All You Need Is Kill was the title of the source novel for Edge of Tomorrow, and I hate that I live in a world where the kind of people who green light movies are also the kind of people who’d change a title like that. The wrong people are running things.
That out of the way, Edge of Tomorrow is the best Tom Cruise movie in ages, and the first good SF film I’ve seen since Gravity, though Gravity almost doesn’t count as SF given the way everyone slobbered over it. Sooner or later, SF always fails under load; there’s always something which is central to the plot and just wouldn’t work. The quality of an SF movie depends almost entirely on how long it takes you notice the stupid. These days, a movie practically qualifies for greatness if you can get to the end credits before quibbling, and just the other week I watched Godzilla blow its coolness budget during the opening credits.
In contrast, Edge of Tomorrow managed to keep me in the zone all the way to the last act, and even then it was still doing fine as SF, just not impressing me with pace and storytelling. Somehow they hit the right balance between mad ideas, over the top action and pretty decent acting, throwing them all in with the right pace and variety to keep me in the moment. Who knew you could get a summer blockbuster with brains?
One of the lessons is that you doesn’t matter if people have done this stuff before, so long as you do it right. Powered armour? Been done. Doomed marines fighting aliens? Done before. Man repeating his life again and again? Done before. Beach invasions? Where do I start? Write the lines, spool up the actors and maintain a good pace and it doesn’t matter if it’s not new.
Which brings me to the theme of the movie, which is all about a man who through a fluke finds himself endlessly reliving the war against inscrutable aliens. Considering that Tom Cruise went straight out of Oblivion into the production of Edge of Tomorrow, he must have wondered if the script was blurring into his real life. Or he may have wanted it that way. Just like Oblivion, Edge of Tomorrow ends with Cruise sacrificing himself to save the whole world from inscrutable aliens and then magically still getting the girl in a coda. Unlike Oblivion it didn’t feel anything like as annoying.
So, how does it all work? Well, it works by surrounding Tom Cruise with better actors, and making him start the movie as a glib smarmy creep. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much why Jerry Maguire worked, but it’s even more fun to sit Cruise down opposite Brendan Gleeson’s baggy worldweary face and have him chewed up and spat out in one wonderful scene that ought to have been subtitled “This how we feel about empty pretty people in the real world”. As always, I’m never sure if Cruise is really acting when he plays shallow self-involved jerks, but he’s so good at undercutting his apparent likeability. In one fell swoop, Cruise is busted down from empty PR flak to doomed grunt private, just in time for another star turn from Bill Paxton as his genially horrible master sergeant, taking gleeful pleasure in making sure that Cruise will be one of the first to get shredded in the doomed airborne counter-attack they’ve got planned for tomorrow morning.
Shredded he gets, and then he wakes up at the beginning and has to keep reliving the same 48 hours again and again, trying to figure out what’s happened and who can help him, and eventually how he can get off that doomed beach and do something to make a real difference to the war. Cruise does a solid job with the way that his character gets built up and worn down by the repetition, but the direction and writing are very clever, repeating just enough to give a sense of how many more repetitions must have happened, and playing around with the repetitions; sometimes showing us the first time that something’s happened to him and sometimes the hundredth. It also plays well with how Cruise gets to know the all the other characters while always remaining a stranger to them; he’s seen them again and again, but for them every time is the first time.
The best thing in the movie - for me anyhow - was Emily Blunt as the only other person who’s gone through this cycle, and so the only person who can help Cruise understand what’s happening and maybe even beat the odds. This is her second time out on time travel; she was in Looper, though I spent so much time talking about Willis and Joe that I left her out completely. In fairness, Looper would have worked without her; Edge of Tomorrow wouldn’t have. Her character is central to the whole movie, and now that I’ve seen her do it, I can’t imagine anyone else getting the job done. The big gimmick in all these endless resets is that each time you come back you know what not to do the next time; eventually, you’ve rehearsed and tried every possible move and you’re master of the world around you (until you get to something you haven’t done yet, which gives us one of the better lines late in the movie when Blunt asks Cruise “What happens now?” and he says “I don’t know. We never got this far before.”) Cruise, of course, has been running in movies since 1981, and so it’s almost ordinary to see him poised and confident and effortless; that’s Cruise setting A. Blunt more than equals his poise from the first moment she appears. Which is pretty neat. I expect Gleeson to outshine everyone, and Bill Paxton is a peerless goodhearted asshole, but it’s always good to see someone square up to Cruise and just out-charisma him. And it’s good for Cruise; give him some competition and he stops relying on green screen and star power, and shows us what he can do when he’s trying.