PR rep for the armed forces in the face of an intergalactic war. His camera-ready delivery and networking skills have got him far, as have his questionable professional ethics. That is, until he attempts to blackmail his way out of a dangerous assignment, and a vengeful general (Brendan Gleeson, disinterested) instead puts him on the front lines, informing Sgt. Farrell (Bill Paxton) that Cage is meant for combat. Despite his infamous gift of gab, Cage is unwillingly strapped into a futuristic mecha suit and sent into battle.
But Cage and his fellow soldiers are engulfed by a kamikaze attack by the aliens, referred to as Mimics. These faceless enemies attack from above and below, amorphous globules with cybernetic tendrils that strike with intense fury. The movie’s best sequences are at this beach, capturing the speed and ferocity of actual war, the feeling that luck is the only thing keeping you alive, that death is sudden and entirely without drama. And, during this skirmish, Cage dies quite horribly.
But he gets better! Cage wakes back on the base, where Sgt. Farrell once again introduces himself. Cage is once again bullied and deployed, where he once again experiences a violent demise. Soon, Cage realizes that he’s stuck in a loop, destined to keep returning to that same day, to live a thousand lives, die a thousand deaths. The secret to mastering this code lies in Rita Vrataski, a guileless soldier who apparently has also experienced this loop, and lived on to outlast it. Conveniently, she looks like Emily Blunt.
Cruise’s name used to mean a certain level of quality control. He didn’t mind working with ambitious directors, and he didn’t mind trusting that they would subvert his image, on the way to making him the biggest movie star in the world. In recent years he’s gotten sloppier, more desperate in his choice of material. Failing to note his accelerated age isn’t an issue, per se: but trusting subpar material because of how it lionizes him does seem to be a common trait in Cruise’s recent filmography. A glimpse at his body of work reveals an artist in significant creative decline, and “Edge of Tomorrow” just might be the most shallow and disposable film he’s ever starred in.
You see it in Vrataski, who is meant to be one of Hollywood’s rare showy roles for a female in a male-dominated genre. She helps Cage master the loop and find the secret of the Mimics, but she’s clearly there to run backup, despite being a career soldier compared to Cage’s camera-ready opportunist. Soon, Vrataski is being deceived by Cage as to how many times he’s died, visited her, and gone on adventures. Having been trapped in the same loop, she should understand the potential power trip that sort of experience has on someone. Instead, a subtle transferal of power forces Vrataski into the backseat of the narrative. It’s unclear what’s worse: the blockbuster that pretends women aren’t capable, or the one that disingenuously celebrates their talents before quietly shuttering them to the background. Perhaps we should be thankful that she’s never kidnapped.
Casting Cruise as a handsome face completely under-equipped for war is something of a commentary on the cushy position of the modern movie star, protected from the physicality of their predecessors thanks to strenuous stunt preparation and special effects. But the movie’s moral equivalence is suspect, casting a negative eye towards Cage for not wanting to fight as if wars were about either soldiering up, or cowering in fear. It’s an easy sentiment when your enemy is made up of anonymous creepy crawlies from another dimension that won’t accept reason, and the movie insists that becoming a soldier (and then a better soldier) improves Cage as a human being. Within the idea of a soldier constantly being shoved into war zones to die repeatedly until they simply learn better, there’s a chance to critique the government and the military-industrial complex. But Cage isn’t storming the beach because of an edict from high above, but because he’s a jerk and a petty general dislikes him. And it’s never clear exactly what government is being served: Cage’s central-casting fellow soldiers have various accents, but the movie takes place just outside of England. So what is this thing even about?
It’s not about anything, ultimately. As soon as Cruise straps into that mecha, you know he’s going to master this strange technology. Hell, you can even guess that the mecha suits (an absurdly clunky weapon that seems to vary in size and comfort) will eventually be ditched, because a technological villain needs to be defeated by an analog hero. Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity”) delivers a competent, workmanlike vision that provides a few early cheap thrills, but by the literally and figuratively soggy third act, you get the sense that everyone is just punching the clock. “Edge of Tomorrow” is ultimately so barren of ideas that it feels like an anti-movie, just another day at work for one of the world’s biggest stars and his generous enablers. Cage’s time-loop ends up being indicative of this movie’s placement in the summer movie pantheon: same shit, different day. [D]