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'Edge of Tomorrow' Is the Movie as Video Game, and For Once, That's a Compliment

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire June 6, 2014 at 2:17PM

The Tom Cruise time-travel vehicle takes its cues not from the chaos of first-person shooters, but the microadjustments of stealth and adventure games.
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Tom Cruise in "Edge of Tomorrow"
Tom Cruise in "Edge of Tomorrow"

Drop out every review of "Edge of Tomorrow" that mentions "Groundhog Day" and you'll be left with the Rotten Tomatoes equivalent of a ghost town, a few tumbleweeds blowing through its otherwise deserted streets. But there's another influence on the movie, in which Tom Cruise's P.R. flack is forced to live the same day over and over again until he can defeat the alien hordes trying to wipe out humanity, that's just as strong: video games. As Alison Willmore writes at BuzzFeed

"Edge of Tomorrow," starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt and opening this Friday, isn't based on a video game, despite posters that make it look like it could have spawned from the latest hit first-person shooter game. But it does something that's a lot more interesting than transporting game characters over into a movie -- it embraces video game logic and gives it a human face and heart, investing it with the numbness and exhaustion that come from running through the same scenario toward the same goal again and again until you get it right.

Cruise's Major William Cage, who's busted to private after bucking a general's orders to film the alien-fighting equivalent of the D-Day invasion in person, gains the power to "reset the day" when he's killed by a rare kind of alien called an Alpha. The Alpha acts as an intermediary between the Omega, essentially a giant brain that directs the attacking alien hordes, called Mimics, who carry out most of the combat. The Omega, he learns, has the power to reset time, which gives the Mimics the insurmountable advantage of knowing the humans' plans before they make them, but it only exercises that power when it senses one of the Alphas has been killed. When Cage's blood mixes with a dying Alpha's, he takes over that power, but if he stays alive too long, the Omega might catch on. So in the event he lives through one of his designated day's infinite iterations without being able to kill the Omega, he's forced to perform the existential of a hard reboot by taking his own life.

In other words, "Edge of Tomorrow" is essentially "Respawn: The Movie," a title that might have garnered more interest than the terrible vagueness of its present moniker. (The Japanese graphic novel on which it was based is called "All You Need Is Kill.") Without diluting the end-of-the-world urgency that has become de rigueur for action spectacles, Doug Liman turns Cage's deaths into a running gag, using smash cuts as visual punctuation. In an attempt to sneak away from the military squad he's been forced into -- the general has branded him a deserter, making it impossible for him to pull rank -- he tries to roll under a passing jeep, an attempt whose failure is announced with an offscreen squish. The next time, however, he gets the timing right, just as a video-game player might finally trial-and-error his or her way through an especially tricky puzzle. He even plays in co-op mode, teaching Rita, Emily Blunt's former time-traveler (she had the power, then lost it after a blood transfusion), how to navigate the endless hordes of life-threatening aliens: Two steps forward, fire left, roll right, count three.

For Vulture's Nick Schager, in fact, "Edge" is no less than "the pinnacle of video-game cinema"

"Edge of Tomorrow" amalgamates countless conventions -- shifting POVs, CG human-versus-alien imagery and action, multiplayer, slow-motion, mecha weaponry, on-foot and vehicular sequences, and an experience rooted in triumph through repetition -- that are fundamental to video games. Whereas so many of its video-game cinema brethren do only one or two of those things well, Cruise and Liman's film melds them all into one coherent, compelling whole. Far from an act of mimicry, "Edge of Tomorrow" instead naturally taps into the various ways that video games excite and engage us, and translates those into cinematic terms that work, thrillingly, on their own right -- even if, admittedly, Cruise's trial-and-error exploits do eventually make one crave a controller.

But "Edge of Tomorrow" isn't simply an amalgamation of all the movies based on or inspired, so to speak, by them. It's different in one critical and inspired way: Rather than try to replicate the nonstop barrage of a first-person shooter, it takes its cues from the microadjustments of stealth and adventure games. Cage spends dozens or hundreds of lives trying to push through enemy lines -- let's hope his resurrections aren't doled out Candy Crush-style -- before he realizes that a frontal assault will always fail. The key to his success isn't killing Mimics; it's avoiding them.

This isn't how action movies normally work, and it may be one reason why Warner Bros. seems strangely content to let its costly Tom Cruise vehicle get stomped at the box office this weekend. (It's also, no doubt, why the movie takes a pronounced turn for the conventional in its final reel.) But it's surprisingly effective, not least because the repeated actions give us a sense of triumph when Cage finally gets it right, and because the screenwriters -- Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth -- mix up their pitches: During one emotional confrontation, Rita stops abruptly and asks Cage how many times they've already had the same talk.

Critics almost always evoke video games as a pejorative: It's code for thin characters, action so relentless that it's numbing, and most recently, for awkward, exposition-heavy dialogue. ("Video-game cutscene" now rivals "Lifetime movie" as the go-to complaint for critics who've never experienced the thing they're using as a point of comparison.) But with "Edge," it's actually a compliment. As Cage hones his technique, he's like an Olympic athlete aim for a perfect dive, making minute changes that have profound and sometimes exhilarating effects. It's not the same as playing a game, of course, more like watching an arcade champion battle for a personal best. But there are plenty of ways for a movie to be "interactive" without letting you take the wheel.


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