Monday, June 9, 2014

Review: Edge of Tomorrow

by Patrick Bromley
This, boys and girls, is how you make a summer movie.

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.
He wakes up to do it all again, knowing that the invasion is a trap, knowing that his squad -- hell, the entire army -- is going to be wiped out. He tries to explain, but no one will listen. So again he goes into battle and again he dies. And again he wakes up, again and again, reliving the same day and trying to figure out how to get it right. He learns that Rita believes what's happening because she has experienced the same thing before, so the pair join up to use the situation to their advantage and end the war for good.

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.
I've spoken before about how a number of Tom Cruise movies are mostly about his character remembering that he is awesome. Edge of Tomorrow provides an interesting counterpoint to that trope; it is, in some ways, an origin story for Cruise's awesomeness. He is not born awesome; the way he became awesome, the movie suggests, is through a lifetime of practice and do-overs. Watching that process is another of the film's many charms, primarily because it's more than willing to have fun at the expense of Tom Cruise, Movie Star. Like so many of his best movies (Magnolia, Jerry Maguire, Eyes Wide Shut), Edge of Tomorrow understands that the best Cruise is one that has been broken down. Liman revels in every punch, gunshot and freak accident that does the breaking.

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.
One more thing: if I didn't know any better, I might read Edge of Tomorrow as Cruise's secret Scientology movie.

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.
But these are just theories -- a way of looking at the movie as more than just fun summer entertainment, even if that's where the movie works best. Yes, the last act is a problem as the movie has to work its way out of its own gimmick and resolve the story. Big choices have to be made by the characters, requiring big leaps from the screenwriters. But the movie mostly earns the moments and has built up enough goodwill that a finale that's not quite as good as what came before can't derail the whole thing. Rather than asking that we turn off our brains to enjoy ourselves, Edge of Tomorrow is the rare summer movie that engages us both mentally and viscerally. It has some rousing action, two strong movie star performances and a healthy amount of unexpected humor. Maybe it's the kind of film that's looking better by comparison; as summer releases demand less and less of us, here is a movie that works as hard as it can to keep us entertained. It's a lot like Tom Cruise in that way.

30 comments:

  1. Not an observation that is solely my own but I couldn't help thinking about video games while watching Edge of Tomorrow. In particular, RPGs (where characters in the game help you along the way), not knowing how to do anything at the beginning of a fight (there's a shot in the first beach scene where Cruise accidentally fires off a missle), random deaths (getting run over by a truck because you didn't time it well enough) etc.

    I think part of the smarts of the movie is that it doesn't call attention to this fact and works as an analogy for video games and as its own thing.

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    1. I also felt the movie was very video game-y at times, which isn't always the best thing for a movie to be, but in this case it didn't detract from the movie and how enjoyable it was. The movie is super fun.

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    2. There is a ton of video game stuff. Walking out, both myself and the guys I saw it with made connections to a number of different games we have played over the years. I thought the execution was good enough that it seemed like the makers picked stuff here and there that they liked from games rather than other movies they liked.

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  2. I had a similar reaction: found the movie to be very entertaining, and I was willing to overlook aspects of the third act because of the goodwill generated in the first two. I think viewers will decide if they want to like it. There are things to criticize, if desired, but there is so much to like compared to other summer blockbusters.

    It's disappointing that U.S. box office is relatively low; the theater was only 20-30% full on Friday. Hopefully the movie will pick up momentum with word of mouth and as the school year ends.

    I watched Looper to make it a time travel double feature weekend. That movie works well, too, and Emily Blunt just became my favorite actor.

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  3. You guys have me very excited for this. Too bad about the box office - I wonder if the trailers made it look like too much of a generic sci-fi actioner. Other than your review just now, the only thing I saw that indicated any kind of fun was a clip they showed during The Daily Show that totally changed my trailer-based expectations. Also, big mistake changing that great title!

    Glad Tom took my advice and is playing a character that's more interesting than perfect and hell, if it helps make movies as good as this one sounds, bring on the vaguely Scientological allegories - it's not like we haven't had loads of the Christian stuff ("Loads of Christian Stuff" is also the name of my religious-metal band).

