FILM: EDGE OF TOMORROW
Director: Doug Liman
Writers: Christopher McQuarrie and Jez & John-Henry Butterworth, based on the novel “All You Need Is Kill,” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka
Starring: Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt
A few weeks ago, a friend suggested we take in this summer’s latest Tom Cruise offering, “Edge of Tomorrow.” I had seen the trailer and was pretty skeptical. As a general rule, I avoid movie trailers. There’s nothing I love more than sitting down before the big screen, having no idea what I’m about to see or where it’s going to take me. Besides, one of the occupational hazards of being a professional screenwriter is that – given any 3 plot points – we can extrapolate the entire narrative. Trailers give away much too much information (but that’s another topic).
What I saw in the trailer left me very uninterested. Tom Cruise was in a war (with aliens it turns out) in which he could not be killed. Catch a bullet, die, start over. He and Emily Blunt. Again and again, fighting, dying, coming right back to life. Just like a video game.
“Where’s the fun in that?” I wondered. “Where’s the jeopardy? Where are the stakes?” (read the answers…) I might not know this particular narrative, but I DO know that a conflict without consequences isn’t much of a conflict. Video games are great for problem solvers. But a much less engaging for dramatists like me. I want tears and regret and revenge when I kill somebody. I want dead to be dead.
Thankfully, my friend elbowed me into the theatre.
The Problem of Immortality
So here’s the lesson: “How do you create genuine jeopardy for a hero who cannot really be hurt?” Who is, effectively, immortal?
The answer, it turns out, is pretty old. Ask anyone familiar with Greek tragedies and they’ll tell you it was solved two thousand years ago. Every time one of their gods mixed it up with one of our good looking mortals. Bad news for the god. The answer is to replace physical jeopardy with emotional jeopardy. By letting your immortal fall for somebody who CAN die.
Don’t you love mythology? These kinds of problems get so much easier when you’ve got Sophocles & Euripides working for you. And wouldn’t you know it – that’s exactly the solution we get.
Tom Cruise cannot die. But Emily Blunt – his love interest – can.
CONFESSION: I have not read the original novel, so I’m not sure who gets credit for this slight of hand, but it’s a clever one. Immortality (in this case, the ability to replay the same battle over and over) is the result of mixing the blood of a certain space alien with the blood of a human (read: mortal). It turns out that Emily Blunt had this ability first, then lost it. Making her the only person able to recognize Cruise’ unique ability, but not to share it. Like I said, clever. Very.
It one plot twist we get both the reason for these two connect AND the jeopardy Cruise faces as he falls for her. She is mortal, she is vulnerable, she is the only person who understands what he is going through. Aliens are attacking from every direction and he cannot possibly let her die. Now, we have jeopardy. Big time.
Expanding the Drama
Without turning this into a film review, there are a few more writing tricks that really elevate this film beyond the summer popcorn fable. Like Groundhog Day, this film is something of a time travel piece. With only Cruise knowing how much progress the two of them have made since the latest battleground slaughter and reboot. In this sense, he alone feels the weight of this endless war. He alone feels the grinding, brutal death of comrades – most importantly – this woman he’s come to know and love. The writers exploit this irony brilliantly. For her, it’s a relationship of one day. For Cruise, it’s a relationship of countless days. Countless hours, countless stories they told each other, countless longings. And at a certain point – he starts to lie.
He cannot watch her die over and over. And so he hangs back, lying about how far they’ve come already. He arranges little moments of respite and humanity. If only to enjoy her company a bit longer this time around. For this is the curse of the immortal at its zenith. To love a thing that cannot live. To share a love that only he will remember.
Best yet, these all too human lies catch us by surprise. We are as blindsided by his duplicity as she is. And yet, we understand. Faced with endless defeat, who among us would press onward without a break? Truthfully, this is my favorite scene in the movie. It takes this love story to a whole new level. For she has no idea how deeply he has already fallen. Good stuff.
The third act is triggered when Cruise’ immortality (his ability to reset) is unexpectedly taken from him by a well meaning medic who transfuses his blood. From then on, we’re back to a zero-sum game against the aliens. No more do-overs. Cruise and Emily Blunt either get it right this time, or the human race is finished. I don’t need to tell you what happens. We get the usual skin-of-our-teeth third act and it’s good enough visually to close the movie, without any real surprise.
But as we left the theatre, it wasn’t the third act we were talking about. It was the extremely skillful ways these writers sidestepped the pitfalls and clichés of time travel pieces and actually delivered genuine vulnerability for a hero who should have been invulnerable. (Credit also Tom Cruise for one of his better performances). Did these filmmakers read their Greek tragedies? I have no clue. But that’s the great thing about myths. They’ve been around so long, you know them whether you read them or not. It’s a great writer who can take what’s been done before and make it fresh. Make it count. These guys did. And delivered a pretty smart movie amid the usual summer fare.