by Patrick Bromley
In the last five or six years, the bar on summer blockbusters has been lowered so far that I worry we cannot recognize one when it's done right. Edge of Tomorrow, the new Tom Cruise sci-fi vehicle from director Doug Liman, does it right. The movie reminds us that big-budget summer entertainment doesn't need to sacrifice things like character, story, dialogue or a genuine sense of fun in the service of CGI spectacle or post-Nolan "realism." It's why we go to the movies.
Based on the novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka (which was also the original, less generic and better title of this movie), Edge of Tomorrow begins five years into a war with an alien race dubbed "mimics" for their ability to adapt in combat, making them very difficult to kill. Maj. William Cage (Cruise) is a former marketing exec who now works as military PR, going on news shows and touting the new mechanized suits that helped solider Rita Vratski (Emily Blunt) achieve the first-ever human victory against the mimics, literally making her the poster girl for the war effort. When he's called upon to serve in a combat zone, Cage refuses and goes so far as to blackmail General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) to get out of it. Instead, he's arrested and knocked unconscious, waking up on a Heathrow base where he's told he'll be shipping out the next day as part of Operation Downfall, a global offensive and last-ditch attempt to ambush the mimics and wipe them out. Instead, the aliens anticipate the attack and slaughter everyone including Cage, who dies in combat pretty quickly. And then he wakes up.
There's a lot of plot there, but one of Edge of Tomorrow's special qualities is that it doesn't feel too exposition-heavy even when it is. Of course there are scenes of characters standing around and explaining things to one another; there has to be with a story like this. The screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie (the Oscar-winning writer of The Usual Suspects who directed Cruise in the very good Jack Reacher) and Jez and Jeb Butterworth (who wrote and directed the underrated black comedy Birthday Girl in 2001) takes a number of problematic shortcuts when the movie starts to rely on things like magic visions and powers conveniently gained and lost, but those will be stumbling blocks only to those not already drawn in to the film's cleverness and wit. It's not what is traditionally referred to as "smart" science fiction -- there aren't any heady concepts to chew on or larger social statements being made -- but it is smartly made.
Doug Liman has a unique, off-kilter way of approaching these blockbuster type movies. It was true of The Bourne Identity, which felt new and different from the other espionage and action movies of the early 2000s. It was even true of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, a domestic comedy that was overshadowed by its offscreen drama and is now largely dismissed as being messy garbage. But I like that movie (enough) as something unconventional -- Liman never makes the obvious choices, never adopts the same tone we've come to expect from so many other action comedies. He puts a spin on the sci-fi genre just as he has the action, comedy and romance genres before it.
As a star vehicle for Cruise, Edge of Tomorrow is very clever -- the guy knows how to pick a project. Here's a movie that gives us everything we expect out of a Tom Cruise movie while simultaneously subverting those expectations. When the film begins, Cage is a douche; we believe him to be a terrible person, but really he's just a coward. That's one of my favorite things about the movie, actually. Cage doesn't have to learn how to be a good man. As soon as he
realizes what's going to happen when the fighting breaks out, he does his very best to stop the
attack and save as many lives as possible. A lazier version of the movie
would have made Cage a selfish prick who has to learn to care about
other people (and that's just Groundhog Day -- nothing against Groundhog Day, because that movie is perfect), but Edge of Tomorrow presents him as a guy who genuinely wants to make a difference in the outcome he foresees. He just lacks the ability to do so.
And because Liman is such a smart director and because the script is so clever, the film avoids the repetitive structure it would have been all too easy to adopt. The movie keeps shifting perspectives to keep us on our toes. Sometimes, we're making first-time discoveries alongside Cage; other times, we only slowly become aware of just how many times he has lived through a certain experience. The approach keeps the story moving forward without sacrificing the logic of its own hook. It also helps to deepen the relationship between Cruise and Blunt, which has more to do with mutual respect and understanding than it does with traditional Hollywood romance (though there are hints of that, too). Blunt is the movie's secret weapon, by the way. She's one of the best female action heroes of the last 20 years -- a complete badass in no way defined by her gender (she is neither overtly feminine nor stripped of her femininity). Watching Rita Vratski drag an enormous sword into battle and start killing aliens with it is a bigger thrill than anything I've seen so far this summer. As good as Tom Cruise is in the movie, Blunt owns it.
Please understand that I have no issue with Tom Cruise's religion. It doesn't change the way I feel about him as an actor or as a movie star, so my reading the movie as a statement on Scientology is not a criticism, nor is it an accusation that he has smuggled a pro-Scientology agenda into his big summer movie. But Cruise is a big enough star and exerts enough influence to be considered the auteur of his own filmography, and the fact that he has made so many science fiction films in the last 10-12 years had me curious if there was any correlation between his highly publicized and incredibly secretive religion -- especially because it was essentially authored by a famous science fiction writer.
I'm not a religious person, so anything beyond "try to be a good person" and "be excellent to each other" sounds just as foreign to me as anything in Scientology. Having read up on the religion a little, there are certain tenets that jumped out as being explored in Edge of Tomorrow. Again, I claim no expertise in Scientology. Mine is only the most cursory of understandings.
Here's something from the Scientology Wikipedia page:
"Thetans are reborn time and time again in new bodies through a process called "assumption" which is analogous to reincarnation."
Umm...hello? THAT IS WHAT THE WHOLE MOVIE IS ABOUT. Cage is "reincarnated" over and over until he can "get it right." Edge of Tomorrow is an illustration of the Scientologist's Assumption -- the space between life and death and rebirth. There is no real dying for the Scientologist (Cruise) in Edge of Tomorrow. There is only cycle of reincarnation, only Cage is repeatedly reincarnated as a slightly earlier version of himself.
"Scientology emphasizes the importance of survival, which it subdivides into eight classifications that are referred to as dynamics. An individual's desire to survive is considered to be the first dynamic."
This is probably a stretch, as "survival" is a goal of most species (though in a religion like, say, Christianity, the afterlife is the endgame and survival of the flesh is not as important). But seeing as how the characters in Edge of Tomorrow are single-mindedly focused on survival -- not just for themselves, but for the entire species -- the movie seems to tap into the religions primary dynamic.
Hubbard himself put it this way: "For a Scientologist, the final test of any knowledge he has gained is, 'did the data and the use of it in life actually improve conditions or didn't it?'"
This, to me, is the most interesting correlation, as it once again speaks to the importance of "learning" both in Scientology and in the plot of the film. All of Edge of Tomorrow is about gaining knowledge and "improving conditions" until Cage achieves a day with no mistakes (that might sound like a spoiler; I assure you it is not). Sometimes, that means learning which ways to duck and pivot during a battle. Sometimes it means knowing who to talk to and trust. Everyday is a learning experience -- a collection of data compiled to achieve not just knowledge, but survival.