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  4. You had me at hello, (see what I did there?) I only read the first paragraph. I was wanting to see this movie, but was unsure, but if you say it's good I'm seeing it this weekend.

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  5. So sad to see the box office returns on this. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that one of my all-time favorite genres seems to be all but dead, the hard-R sci-fi flick, aka Total Recall and Starship Troopers, it now seems like even the PG-13 original sci-fi is dying as well. I have a feeling that more than one studio exec woke up this morning and said "you heard them, more super heroes! More franchises! More sequels."

    Edge of Tomorrow was fantastic, despite a very problematic third act (I wouldn't call it a miss, but it wasn't the homerun I was hoping for. So let's call it a single? Maybe a ground-rule double.) THIS is exactly why I go to the movies in the summer. Between EOT and X-Men, the summer is turning out to be a very pleasant surprise, I now have a newfound hope for Planet of the Apes and Guardians. But, unfortunately, ugh, you know, Transformers.

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  6. I really loved the movie but had a problem with the last 5 minutes. I thought it built up to a logical conclusion for the characters journey to end and i really thought it was ballsy but then i felt cheated when the movie used its gimmick to pull the rug out and give a different ending that didn't make a whole lot of sense. It seemed like a studio note type ending and i thought it would have been way more interesting if they had gone the other way. But other than that I had so much fun with this movie and I love seeing Tom cruise get back to doing movies that show how charming and awesome he can be in the right roles. Go see it!

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  7. Apart from some very minor beefs with the final five minutes or so that have already been articulated here, this was far and away the best experience I had at the movies this year.

    My praise falls along the same fault lines as Patrick, so I won't rehash, but I did want to float one point of discussion that we've not yet broached and one I'm still turning over in my mind.

    What did you guys make of the whole adventure playing out in a European war theater, particularly when the ensemble is led by the prototypical American leading man of the last three decades or so?

    It seems overly simplistic to just say that the choice was meant to evoke themes of WWII, though the film was released on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, but that was certainly the effect it had on me. A cursory Google informs me that the Japanese novel appears to take place, logically, in a quasi-fictional version of Japan, so clearly a change was made. It would have been so easy to have all this carnage playing out in New York, LA, DC or some other familiar location, but they went another way.

    This isn't a criticism or anything, just something that I was mulling over for a long time after the credits rolled.

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  8. The marketing for this film has been a joke. I almost didn't go see it because of how generic the film looked. I was extremely entertained and enjoyed the ending. However, the 15 minutes before the film's conclusion had me checking my watch because it felt like nothing more than a video game when the previous 2/3 was one of the best movies I'd seen all year.

    The title of "Edge of Tomorrow" is generic too, which doesn't help with audiences thinking (based off marketing) this is a sequel to "Oblivion", but "All You Need is Kill" doesn't fit the film either. Not sure what I would call it though.

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  9. Killer Cage
    All You Need is sk1llz
    G-Day II: This Time it's War
    Full Metal b107ch!
    Mimic This

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  10. So I just want to make sure of something regarding Blunt's character.

    The only reason she became a hero in the first place is because she gained the ability to travel back after killing an Alpha, correct? So after trying countless times (possibly thousands), the Omega allowed her succeed in the first battle, and she was given hero status for the sheer amounts of Mimic's she killed. So like Cruise, she could have started as a private, but only became the "poster girl" essentially because of the power, correct? And basically that's what the Omega had planned, in making humanity think they had achieved "victory", when they actually hadn't? I think that's probably what happened, but just want to be sure.

    I really liked the movie too, and can't remember the last blockbuster movie mostly based on an original concept that I liked this much. It saddens me that it did poorly at the box office, as it's less likely that Hollywood will be willing to take risks like this one in future movies.

    One other thing that Patrick has brought up in the past is that he liked that Cruise is willing to take risks in what roles he chooses, and this movie helps spread that notion even more so. Too bad if it fails he'll likely be forced to do Mission Impossible or Top Gun retreads.

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    1. Yes, she became highly skilled through a similar live-die-repeat cycle that Cage experienced. Rita stated the aliens allowed humans to win previously so that more troops would be dedicated to the upcoming battle. It was not suggested, though, that the aliens wanted humans to get the power to reset time.

