Film * Doug Liman * Groundhog Day but with Aliens * 2014
I always appreciate when a story drops you into its bonkers premise without much in the way of context. Edge of Tomorrow begins with a montage of stock footage taken from various terrorist attacks used to explain that oh no, aliens showed up and invaded Western Europe and they’re real fucked up. Humanity is about to launch a counterstrike from England, the last free state in Europe. It’s clearly a big D-Day situation, except sci-fi. They land in Calais and everything. Anyway, that’s pretty much it for backstory. We learn all this in the first five minutes or so. Scary aliens, big counter-offensive, there’s a soldier-lady who seems cool, and Tom Cruise is there. Look, this is a Tom Cruise movie. Either you’re in or you’re out, you know what you’re getting. To this day, the only time I’ve been surprised and impressed by a Tom Cruise performance was Tropic Thunder, and this movie is no exception. It’s Tom Cruise as Tom Cruise doing and saying Tom Cruise things. In this case his name is Major Cage and he’s a slick advertising man who is gross and crosses the wrong general before the big counter-invasion.
Edge of Tomorrow is a film all about its premise. It’s the reason you see the movie. I mean yeah, it’s cool to watch dudes in mech-suits running around blowing up weird looking aliens, but that’s more incidental sci-fi violence. Nah, you’re here for the hook, which is essentially Groundhog Day. The only major difference between that film and Edge of Tomorrow is that Bill Murray is replaced by Tom Cruise, there are aliens instead of folksy rural Pennsylvanians, and the day is reset after a violent death as opposed to the end of the day. Other than that it’s pretty much the same movie. It’s a film about learning. When Major Cage learns he’s been busted down to Private Cage and is being sent to the front, he’s understandably bummed out. He gets one day to learn how to use the mech-suit used to kill aliens, and he’s obviously super bad at it. Eventually he gets dumped on the beach where he and his entire squad are wiped out by a surprisingly strong alien attack. He dies horribly, and promptly wakes up back at the start of his day.
It seems to me that this kind of idea would be really easy to mess up, but the premise is worked to excellent effect throughout the movie. The story itself is kind of boilerplate alien invasion stuff, but Liman is constantly keeping the audience guessing about what is happening when. Cage always remembers what happened before he dies, and there doesn’t seem to be a limit to the number of times he can come back. Later in the film there are some constraints put on his power, and there’s an explanation as to why everything is happening, but whatever. I barely care. I’m way more interested in how the story moves, and how it subverts our expectations considering time and character. The film sets expectations right up front. Oh, Tom Cruise is going to get all this free practice and get good at killing aliens. But then each scene compounds on the next, and not all scenes begin at the same time, so that you never actually know how many times Cage has lived a particular scene. All the other characters around him, most notably the aforementioned cool solider-lady, Rita, do not get to carry over memories like Cage does, so he has to put in all that work every day. You know, like Groundhog Day.
This is the section where I usually discuss the larger themes at play within the work, or try and figure out what it’s saying about itself or the state of the world. I’m not really feeling that here. Edge of Tomorrow functions almost entirely in service to its plot, which is totally fine. I had a real good time watching. However, once it’s done that’s kind of it. I know Groundhog Day is the obvious comparison, but when you pair these two movies, it’s clear that the otherwise lighthearted comedy is the better film. In that movie, the plot device is of course important to the story and is used in many fun ways, but it’s always in service the characters and the examination of small-town interactions. Edge of Tomorrow barely cares about its characters. Tom Cruise starts out as a manipulative wiener and turns into a cool action guy, sure. Yet there isn’t really that much room for his character to grow, considering there was never very much character there to begin with. This is largely because the stakes are so much higher in Edge of Tomorrow – after all, the fate of the planet hangs in the balance, which is arguably more important that Bill Murray’s love life. There’s simply no time to stretch out as a person when everything you do needs to be in service to saving the world, you know?
I guess that’s all I have to say about that. Meanwhile, let’s talk about aliens. The older I get and the more musings about aliens I read/watch in various science fiction efforts, the more I’m convinced that we’re beneath the notice of proper alien civilizations. If you look at something like Edge of Tomorrow, or Independence Day, the aliens are described as more of a virus than a civilization. That seems about right, if we’re talking apocalypse-by-space-alien. In this film, the aliens (who look an awful lot like the aliens in the 2017 game Prey, which also has a type called “mimics”) don’t even try to communicate. We’re given next to zero information about how they showed up. We pick up the battle for Earth in media res, and that the decimation of the planet is imminent. When we do get a little backstory, they’re described as an interstellar virus, a sort of reflexive parasitical spore that lands on a planet and quickly dooms it for no particular reason. Somehow, they can control the flow of time, thus the plot device. Yet there is no intelligent menace here. There is certainly no evidence of culture or higher thought. They don’t appear to use technology. They just destroy.
So if the aliens come, it makes sense to me that it’ll be something like this. Why would an actual alien intelligence be interested? If you hang out much on the Internet, you likely saw this story in the New York Times. Said article casually mentions that yeah, many high-ranking officials are pretty sure aliens have been here and oh maybe there are bits of an alien ship chilling in Las Vegas also check out this weird video taken from extremely expensive video equipment. As much as my X-Files watching ass wants to believe, I just can’t roll with it. Because why would an advanced alien civilization want anything to do with us? We’re a planet of homicidal apes whose psychology hasn’t evolved all that much since we evolved the ability to use tools. We’re a backwater, and if 2017 is any indication it’s going to be some time before we get an invite to the interstellar party. I’m convinced that there are extraterrestrial civilizations out there – the universe is far too vast to believe otherwise. I’m also pretty sure that some of those civilizations have developed all of my sci-fi fantasies, from teleportation to time travel to faster-than-light travel. Again, in an infinite universe there is infinite possibility, right? We don’t have any direct observation of any of that stuff, which suggests to me that higher forms of life simply don’t care. Or there’s some kind of Prime Directive at play. Anyway, as much as it pains me to say it, something like Edge of Tomorrow makes more sense to me than a Contact situation. If the aliens come, we’re boned.