Video games keep looking more and more impressively like the movies, but actual movies about video games remain a pretty grim scene overall. We’re past the Double Dragon days, but 2005’s Doom, 2008’s Max Payne, 2009’s Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, and the efforts of Uwe Boll have kept big-screen adaptations disreputable, even while Paul W. S. Anderson’s Resident Evil series has continued to chug along as a reliable moneymaker.
We’re at the point where if you weren’t already familiar with the Need for Speed video game series, you’d never know that’s what the Aaron Paul racing movie from earlier this year was based on from its marketing materials. Someone at the studio level clearly decided that the trailer wouldn’t benefit from touting the film’s “based on the best-selling video games” status.
Edge of Tomorrow, starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt and opening this Friday, isn’t based on a video game, despite posters that make it look like it could have spawned from the latest hit first-person shooter game. But it does something that’s a lot more interesting than transporting game characters over into a movie — it embraces video game logic and gives it a human face and heart, investing it with the numbness and exhaustion that come from running through the same scenario toward the same goal again and again until you get it right.
Edge of Tomorrow is actually based on a Japanese novel called All You Need Is Kill (a phrase that isn’t quite English, but is certainly more memorable than the aggressively forgettable title they ended up using). The movie, which was directed by Doug Liman (Jumper), follows Cage (Tom Cruise), a former ad exec turned military officer living in a world that been invaded by an alien race labeled “Mimics,” a breed of fast-moving tentacly things that seem to guess what mankind’s next move will be before it’s made.
Cage is the smug face of the global recruitment effort, but after he enrages a general (Brendan Gleeson), he finds himself shanghaied into service as one of the soldiers preparing to invade alien-occupied France in humanity’s big push to exterminate the enemy. New technology has made it so that this isn’t a direct death sentence — the soldiers have been given weaponized exoskeleton suits that, according to Cage’s own party line, require minimal training to turn recruits into warriors. But he doesn’t even know how to turn the safety off when he’s dumped onto the beach and into combat.
The Mimics know the human forces are coming and quickly decimate the troops in a chaotic, brutal sequence that feels like a reworking of the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan, only with extraterrestrials. Cage has a momentary encounter with Rita (Emily Blunt), the “angel of Verdun” who became the mascot of the military effort after helping win the last battle — but she’s killed, then he is too, bathed in the blood of the Mimic he dies taking out. Then, he wakes up to find out it’s the day before, and he’s just discovering his new role as a private again.
Cage continues to be caught in a time loop that’s made him the equivalent of a video game character with a single save point — the morning before the attack on the beach. When he dies, he goes right back to that moment and has to run through the same events, from meeting the chipper but steely Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton) to getting suited up by sneering members of his assigned squadron.
Like any good player, he tries different variations each time, pushing the boundaries of the path on which he’s been set, and learning the choreography and timing to keep him alive a little longer. He’s not allowed to skip through the cutscenes the way we are — he quickly memorizes Farell’s speeches and the reactions from his fellow soldiers, and tries impatiently to find shortcuts through conversations. He even gets to train when he figures out he can link up with Rita, who has good reason to believe his stories about what’s happening to him, though no one else does.
You get killed, you start over. It’s video game logic of a particularly unforgiving sort in which Cage’s progress can’t be preserved. He can only learn more each time. And the screenplay, written by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth, shows how the repetition wears down Cage and reshapes him into a tougher and more anguished man — he’s Phil from Groundhog Day, but the window of time allotted to him is horrible, and every time he “resets,” as Rita calls it, it hurts as much as dying tends to.
Edge of Tomorrow is so clever with its concept (until the very end, which kind of throws up its hands) and its action is so well-directed that it’d be forgivable for the film to skim over the emotional toll of being made to run through a traumatic battle and to watch people die over and over again. But it doesn’t, which gives the movie an added edge.
Tom Cruise is his usual solid blockbuster leading-man self as Cage, flashing that grin and guiding the character from a man ignorant and glib about combat to one forced to repeatedly experience its grittiest details. But he’s outclassed by Blunt, who’s the movie’s sad-eyed soul — and who, buffed up and smudge-faced, makes for a excellently compelling action heroine. She’s the one who makes the tougher choices and who maintains the steeliest spine as Rita and Cage work together, the believable product of a military that’s depicted with notable harshness.
Cage is the smooth talker forced to actually take action, while Rita’s the woman of few words who’s already taken multiple trips through hell herself. When Edge of Tomorrow serves up a touch of romance between the two, it feels shockingly rote, one of the rare moments in which it betrays its high concept in favor of what’s expected between a male and female lead. It’s largely a very strong summer feature that realizes and explores the concepts of another medium with intelligence and nuance — it’s only toward the end when Edge of Tomorrow reveals itself as just a movie, after all.