Looking back over Edge Of Tomorrow’s brief history, and it seems clear that it was a production with something of an identity crisis. Adapted from a Japanese story called All You Need Is Kill, the movie went by that name right up until the summer of 2013, when Warner Bros abruptly changed the title to Edge Of Tomorrow.
Then, when Edge Of Tomorrow got its home release a couple of weeks ago, it seemed to have been given another name change. On its DVD and Blu-ray box, the tagline Live. Die. Repeat, is far more prominent than Edge Of Tomorrow’s title – the movie’s even listed in some online marketplaces as Live Die Repeat: Edge Of Tomorrow.
It’s the latest curious development in the life of a film that could – and should – have performed far better than it did. On paper, Edge Of Tomorrow had lots going for it when it came out in May 2014: two Hollywood stars, a solid high concept, a respected director behind the camera (Doug Liman) and plenty of glowing reviews. But then trade papers began to predict that Edge Of Tomorrow would struggle, based on Tom Cruise’s other recent films at the box office – a prediction that would soon come true.
Strangely, Edge Of Tomorrow’s performance was almost exactly on par with the perofrmance of Cruise’s other movies from the past few years. The actor’s non-sequel films – for example, Knight And Day, Jack Reacher, and Oblivion – all struggled to crack $100m at the US box office. Edge Of Tomorrow made a shade over $100m. Several analysts predicted that Edge Of Tomorrow would fare much better overseas, where Cruise’s greater star power saw those films listed above make closer to $200m. Edge Of Tomorrow eventually made about $269m outside the US.
What was disquieting about Edge Of Tomorrow’s poor theatrical showing, however, was that its critical notices were far more positive than his other recent films, yet somehow, those notices failed to translate into adequate pre-release buzz. So what went wrong?
That title certainly didn’t help. Edge Of Tomorrow. It sounds like a science fiction film, certainly, but it’s also beige and indistinct. Edge Of Tomorrow could easily be the name of a forgettable pulp short story from the 1950s, the title of a political manifesto, or the heading of a businessman’s self-important Power Point presentation, picked out in Verdana with a grey drop shadow.
Tom Cruise may be partly to blame, too, but his name isn’t exactly box office poison, either – if he was, even the Mission: Impossible franchise would have dwindled by now – instead, Ghost Protocol was the most lucrative entry yet.
Edge Of Tomorrow was also the victim of unfortunate timing: Warner clearly underestimated the allure of the young adult romance The Fault In Our Stars and the Angelina Jolie fantasy vehicle Maleficent, both released around the same time.
The film’s biggest stumbling block, however, was surely its marketing. On the face of it, Warner did its best: a reported $100m was spent on posters, trailers, TV ads and social media campaigns. Yet somehow, none of it seemed to bite.
Looking back over the various trailers and TV spots now, it’s not difficult to see why. Almost every promo focused heavily on three things: Cruise, sci-fi hardware and battles. At a casual glance, Edge Of Tomorrow might have looked like fairly generic stuff – vaguely reminiscent, even, of the previous year’s Cruise sci-fi action film, Oblivion. Both dealt with some form of alien invasion, both saw Cruise as an earnest hero, and both contained plenty of exotic machinery and explosions. Several promos were cut to the song This Is Not The End by Fieldwork, which, subconsciously at least, might have reminded some viewers of the (highly effective) trailers for Battle Los Angeles – a movie that turned out to be disappointingly drab.
But Edge Of Tomorrow isn’t at all like Obivion or Battle Los Angeles. Yes, it’s about an alien invasion, but it’s also high-concept and darkly funny. That Edge Of Tomorrow dealt with a Groundhog Day-like time loop did come up in the trailers, but not nearly to the same extent as the various explosions and battle scenes. If you were only half paying attention to an Edge Of Tomorrow trailer, you could easily miss the concept of it altogether.
The trailers also missed out two other important aspects of the full movie – perhaps more important than the high concept, even. First was the role that Emily Blunt played; Edge Of Tomorrow is really a two-hander, with Blunt’s Sergeant Rita Vrataski as much a driver of the action as Cruise. This brings us to the trailers’ second omission: Cruise’s character is a complete and utter coward.
Generally speaking, Cruise is best known for playing all-American heroes with winning smiles. It’s almost 30 years since he appeared in Top Gun, but that star-making turn still defines Cruise for many cinemagoers: he runs, he smiles, the leading lady swoons.
Except Edge Of Tomorrow isn’t like that at all. Cruise’s Major William Cage is so unlike the actor’s other leading roles that it could almost be read as a send-up of his usual movie star image. Cage isn’t a warrior, he’s a PR guy who protests constantly as he’s dragged to the front line in a pitched battle against octopus-like aliens. Cage’s Sisyphus fate – to die at the hands of the invaders over and over again – is also counter to the usual Cruise mode. Cruise is the antithesis of Sean Bean: you can count the number of times Cruise has died in a film on one hand. In Edge Of Tomorrow, he makes up for this by being shot, blown up, run over and eviscerated so often that it’s difficult to keep count.
Cruise expressly wanted the Wile E Coyote-like nature of his character to be played up in the finished film, and that’s exactly what we get: an action flick that is comic as well as thrilling. A major part of its appeal comes from watching a beleaguered Cruise being taken under Sergeant Vrataski’s wing, and thanks to her tutelage, gradually become something closer to a traditional sci-fi action hero.
Curiously, Edge Of Tomorrow’s marketing only vaguely alluded to any of this. The trailers knocked off the film’s spikier edges. They failed to highlight just how comically lily-livered Cruise’s character is. Instead, Edge Of Tomorrow came across as just another star vehicle, starring that actor who leapt up on Oprah Winfrey’s couch all those years ago.
Admittedly, the film itself does give into some of the requirements of a star vehicle. It’s so much fun watching Cruise’s Major Cage flounder that it’s almost disappointing when the more capable hero starts to emerge. That he and Blunt eventually share a kiss also seems deflatingly Hollywood; it would have been far more convincing – and funny – if Sgt Vrataski had remained the same stone-hearted warrior throughout, rather than another leading lady to melt in Cruise’s presence.
That development aside, Edge Of Tomorrow is Blunt’s film almost as much as Cruise’s, and that it wasn’t marketed as such could be regarded as a tactical error. We only have to look at how well such films as Maleficent, The Fault In Our Stars, and Lucy have done in 2014 to see that female stars are capable of opening all kinds of genres at the box office, from fantasy to romance to sci-fi action thriller.
Ultimately, Edge Of Tomorrow did well enough in theatres to make its money back; like so many much-publicised ‘flops’, its takings more than covered its budget, even factoring in the $100m spent on marketing. The film will undoubtedly find a new audience on disc, and like the not-dissimilar Starship Troopers, grow into a cult favourite in years to come. But we can only wonder what might have happened if Edge Of Tomorrow had been sold with a bit more verve; had its posters and trailers been invested with the same wit as the film itself, its battle for the box office might have ended in victory rather than defeat.