It’s difficult to think of another recent actor who’s been quite so dedicated to mainstream science fiction as Tom Cruise. With Minority Report, War Of The Worlds, Oblivion and now Edge Of Tomorrow under his belt, he’s rapidly becoming the current equivalent of Charlton Heston in the 60s and 70s.
Based on the Japanese light novel All You Need Is Kill – the film’s original title before it went for the less interesting Edge Of Tomorrow – this is a lithe, exciting sci-fi action film with all the affection for mecha and heavy weaponry you’d expect from such directors as Neill Blomkamp and James Cameron. It also features some great performances and a welcome tendency to subvert genre expectations as well as adhere to them.
We’re all used to seeing Tom Cruise play the grinning hero in our summer movies – he’s been an A-list Hollywood leading man for nearly 30 years, after all – but it’s rare to see him play the kind of character he inhabits in Edge Of Tomorrow. Here, Cruise is William Cage, a major in the US army who’s coasting through a conflict against alien invaders. While proper, lower-ranking soldiers do their duty on the front line, Cage uses his good looks to sell the war to the world’s public.
A self-confessed coward more used to being on television than on the battlefield (“I can’t stand the sight of blood, really,” he stutters), Cage is horrified when he’s forced to join a full-scale ground assault on mainland Europe. Strapped into a high-tech battle suit at the behest of Brendan Gleeson’s bullish General Brigham, Cage is dropped into the middle of a roaring, D-Day-like counter strike on a French beach. And unlike, say, Ethan Hunt, Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell, or any of the other heroes Cruise has played in the past, Cage shows no particular talent for fighting at all – at first, he can’t even work out how to turn off the safety catch on his weapons system.
Fate does, however, give Cage one unexpected advantage: when he’s inevitably wiped out by shrieking space invaders, he wakes up at precisely the same time 24 hours earlier, and winds up having to live through the battle again. And then again. Initially mystified by the time loop, he gradually learns to use it to his advantage, and with the assistance of the far tougher soldier Rita Vrataski (a sinewy Emily Blunt), he tries to find a means of repelling the invasion.
Comparisons to the classic Groundhog Day are inevitable, but Edge Of Tomorrow also owes a debt to a disparate slew of other movies of the 80s and 90s, including Aliens, Starship Troopers (both Paul Verhoeven’s film and Robert Heinlein’s source novel, with its armoured warriors dropped into battle from above the field), The Matrix and Saving Private Ryan. Commendably, the film succeeds in putting elements from these films into its bubbling cauldron and coming out with something which feels distinct and entirely coherent.
The assured pace certainly helps: director Doug Liman keeps the plot speeding along at a boisterous clip (demonstrating a feel for pacing we first saw in 1999’s Go), and he makes unusually light work of establishing the near-future setting (largely through the use of fake BBC news footage and the like) and its fight-die-repeat premise. Aggressive bursts of effects-heavy action give way to carefully-judged flashes of humour, with colourful supporting turns from Gleeson, Bill Paxton – who’s now advanced to the rank of Sergeant after playing Hudson in Aliens – and Noah Taylor as an eccentric scientist.
Edge Of Tomorrow also provides a surprisingly solid platform for Tom Cruise’s oft-overlooked abilities as an actor. While he was good value in last year’s Oblivion – a film we genuinely liked – he’s even better here, having been handed a character with more to him than a winning smile and a strong right hook. Cage is a coward, sure, but no more so than most of us would be if we were suddenly dropped into the middle of a warzone without adequate training.
Cage’s imperfections actually give something for the actor to do – he adapts and changes throughout the movie, which is something we rarely see in even the best Cruise movies. “Battle is the great redeemer” is a line Bill Paxton’s character repeats more than once, and for Cage, his predicament is also a chance to change who he is for the better.
This isn’t just a Cruise vehicle, either. Emily Blunt is arguably his co-lead here, a battle-hardened warrior who matches Cruise blow-for-blow right up to the final reel. It’s difficult to think of another actress who could embody such a tough character while still retaining an air of knowing humour.
Liman’s movie doesn’t aspire to any greater significance other than to be a big, entertaining sci-fi action film – unlike Groundhog Day, we can’t see Edge Of Tomorrow being studied in philosophy classes any time soon, and it lacks the satirical humour of another of its touchstones, Starship Troopers. But oddly enough, this makes Liman’s film all the more refreshing. At a time when writers and directors feel a need to engage with the zeitgeist, Edge Of Tomorrow simply establishes the rules of its premise and lets rip. The result is one of this summer’s most unexpected and entertaining big-screen surprises.
The Edge Of Tomorrow is out in UK cinemas now.
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