In the past couple of weeks, Edge of Tomorrow has not done well at the box office, a discouraging development for connoisseurs of well-crafted middle-brow entertainment like yours truly, since I thought this latest Tom Cruise vehicle actually delivered on the perennial promise of summer blockbusters – it was actually entertaining, not just overwhelming.
More importantly, it actually develops some unusual filmic effects worthy of some longer examination. To explain why, I’ll have to subject you to a brief synopsis: Cruise is William Cage, a hesitant soldier in humanity’s war against the Mimics, quicksilver-like aliens whose legions have taken over Europe. On the day of a major human offensive on the beaches of France, the inept Cage dies quickly, only to find himself waking up, completely intact, at the beginning of the same day, pre-invasion. Yes, it’s sort of Groundhog Day meets Independence Day and Tom Cruise is caught in a time-travel loop. Every time he dies battling the ETs, he wakes up again on that day in the exact same circumstances he began it in, with Bill Paxton barking the same orders he has in every other iteration Cage has gone through.
There’s a lot to say about how the movie makes creative use of this repeater mechanic, but I was mostly struck by one big challenge for the filmmakers that this set-up creates: Every character except for Cage is stalled on this one day, so he’s the only one that can “develop” in any regular sense of the word.
In Harold Ramis’s classic Groundhog Day, I think it’s Bill Murray’s charisma that makes this a non-issue. The joy of that film is only in sharing his experience as he discovers his predicament, rejects it, negotiates it, and finally comes to terms with living in a world that is perpetually February 2nd — and that pleasure isn’t really about how he interacts with anybody else in particular so much as his own outlook. In theory the movie co-stars Andie MacDowell, but since her character isn’t in on the premise, she’s just another dupe, and we don’t care about her except as an abstract goal for Murray to strive for. GD is deeply satisfying, but only really because it feels like an intimate portrait of one character. (And no, it’s not Ned Ryerson I’m referring to. Although wouldn’t that make a hell of a Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern if we could see the rest of his life? Stephen Tobolowsky at least warrants the treatment.)
Edge of Tomorrow takes a different route. To begin with, there’s Rita Vrataski (played by Emily Blunt), who once had Cage’s same experience: She was a repeater, too, but on a previous day. (In a surprising plot twist, she was only able to stop the day from recurring indefinitely by learning to play the piano and getting Andie MacDowell to sleep with her.) Each “new” day, after Cage explains himself, Rita can understand abstractly what he is going through, but she doesn’t have any memory of Cage from day to day. The director, Doug Liman, has to figure out a way to make the audience forget this if he’s going to get them emotionally involved in Cage and Rita’s burgeoning relationship.
I suppose that by giving the leads a relationship that is essentially one-sided, Edge of Tomorrow asks whether a relationship is real if only one person knows about the other, no matter how profound that understanding is. Whatever your feeling about that philosophical question, you have to admit that a partnership that unilateral is not what anyone would call “real.”
And yet it’s tempting to feel that Cage and Rita are getting progressively closer over time. One big paradox of the film is that cognitively we have to acknowledge that Emily Blunt has only ever known Tom Cruise for a few hours, but at the same time the movie makes us feel that their relationship moves forward day over day. It’s a trick, but it’s a convincing trick and it’s a credit to the movie that you barely realize it’s conveying increasing intimacy between the two without ever running up against the fact that Rita doesn’t actually know much at all about this Cage guy.
There’s a bit of a paradox with the editing, as well. Occasionally the movie makes jumps in time and edits them in a way that wouldn’t read right in a normal movie – that is, a story where time only moves forward. One scene has Cage trying to master the timing needed to slip away from Bill Paxton’s character so he can find Rita, and Cage has to time it just right so he isn’t run over by a Humvee. He fails, though blessedly we only have to hear the results, not see them. A cut to the same scene immediately follows, except we join a now living Cage a moment earlier and see him pull off the maneuver without getting crushed by the truck.
Implicitly, we know hours must have passed between these events, with Cage getting up the day after being killed to go through the motions until he had that same chance again to slip away. The editing, however, treats Cage’s two attempts as immediately sequential. It would be a jarring jump in time and place in any other movie if we simply skipped ahead several hours to the same location, right into the action of the hero trying the same precision maneuver. But even if it isn’t entirely natural to read the scene, it’s very easy, and it makes perfect sense. In another movie, this would be confusing to a viewer, but here it’s just a device that causes a small mental hiccup but ultimately comes across as legible. We know that the single edit between Cage failing and Cage succeeding actually represented hours of elapsed time, but we don’t care.
And what’s that sound like? Well, a montage.
It’s pretty common in a montage to see the hero get better over the course of a long time, by trying, for example, the same challenge again and again – presumably over the course of days or weeks – and improving incrementally. Your average montage, or at least a good one, uses conventions of music and quick cuts to convey the compressed passage of time.
In Cage’s escape scene, though, the same idea of compression is expressed, but without the regular signals of montage – no music cues or jazzy editing imply the passage of time. It’s another tension built by the movie, much like the unlikely relationship of Rita and Cage: We are encouraged to think of Cruise’s improvement as continuous and part of the same time and place, but if we step back for a minute and think, we become more conscious of the leap forward that must have occurred, and the editing begins to seem much more unusual. (I just wrote about a similar phenomenon in Mulholland Drive, so maybe that’s why this is so obvious to me right now.)
Anyhow, I have a little list of more things to say about Edge of Tomorrow, but maybe I’ve already made it clear why I think this is a much meatier film than the average summer blockbuster. Too bad more people didn’t discover that.