Friday, June 6, 2014

Review: "Edge of Tomorrow"

Director: Doug Liman
Runtime: 113 minutes

Throughout the course of Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise's William Cage relives the same few hours an exhausting number of times. The character's physical and emotional exhaustion, however, likely won't be mirrored by audiences. Though perhaps not quite the standout of the summer it's been hailed as, Edge of Tomorrow takes its Groundhog Day-meets-any-alien-invasion-movie-ever premise and turns it into a dynamic adventure that places just enough emphasis on character while never going overboard with the VFX-driven spectacle. 

If, after seeing the trailer(s), you've been wondering why someone of Tom Cruise's age is being shipped off to war with an alien force along with the young recruits, Edge of Tomorrow (thankfully) has an answer. As we learn in an early scene, William Cage is a media personality for the global forces that have united to wipe out the invading Mimics. He has no combat training, at least at the start of the whole mess. This makes his position - on the front lines of an assault that makes D-Day look like a cake walk - especially nerve wracking. Yet after an encounter with a rare form of Mimic soldier, Cage meets certain death...only to wake up again on the afternoon before the battle. 

Rather than milk the time-loop scenario for attempts at tension, Edge of Tomorrow smoothly moves along to its next stage. Enter blade-wielding badass Rita (Emily Blunt), who, in one of Cage's episodes, reveals that she may know the key to breaking out of the loop.

From this point, the plot takes on a 50 First Dates sort of structure, albeit from a platonic standpoint. Rather than waste time constantly reestablishing the same details, director Doug Liman and editor James Herbert have a great deal of fun jumping forward through time. Once it becomes known that the only way for Cage's time loop to reset is for him to die, the film even works in some comedy that adds a welcome dose of levity to the convoluted sci-fi set-up. 

And, by making the character a reluctant soldier, the film outfits Cruise with a role that suits him rather perfectly. No one is going to mistake this for career-best work, but the 51-year-old actor proves he can still carry this sort of high-concept, big-budget tentpole on his relatively small frame. Matching him move for move is Blunt. Thankfully refraining from a romantic subplot (what with the age difference....not to mention the aliens), Edge of Tomorrow allows its female lead to take charge. She may be subject to Cage's ability to rewind time, but Rita is not without her own agency. On paper, pairing Cruise and Blunt together seems like head-scratching casting, but the two actually have a genuinely interesting student/teacher dynamic that serves the film well.

In fact, one of the most surprising aspects of Edge of Tomorrow is just how much time it devotes to Rita training Cage, rather than indulging in the flashy action. Many of the repeated action scenes, which involve our heroes figuring out movements on a step-by-step basis, are skillfully strung together as montages. For all of the visual chaos happening on the main battlefield, the camera remains focused more on human faces and bodies, rather than on explosions and wild stunts (that said, watching Rita spin through the air with her massive blade is pretty cool). 

With so much of the story focused directly on two people, Edge of Tomorrow makes up for the ways in which its own structure occasionally undermines narrative suspense. Cage's ability to reset time gives the story flow a bit of a video-game feel, where surprises can happen, yet not with actual or immediate consequences. Yet even as Cage and Rita inch forward into the future to wipe out the Mimic menace, the film peels back emotional layers in a surprisingly effective way, without getting bogged down in the drama. By keeping one character's memory aware of every time reset, Edge of Tomorrow ensures that there's a legitimate investment in both the central relationship, as well as the eventual epic quest to end the war. 

The film is also a technical triumph, albeit in a less obvious way than many similar sci-fi adventures. The color palette is limited, yet never dull, and the visual effects are slickly integrated. Especially impressive are the Mimics, which move in freakishly fast leaps and bounds, their metallic bodies constantly shifting in proportion. 

Yet even in the more effects-heavy finale, Edge of Tomorrow never shifts focus away from its characters. Though the sense of permanent consequences may never quite settle, the attention to Cage and Rita's relationship anchors the film in an unexpectedly touching way. Limon and co. obviously understand this quite well. Rather than get lost in the spectacle, Edge of Tomorrow stays grounded in the intimate side of its epic story. It's a testament to how a summer tentpole can succeed when it knows what aspects of the story to emphasize.

Grade: B/B-

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