      It will be interesting to see if domestic box office picks up over the next few weeks. Either way international markets will likely generate a positive return.

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  11. This movie came out of nowhere for me. Went on a whim and was pretty blown away. My thoughts are pretty similar to what is above. Like others I wasn't crazy about the end. I thought it was a cheat to appease the majority of viewers who would be disappointed. I'm not too excited for the summer movies this year, but if there are any more pleasant surprises I'll be thrilled.

    I thought Blunt and Cruise were excellent choices for their roles. They were the only two characters that really matter and weren't interchangeable, though it was nice to see Bill Paxton doing his thing.

    Overall, 12 dollars and a Friday night well spent.

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  12. Sorry, but the last third really wore me down, and left me feeling a bit depressed and empty. What was the point? Say what you like about Battle: LA being a love letter to the U.S. Marine Corps, it at least had a purpose and a heart. If Cruise meant this as a quasi-Scientology parable, I was unmoved. The romance aspect was pathetic, the big kiss as forced and unbelievable as they come, and I'm really not looking forward to a whole string of movies in which TC pulls women twenty years younger than himself. Finally, the general guy refuses to support even a small mission on the basis of some pretty much impossible precognition, but keeps the scientist's gizmo in his own personal safe? Huh?

    The first two thirds were okay, but leaving X-Men, I felt giddy and happy. Spider-Man just sort of left me tired, but again, this left me glum. Wish I'd seen Locke instead. :P

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  13. Really enjoyed most of the movie, but does seem like it just missed being something really special.

    The end seemed very rushed and almost nonsensical for the sake of being clever.

    And the romantic elements really didn't carry enough weight for me. I almost wish they hadn't had their kiss. It seemed forced. Might've been better to leave it as a "will they?" or "would they have?"

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  14. How it should have ended: the general believes them at least enough to gamble on sending out a strike team of experts. As they wait for news, Cage and the woman go to a local pub for a quiet dinner and talk through their lives and shared traumas; the last twenty minutes play out around the table, My Dinner With Andre-style. The good news comes through, and our heroes get instant meritorious leave for travel to their respective homes. At the airport, they share a tender, chaste hug. Cage kisses her, chastely, on the forehead (he has to stand on his tippy-toes to do so, obviously). Fade to Sarah McLachlan's "Angel" playing over the end credits. I would have respected and enjoyed the hell out of that movie.

    ... Aaaaaand, that's also why they don't let me write $170m flicks.

    Yet. :P

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    1. Thanks! I pride myself on consistently taking bold, albeit imaginary, risks with large studios' money. ;)

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  15. FWIW, EoT has surpassed Oblivion and Elysium in worldwide gross revenue. However, the production budgets on those films were about about $50 million smaller. By the end of its run EoT will likely generate a positive return, just not as much as originally expected.

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  16. I know I'm way late to this party but finally saw this and it was great! One of my favourite Tom Cruise characters and Emily Blunt - wow - a SKOW for sure but not a typical one - I didn't just want to be with her, I wanted to be her - I usually only love myself THAT much.

    The ending bothered me but not enough to tarnish the whole experience and now that I've read an explanation for it that doesn't seem to be grasping at straws, I'm okay with it. Looking forward to watching it again already!

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  17. Caught this on July 4th along with "Life Itself." It's a shame the ad campaign for this movie (particularly the trailer that was shown in theaters for half-a-year before its release) spoiled its premise. If audiences had walked in not knowing that it was going to be "Groundhog Day" with mechanized suits and a future war alien threat then the moment Tom Cruise dies the first time would have been the most epic mind fuck moment in a mainstream Hollywood movie in modern times. Instead it's step # 1 in a pretty long game of building tension and character development through repetition, which five minutes before the credits roll has yielded a pretty effective thinking-man's-but-audience pleasing action movie. It helps that Cruise and Emily Blunt bring their A game (both are humorless but that's OK, not every movie has to be joke-a-minute light), Doug Liman directs the hell out of it (his best work since "The Bourne Identity"), Christopher McQuarrie's contribution to the script makes it smarter than it has any right to be and the supporting performances (particularly Brendan Gleeson and Bill Paxton chewing scenery as a drill sergeant) help lighten-up the mood.

