By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist May 22, 2014 at 5:00PM
Standards have changed in the blockbuster game. Computer generated effects have allowed us to realize just about anything we've ever seen or can imagine, and years of summer offerings have begun to bleed into each other, creating one summer blockbuster organism where we see the same visuals in different movies, the same ideas with the same people in the same places. Somewhere floating in this mélange is “Edge of Tomorrow," a generic programmer that has absolutely no reason to exist beyond pushing the brand of Tom Cruise, Still Youthful 50-Year-Old Action Hero.
Cruise is Major Bill Cage, a soldier who has strenuously avoided active duty by becoming a PR rep for the armed forces in the face of an intergalactic war. His camera-ready delivery and networking skills have got him far, as have his questionable professional ethics. That is, until he attempts to blackmail his way out of a dangerous assignment, and a vengeful general (Brendan Gleeson, disinterested) instead puts him on the front lines, informing Sgt. Farrell (Bill Paxton) that Cage is meant for combat. Despite his infamous gift of gab, Cage is unwillingly strapped into a futuristic mecha suit and sent into battle.
But Cage and his fellow soldiers are engulfed by a kamikaze attack by the aliens, referred to as Mimics. These faceless enemies attack from above and below, amorphous globules with cybernetic tendrils that strike with intense fury. The movie's best sequences are at this beach, capturing the speed and ferocity of actual war, the feeling that luck is the only thing keeping you alive, that death is sudden and entirely without drama. And, during this skirmish, Cage dies quite horribly.
But he gets better! Cage wakes back on the base, where Sgt. Farrell once again introduces himself. Cage is once again bullied and deployed, where he once again experiences a violent demise. Soon, Cage realizes that he's stuck in a loop, destined to keep returning to that same day, to live a thousand lives, die a thousand deaths. The secret to mastering this code lies in Rita Vrataski, a guileless soldier who apparently has also experienced this loop, and lived on to outlast it. Conveniently, she looks like Emily Blunt.
Cruise's name used to mean a certain level of quality control. He didn't mind working with ambitious directors, and he didn't mind trusting that they would subvert his image, on the way to making him the biggest movie star in the world. In recent years he's gotten sloppier, more desperate in his choice of material. Failing to note his accelerated age isn't an issue, per se: but trusting subpar material because of how it lionizes him does seem to be a common trait in Cruise's recent filmography. A glimpse at his body of work reveals an artist in significant creative decline, and “Edge of Tomorrow” just might be the most shallow and disposable film he's ever starred in.
You see it in Vrataski, who is meant to be one of Hollywood's rare showy roles for a female in a male-dominated genre. She helps Cage master the loop and find the secret of the Mimics, but she's clearly there to run backup, despite being a career soldier compared to Cage's camera-ready opportunist. Soon, Vrataski is being deceived by Cage as to how many times he's died, visited her, and gone on adventures. Having been trapped in the same loop, she should understand the potential power trip that sort of experience has on someone. Instead, a subtle transferal of power forces Vrataski into the backseat of the narrative. It's unclear what's worse: the blockbuster that pretends women aren't capable, or the one that disingenuously celebrates their talents before quietly shuttering them to the background. Perhaps we should be thankful that she's never kidnapped.
Casting Cruise as a handsome face completely under-equipped for war is something of a commentary on the cushy position of the modern movie star, protected from the physicality of their predecessors thanks to strenuous stunt preparation and special effects. But the movie's moral equivalence is suspect, casting a negative eye towards Cage for not wanting to fight as if wars were about either soldiering up, or cowering in fear. It's an easy sentiment when your enemy is made up of anonymous creepy crawlies from another dimension that won't accept reason, and the movie insists that becoming a soldier (and then a better soldier) improves Cage as a human being. Within the idea of a soldier constantly being shoved into war zones to die repeatedly until they simply learn better, there's a chance to critique the government and the military-industrial complex. But Cage isn't storming the beach because of an edict from high above, but because he's a jerk and a petty general dislikes him. And it's never clear exactly what government is being served: Cage's central-casting fellow soldiers have various accents, but the movie takes place just outside of England. So what is this thing even about?
It's not about anything, ultimately. As soon as Cruise straps into that mecha, you know he's going to master this strange technology. Hell, you can even guess that the mecha suits (an absurdly clunky weapon that seems to vary in size and comfort) will eventually be ditched, because a technological villain needs to be defeated by an analog hero. Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity”) delivers a competent, workmanlike vision that provides a few early cheap thrills, but by the literally and figuratively soggy third act, you get the sense that everyone is just punching the clock. “Edge of Tomorrow” is ultimately so barren of ideas that it feels like an anti-movie, just another day at work for one of the world's biggest stars and his generous enablers. Cage's time-loop ends up being indicative of this movie's placement in the summer movie pantheon: same shit, different day. [D]