I've been seeing promos for EDGE OF TOMORROW for about six months now, and it's rather embarrassing that it took a couple comments during Tom Cruise's interview with The Daily Show last week before I woke up to a major aspect of its premise. The film stars Cruise as a solider named Cage who is part of a battalion of ground troops taking on an alien force in Europe. When he dies in battle, he suddenly wakes up a day earlier, quickly realizing he's now part of a time loop that resets the day each time he dies. This gives him the chance to learn from his mistakes and try to last longer on the battlefield, hopefully eventually scoring a victory.
It's a perfect metaphor for the nature of a video game character/player. It is perhaps the most literal translation of what it's like to play something like SUPER MARIO BROS, where Mario gets sent to a new land, and - thanks to extra lives - gets a restart from the beginning every time he dies. If EDGE OF TOMORROW didn't exist, it's whole hook would be a clever enough conceit to actually take another run at re-adapting MARIO BROS for the big screen.
I haven't read any reviews yet, but early chatter seems to use GROUNDHOG DAY as shorthand when describing the concept. EOT uses the time loop in an entirely different way than that earlier film, though. In GROUNDHOG DAY, Phil Conners is trying to find a way out of the loop. He needs the repeating day to stop. In EOT, the loop is a tool that the protagonists use to gain information and experience that will let them achieve a deciding victory in this war with the alien occupiers.
When we first meet Cage, he's a Major in the military's PR department. He had a hand in creating a propaganda star out of Emily Blunt's Rita Vratski, who won a major battle on her first day in the field and became the poster girl for their new recruitment drive. Cage is a pretty boy, a glad-hander with zero combat experience and no desire to get anywhere near a battlefield. Most amusingly, Cruise seems to be playing him as an amplification of his own public persona rather than his action movie persona.
I don't want to get too much into the mechanics of how Cruise is able to reset, or too heavily into the specifics of what his mission becomes. What is important is that after a few runs through the loop, he tracks down Rita, who's familiar with what's happening to him because she too used to be a repeater. She trains him and through her we not only learn the rules, but figure out the road map to defeating the aliens.
One thing a lot of writers could learn from the script is economy of action. Cruise's first time through the repeating day is shown in fairly heavy detail. During the second time, we see less. There's a nice cut from Cruise telling his commanding officer, "Just give me 30 seconds and I can explain all of this" to him being dragged off kicking and screaming. We don't need to see Cruise recap the previous fifteen minutes in a failed attempt to convince the commander he knows the future. We just need to see the result - that he's disbelieved.
The timing of the cut also provokes a laugh and gets some comic relief in. There are a few more moments of these that happen throughout. Once or twice we see a scene end abruptly and then start over just seconds earlier, indicating that Cruise met an untimely (and sometimes darkly comic) death and we're catching up to him after he's already relived through the necessary preamble. (I dare not spoil the best one of these but it involves Cruise trying to slip away from his platoon unnoticed.)
The film is peppered with moments like that. We come into the second or third version of a scene much later than we did on the first go-round. At times, we're only shown a series of events on the final time Cruise completes the event. There's a moment late in the film where he's trying to convince a general that the ground mission will fail and that the only chance is for the general to release some contraband he has in a safe.
It's easy to overlook how challenging this performance must have been for Cruise. Obviously a film a shot out of sequence, so actors are used to having to track their performances without the benefit of playing the film in any sort of emotional continuity. There's an extra degree of difficulty when an actor has to perform multiple versions of the same scene - often with near-identical dialogue - but bring a different emotional nuance to each version. The cocky version of Cage whom we meet in the start slowly disappears over the course of the film. "Press Junket" Cruise matures into "Ethan Hunt" Cruise.
The first scene in the loop is usually Cruise's confrontation with a commanding officer played by Bill Paxton. We see that a variety of ways and each instance leads into a number of other scenes that follow that particular stage of Cage's development. Cruise has to make sure all these jigsaw pieces fit perfectly, even though he might spend a week shooting 12 iterations of that scene, he has to make sure the version that fits with his 4th version of the loop is distinct from the others AND matches the later scenes from that version of the loop.
Of course, when he shoots the next scene in that sequence, it will be on a completely different day and also likely as one of many multiple incarnations of that scene. And it's not as if he's playing one extreme to the other. This is a gradual arc, a little like stepping up the musical scale one key at a time. An actor gets little credit when they pull this off because the perfect continuity is invisible, but it's the sort of performance that you can only get from a dedicated professional. That's just one reason why only a fool would dismiss this as a big dumb shoot 'em up.
It's soon apparent from the way that Cruise is anticipating every minor event unfolding during this meeting (sort of like Bill Murray masterminding his heist in GROUNDHOG DAY, or telling Rita about everything that will happen seconds from now in the diner) that he's lived through this many times before. We don't need to see five failed attempts to win the general over - all that maters is this last desperate time where Cruise DOES say the right thing to get what he needs. This is also the sort of scene that works better late in the film when the audience is so used to the rules the movie is playing by that it's easy to process what's going on. There's a certain point where the movie stops explaining every last little thing and trusts that you're smart enough to keep up.
The break into the third act is another moment that underlines how perfect the structure of this film is. Without betraying too much, all I'll say is that there's a clear "oh shit" moment where we realize that all bets are off. One of the problems of telling a time travel story is that if the characters can always go back in time, the stakes are diminished. This safety net is obliterated by a development that establishes a tight ticking clock on the end. Just when we've finally gotten used to the idea of "Oh, he can just die and start over. No big," the film pulls the rug out from under us.
The only aspect of the script that doesn't totally track for me is the final ending. And since I've been careful about not blowing other plot points, this is your final warning that what follows after this is nothing but SPOILERS
We cool? Okay, so the team succeeds in destroying the Omega, and just before Cruise dies in the processes, he absorbs the Omega's blood, which is what sent him back in time in the first place. He wakes up in the past, but somehow several hours sooner than he usually did. What's more, despite time rewinding, the Omega is apparently somehow still dead even though those events haven't happened yet.
That seems a little weird to me. Cruise leaping back a little further I guess I could just chalk up to him absorbing a lot more blood before he died. (I considered that it's just that he died a few hours sooner than scheduled, but the fact is even when he lasted well past his original time of death, he always bounced back to the exact same point in time.) The Omega remaining dead I guess is just supposed to be one of those weird time-travel things, where I suppose if it's killed at one point in the loop it reverberates backwards.
It seems to be a deliberate paradox, but I'm a little thrown by the fact the film doesn't try to explain it. There's not even a scene of Cruise or his science buddy making a theoretical guess as to what it all means. It doesn't ruin the film or anything, but I do wish the ending were more airtight.
Still, I highly recommend EDGE OF TOMORROW as the sort of action film we need more of. The characters take center stage and the movie is intelligent about every one of its developments.