    Alas, the movie's last five minutes feel like a studio mandate to neuter the impact of what would have been a perfect "Dirty Dozen"-type ending with an audience-pleasing one. You can talk yourself into thinking the ending is actually kind-of dark and disturbing (which I don't want to spoil because there's a sliver of mystery around it I'd like to preserve for those that haven't seen it) but that would be like believing the movie isn't set in London in order to appeal to foreign markets that have become a steady income source for Hollywood studios. For what it's worth though, in a summer without a clear standout film or running thread "Edge of Tomorrow" stands out as proof not all studio movies have to be loud and dumb. Shame that five minutes before it ended it ran out of smart juice and drank the test audience Kool Aid.

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    1. Evidently McQuarrie wanted a darker ending, but Cruise wanted the movie to be light-hearted.

      The Edge of Tomorrow Ending you didn't see...

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  18. Rewatched this tonight. Upgrading my opinion from good to very very good.

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  19. Today Edge of Tomorrow should reach the $100 million plateau for domestic box office. So head down to the discount theater and see it on the big screen before it gets replaced by Tammy or And So It Goes.

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  20. It's been an interesting arc watching Edge of Tomorrow multiple times. The first viewings in early June were about connecting with Cage's journey, enjoying the humor, and absorbing the details. My initial reactions mostly were in response to the story's entertainment value: it was a lot of fun, but I had problems with the ending.

    The next viewing two months later was more neutral and I didn't feel strongly about the movie one way or another. I expected to have an enjoyable reunion with an old friend, but instead it was a less engaging experience.

    Yesterday, in recognition of EoT reaching $100 million domestically, I decided to give it another try. Because of my last experience I wasn't sure how I would react. In fact, while watching the previews there was an impending sense of boredom.

    Now you're not going to believe what I'm about to tell you, but the more I keep talking the more sense it's going to make.

    The feature started, and it was a very different experience this time. There was a musical quality to the story, and I found myself completely in tune with its rhythms. The first act played like a meditation on the importance of repetition and learning: wax on, wax off. Then we met Rita, and Cage became an access point to her story. Patrick referred to Blunt as the film's secret weapon. In this viewing more than ever I found her to be the heart and soul of the picture. Her ability to elicit empathy was astounding. Rita's role in the story resonated more strongly with me, like being at a club or live show and feeling the music thumping in your chest even though you can't necessarily discern the individual notes.

    [SPOILERS FOLLOW]

    Watching the movie with Rita as the main character was a more emotionally satisfying experience. Previously the third act felt like it was shaped by the invisible hands of Hollywood executives: a big action sequence followed by a romantic moment, ultimate sacrifice, and happy ending. This time it played more as Cage's redemption by leading the team into battle, and Rita reconnecting with her humanity. The conclusion wasn't about the characters getting together; it was about both having a chance to move forward in life with his and her respective issues resolved.

    [END SPOILERS]

    Seeing the movie again and again and again allowed me to overcome my consumerist desire to be entertained, and to connect directly with the story's underlying themes. In retrospect, most of what I took away from the experience was mentioned in Patrick's review. I guess I just needed a few more tries to get it right.

    Babe, I got you Babe...

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  21. Together with Guardians of the galaxy, this was the best thing I watched in 2014 and the first film since Cloud Atlas I watched multiple times in a theater. I was blown away after the first viewing and had so much fun with the movie I didn`t even mind the last few problematic minutes. Great performances by the two leads, a damn funny Bill Paxton, fantastic special effects and a really interesting and surprising story made me very happy.
    Say what you will about Tom Cruise, but this guy knows what he is doing when picking a role.

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  22. It's harder to bear how the film fuses its sci-fi premise with an action movie's sensibility: one in which the characters become living, breathing video-game avatars, rather than human beings.

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  23. Edge of Tomorrow, of course, had the "How to save the world" dilemma. But it also had humor, and wit, and heart, and great dialogue. I can't say too much for fear of giving something away to one of you who may not have seen it, but I hope you can trust me when I say, "See it! It's worth your time."

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