Redemption through repetition.
While that vaguely Orwellian sentiment may sound like the sort of thing dreamt up by the propaganda mandarins of Kim Jong Un or the spin doctors of some backwoods cult, it is in fact the thematic heartbeat of Doug Liman’s impressively original time-twisting film Edge of Tomorrow.
Based on the Japanese light novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the movie centres on cocky military spin doctor Major Tom Cage (Tom Cruise) who is charged with placing the sunny face of possible victory on a war that the newly merged armed forces of alien-occupied Europe, David to the Goliath of the so-called Mimics, are losing in spectacular fashion.
While a major victory at Verdun, credited largely to the newly fearsomely-robotic full metal skeletons that adorn all the soldiers of the newly christened United Defense Force, and particularly one heroically pivotal fighter Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) aka “The Angel of Verdun” or “Full Metal Bitch” has injected some much-needed optimism into the war effort, Cage wants nothing to do with actually fighting in the war, much preferring to spin it from the relatively-safe sidelines.
The head of the UDF, General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) of course is having none of that, seeing merit in having their star PR weapon in the so-called trenches as the combined military might of Europe as they launch a D-Day-styled landing on the Mimics-infested beaches of France.
This disparity between what a wholly arrogant, self-serving Cage wants and the all powerful supreme commander of European forces will accept is only going to end one way, with the upstart Major waking up later that day on a bank of bags at the massive staging post at Heathrow, stripped off his rank and ill-prepared to go into war the next morning.
But go he does, with the homespun-war wisdom of Master Sergeant Farrell Bartolome (Bill Paxton) ringing in his ears and the grunt soldiers of his new platoon wisecracking at his side, into a bloodbath of epic proportions, any hope of human victory doomed from the start by the spidery Mimics who can manipulate time at will and thus can predict every move the UDF will ever make.
Killed along with everyone else, Cage is staggered to find himself waking up once again at Heathrow, starting out once more on the same series of events that led him to die at the hearts of the Mimics, roiling, twisting bundles of staccato-moving energy that can move through the ground and emerge without warning, just moments before.
And so begins an incredibly imaginative tale of one man’s journey from smarmy PR villain to selfless soldier, a transformation that happens in repetitive yet cleverly rendered re-livings of the same day over and over and over again, as Cage learns how to fight, strategise, out-think the enemy and become in the process a decent, self-sacrificial human being.
It’s a riveting take on a trope used to great effect in the masterful Groundhog Day and Source Code, one that suggests that whether we trying to become better people or not, that lessons repeatedly learned can’t help but change our character and motivations every bit as much as out skill levels.
Cage does indeed change immeasurably, taking on the role, whether he even wants to or not (hint: at first he is none too enthusiastic about his new Mimics-given ability to reset the day albeit after he dies again and again and again …) of humanity’s saviour along with his new comrade in arms, the emotionally-reserved fighting machine of Sergeant Vrataski, who together must figure out to use Cage’s new ability to win the seemingly un-winnable war.
The real genius of Edge of Tomorrow is that Liman doesn’t simply re-tell the day’s events over and over again from the same tired old vantage point whcih would have taken the sparkling thrills of the film’s plot and turned into trial by time after time.
Each trip into the fateful day’s soon well-known time loop is approached from different angles or different entry points, going further, falling back, showing advances and losses.
It gives us the chance to grow with Cage, to see his forward steps and his missteps, his growing confidence and his soul-sapping exhaustion as he is forced to grapple with the reset by death – believe or not, it’s these deaths that provide some of the limited dashes of comedy in the film – and to appreciate that the chance to learn from your mistakes is not necessarily the panacea to all ills that we might think it to be.
The film’s heady mix of video game-style resets, intense characterisation and innovative tinkering with the usual straight forward paradigms of the standard narrative turns the usual shoot-’em-up heroism of alien invasion movies on its head, dropping us headfirst into the grim nightmarish horrors of war, including the stomach-churning terror of the failed beach landings, from which there is no easy escape as Cage discovers.
While Edge of Tomorrow does end with a reasonably standard taking-to-the-enemy action-filled denouement, it hardly matters given how manifestly imaginative and dizzyingly creative the film is a whole.
Liman’s engrossing masterpiece is proof that there is something new under the chronologically-toyed with alien invasion sun, and that Cruise, who along with Blunt act their hearts to devastatingly good effect, is never better than when he’s the lynchpin of these original tales of redemption and growth.