Coward in the Crucible of Battle — “Edge of Tomorrow”

Edge of Tomorrow lead

I kept trying to come up with what movie Edge of Tomorrow feels like. Its beach-landing scenes evoke the D-Day of Saving Private Ryan. Its aliens remind you of the squidlike robots in The Matrix, though they hunt more like the evolving machines in Screamers. Its version of mechanized infantry keeps the banter of Aliens but trades in the oversized guns for mechanical suits that seem like a redux of the clunky, earliest version of Iron Man.

It’s not a knock on Edge of Tomorrow to say it’s reminiscent of so many other movies. The more familiar we are with the basics, the more Edge can get on with the story. Aliens have crash-landed on Earth, as they are often wont to do. Tom Cruise plays William Cage, an advertising exec who’s commissioned into the army because he’s so gosh darn charming in front of cameras and the Army needs to sell a war. He’s never seen a real fight, though. In the very first scene, he’s told that he’ll be embedded with the troops in a major assault. Cage’s response? To beg, cajole, and eventually blackmail his way out of seeing combat. This is not your typical Cruise character – Cage is a coward when we meet him.

Edge of Tomorrow begging

He finds himself shipped to the front anyway. It’s a disaster – the army is crushed and Cage knows so little about his mechanized armor that he spends most of the battle figuring out how to take the safety off his weapons. He is killed, and wakes up at the beginning of the previous day. He’s hijacked the alien’s ability to rewind time – key to their predicting humanity’s every move. Now, every time Cage dies, he restarts the day before the battle.

Cage tries to convince others of this, and the extent to which his commanding officers (especially an off-kilter Sergeant played by Bill Paxton) find ways to shut him up is one of the movie’s many sources of humor. So is Cruise’s trial-and-error approach to escaping his unit and tracking down Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a legendary soldier who once endured a time loop similar to Cage’s. No one else will believe the two of them, so she takes it upon herself to brutally train Cage. If she breaks him, she shoots him and resets the day, Cage taking his accumulated knowledge into every next attempt. That beach invasion stops looking like an invasion and becomes an elegant choreography – Cage learns every step and move Rita and he must take to survive.

Director Doug Liman has made some solid films, The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith chief among them. He’s always been great at beginnings, and he knows how to tell an ending, but he’s never had any idea what to do with a movie’s middle, when the characters have to talk to each other. It’s a perfect fit here. Edge has no middle, just countless beginnings. Cage makes attempts to get to know Rita – after hundreds of the same day relived, he’s desperate for a human connection – but for her, it’s always the first time they’ve met, and there just isn’t the time for chit-chat. It’s refreshing to see Cruise as a needy coward who must become more out of desperation, while Blunt gets to play the calculated, relentless warrior.

Edge of Tomorrow Blunt

As an action movie, Edge is neck-and-neck with the Captain America sequel as this year’s best. It doesn’t hold as much meaning as the superhero film, but it has an old-fashioned mentality for adventure storytelling – it puts enough puzzles and meaningful obstacles in our heroes’ way that the action isn’t just our reward, but theirs, too.

This is also the best use of 3-D this year. 3-D has been killing movie experiences lately. Maleficent was blurry and motion sick. The 300 sequel was hazy and blearily lit. Good as the movie was, the shallow focus cinematography of the latest X-Men strained eyes. Directors are still learning how to implement 3-D well. Not all movies are worth the extra price of admission for it, which is why I always highlight its use.

It’s clear Liman made the commitment to pre-plan and choreograph his 3-D ahead of time. It’s striking how crisp and natural the 3-D in Edge of Tomorrow is. When shrapnel and dirt flew toward the camera, I blinked as if expecting to find something in my eye. Even dialogue scenes make you feel as if you’re a fly on the wall. It’s one of the few movies this year that absolutely demands to be seen in the theater.

Edge of Tomorrow beach

Edge of Tomorrow is rated PG-13 for violence and language.

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