Edge of Tomorrow is a movie I should love. It’s funny and fleet, features one of Hollywood’s most consistently intriguing stars, Tom Cruise, and my favorite living actor, Brendan Gleeson, and it is built on one of those implausible time-travel scenarios I find irresistible. In the end though, it seems like such a missed opportunity, and though I’ve tried to get past my disappointment in the days since I saw it, I can’t. So here we go.
In my mind, including time travel in a story opens up the narrative to whatever kind of twists the storyteller wants to pull. I don’t expect time travel movies to make logical sense or to be free of plot holes, but I do expect the non-time travel related parts of the movie to make narrative sense. Edge of Tomorrow is terrifically entertaining when it’s focused on the time travel. When it shifts to focus on the relationships between the characters, it makes narrative leaps I can’t comprehend.
The plot – military PR man Cage gets caught in a time loop during a D-Day-like invasion of the French coast as humanity attempts to root out an invading alien race that has taken over the European continent. The cause of the time loop makes more sense than the cause of Cage being involved in the invasion in the first place. Along the way, Cage connects with Rita, a soldier who experienced a similar time loop in an earlier battle. Her having experienced the same phenomenon again makes more sense than the level of affection that develops between her and Cage. C’est la cinéma, eh?
But even though key plot points that have nothing to do with time travel don’t make any sense, I could have gone along with it all if the movie explored any of the thematic material so readily available for exploration.
The film features a soldier locked in a time loop, which is fertile ground for considering cycles of violence and how to break them. His time loop resets every time he dies, so eventually characters take to humorously shooting him in the head simply to reset the day, which lends itself very naturally to asking questions about why we think violence is redemptive. The more Cage watches his friends die, the more he is weighed down with grief, which would have been a perfect way to explore the cumulative effect of repeated exposure to violence on a person or people over time. The alien invaders willingly reset time whenever one of their higher ranking members dies, because they can’t bear the loss of that member of their community, making the aliens considerably more sympathetic than the humans who reset time to figure out a better way to kill their enemies. Cage is sent to the front, I think, because the commanding general is annoyed by the way Cage presents the war in his PR campaign (I think). Imagine if the film had used this conflict as grounds for discussing the way we glorify war and what war actually is like. Relationships between male and female characters where there is obvious chemistry but which remain platonic are rare in the movies, and the battle field seems like the perfect place to situate such a relationship, but romance develops between Cage and Rita, because why not, right? There is so much good in this film that is never seriously explored.
But, I frequently say that you can’t criticize a film for not being the film you want it to be. You have to take it as it is and talk about that. In this case though, it all seems like such low-hanging fruit. I was disappointed Edge of Tomorrow just glossed over all what could have been so good.
Edge of Tomorrow reminded me most of one of my favorite “popcorn” films of last year, a film I never filed a review for, because it didn’t lend itself to serious consideration of any deeper matters–World War Z. That zombie movie was terrifically entertaining and potentially thematically complex, providing a natural opportunity to investigate matters of international cooperation, immigration issues, and governmental transparency. All of this was bypassed though to focus on thrilling action sequences and a suspenseful but empty third act that seemed wholly disconnected from the rest of the film.
I really, really want to support this film and other films like it. My local megaplex is inundated with sequels and reboots lacking personality and courage. I tire of these kinds of movies by the beginning of June when summer hasn’t even officially arrived yet. Edge of Tomorrow and World War Z ought to be the kinds of movies that breathe new life into my movie-going. Instead, they come across as well-made but forgettable iterations of the reboots and sequels that tire me so.
Remember when Inception came out, and many, despite the film’s flaws, heralded its success as proof that risky, high-concept, science-fiction with personality stood a chance at the box office? Remember how we hoped its THWOMP THWOM was the sound of the dawning of a new day for blockbuster entertainment? That day never came. Instead, all we’ve gotten in the years since are reiterations of the same kind of movie over and over again, and this is the perfect place to insert another reference to the plot structure of Edge of Tomorrow and its title. We’re still living on that edge, making the same movie again and again. I’m waiting for filmmakers to begin making the leap into that new day.