Review: Edge of Tomorrow

Doug Liman calls on perennial tough guy Tom Cruise to play a wimp in the opening reels of his crackerjack-entertaining sci-fi action flick Edge of Tomorrow, and Cruise is up for the challenge. The movie falls into the same proud tradition of time-loop head-spinners like Groundhog Day, as well as some other memorable episodes from the annals of TV sci-fi. I’ll get to those in a moment, but first I wanted to touch briefly on Cruise’s performance and the relationship between “character” actors and leading men.

It’s no small thing for Cruise to play a role with a real arc. Think about most of the action-movie characters he’s played over the last several years. Me, I can’t think of the last one he played that actually changed from movie’s beginning to end. His characters usually call on him to play his “default” setting as an actor — stolid, competent, focused, serious — with the occasional pathos thrown in, such as his drug addiction and personal loss in Minority Report, or the alienation from his family he feels in War of the Worlds.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but such roles don’t leap off the screen the way Cruise’s character in Edge of Tomorrow does. Major Cage begins the movie as a servile pretty-boy in a suit, a riff both on A Few Good Men’s Daniel Kaffee (who joined the Navy because it’s what his daddy would’ve wanted), as well as one of Cruise’s best-loved roles, Jerry Maguire. (Hat-tip to the great Matt Zoller Seitz for that one.)

I make this argument all the time, but the definition of the term “character actor” has inverted over the course of the modern era. It used to mean someone who followed the Method school of acting and vanished into a role. By definition, most working actors should be “character” actors of one kind or another, but few are. Even more confusing is how there’s a whole array of actors working today who simply play close to their “default” setting as people. Dick Miller, Glenn Morshower, Brad Dourif and Geoffrey Lewis are just a few. (They’re not with us any more, but J.T. Walsh and James Rebhorn are a couple more examples.)

I don’t for a moment mean to wave aside the excellent work these performers do in their roles. Even within the sometimes-stifling confines of Hollywood, they get to stretch themselves — usually way more often than someone like Cruise. But for the most part, they get cast because they bring a specific energy and look necessary for a role, and they’re not asked to much else beyond that.

Ditto for Cruise. It’s funny — here I am praising the first part of Cruise’s performance in Edge, but when it comes to action-movie mayhem, there’s a clear reason why Cruise is who he is. I don’t know what he does on set, but there’s a certain level of imaginative intensity on display when he, for example, strikes a belletic pose while firing missiles from shoulder-mounted launchers.

All the same, Cruise convincingly registers as a coward in the opening scenes of Edge, and it really matters. It matters for the character, who we watch track a progression from yellabelly to hero, and it matters to the audience because his cowardice is captivating in its own curious way. (My colleague Lance Carmichael of CC2K pointed this out, and I agree. Any one of us could readily relate to Cruise’s character, who threatens a decorated general in a foolhardy effort to get out of a front-line battle-assignment.)

(Side note: Did you ever notice that Arnold Schwarzenegger was tasked to play a wimp at the beginning of Total Recall? Seriously, go back and look at how he’s trying to play a quiet, nice guy, especially in his scene with the salesman at Recall. It wasn’t until my zillionth viewing that I picked up on how he tries to deliver his lines in a higher register, his shoulders slumped. I don’t know if Schwarzenegger’s bargelike physical presence precludes him from playing such roles, but it certainly works against him.)

Anyway, let’s talk about Edge’s canny use of omission. One of the joys of time-loop narratives is how they play with knowledge. Some characters are aware of the loop, while others aren’t, and most of the narrative’s tension emanates from that disparity. Bill Murray’s character spends great swaths of Groundhog Day trying to convince others of his plight, but he’s only able to move on with his life when he gives up and concentrates on trying to make himself a better person. By contrast, Edge’s narrative hinges on the ability of the characters to convince others that a time-loop exists. Impressively, the filmmakers limit this knowledge and belief to only a few key characters who are privy to the time-loop themselves. To wit, Emily Blunt’s soldier-extraordinaire once possessed the same reset button as Cruise’s character — but she lost it. That’s the only reason why she believes him. (It has to do with alien blood. Don’t ask. This isn’t the kind of time-travel movie that fares well under scrutiny, though it holds up better than Rian Johnson’s Looper, at least until a baffling crown-pleaser of an ending cancels out the high stakes established for the movie’s final movements.)

But in addition to their storytelling discipline, the filmmakers deliver several scenes that take place in a new setting, and while it’s the first time we’ve seen the action, it’s not the first time the characters have seen it. These omissions add a great sense of dread to the proceedings, a palpable feeling of doom.

One remarkable scene has Cruise and Blunt in a barn, debating whether or not to boost a small helicopter for their mission. Midway through the scene, Cruise offers her a cup of coffee, remembering she likes three sugars. It’s a small detail, but it sparks something in Blunt’s character, leading to a pregnant pause in the middle of what is an otherwise headlong movie. She realizes they’ve been to that farmhouse before — and she’s never made it out. Bravo. (Most of these “Oh, shit, we’ve been here before” moments happen in the movie’s luftpauses, which double their efficiency. Even the quietest moments are fraught with peril.)

Moving on: My colleague Lance Carmichael bemoaned the lack of compelling new alien designs, pointing to H.R. Geiger’s xenomorph as the last truly original monster to spring from tniseltown’s dark imagination. He’s not wrong, though I admired the thought that went into Edge’s creatures, the mimics. A lot of ink has been spilled trying to describe ‘em, and if pressed, I’d liken them to phlegmmy splatters of slippery squid. The creatures move as if submerged even when aboveground, darting around the frame like electrons leaping from shell to shell, simultaneously arachnid and teuthidian.

But they’re still a lot like the sentinels from The Matrix. Oh, well.

Finally, I want to shout my love for time-travel — and specifically, time-loop stories — to the mountainpeaks. Hollywood could halt all production on movies and do nothing but make time-loop movies for a year, and I’d be happy. Earlier I promised to look back at a couple of my favorites. Here goes:

Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Cause and Effect”

It’s got one of the best cold-opens ever — the Enterprise’s last moments before a dreaded warp-core breach engulfs the ship — as well as a sink-or-swim structure that puts enormous trust in the audience to figure out what’s going on. I like stories that use every weapon in its storytelling arsenal to make us empathize with the people onscreen, and “Cause and Effect” does just that by withholding the truth until the intrepid crew figures it out themselves. (Memento is another such story that uses structure to aid empathy.)

“Cause and Effect” also lays bare some of TNG’s series DNA, which reveals an unlikely ancestor: The Twilight Zone. I seldom think of TNG as a horror show, but “Cause and Effect” has some admirably eerie moments, such as when the crew picks up an “echo” from a previous time-loop of their final, anguished screams. Patrick Stewart also gets bonus points for his totally creeped-out reaction when he finds out how long the ship’s been trapped in its temporal eddy.

The X-Files – “Monday”

Co-written by Breaking Bad head honcho Vince Gilligan, “Monday” makes the daring choice to omit the redoubtable agents Mulder and Scully from the time-loop, instead calling on episode guest star Carrie Hamilton to embody the desperation and frazzled boredom that would come to dominate the existence of anyone trapped in such a predicament. Hamilton delivers a stellar performance, one of my all-time favorites.

Belief is also one of the main themes of these stories, and that works to this episode’s favor. Hamilton’s character eventually fixates on convincing the hyper-empathic Agent Mulder of her story, and it makes for some of the most touching moments in the series. For my money, Mulder’s good-hearted credulity never got him in as much trouble as I would’ve liked, but in this case, my cold, cold heart warms a bit when he takes this hopeless, defeated woman at her word. It’s all she needed.