Review of the film, Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014)
by guest blogger Alison McMahan
Alison is an award-winning screenwriter, author and filmmaker. Check out her work at Homunculus Productions and on twitter @AlisonMcMahan
Like most Hollywood films, Edge of Tomorrow, the 2014 summer tent-pole sci-fi film directed by Doug Liman (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the Bourne Series) and starring Tom Cruise (Oblivion) and Emily Blunt (Adjustment Bureau, Looper), started out life as a book. And not just any book, but a young-adult sci-fi novel. The book was originally written in Japanese by Hiroshi Sakurazaka (born in Tokyo in 1970) as Ōru Yū Nīdo Izu Kiru, (All You Need Is Kill). The genre in Japan is "Japanese Military sci-fi light" novel. "Light" is the Japanese term that is roughly equivalent to our "young adult" classification.
All You Need Is Kill was not Hiroshi's first novel, but it was his first to break out. A manga adaptation, written by Ryōsuke Takeuchi and illustrated by Takeshi Obata, began serialization in Shueisha's Weekly Young Jump magazine in January 2014 and is also published by Viz Media in its Weekly Shonen Jump magazine. A graphic novel adaptation was released in North America in May 2014. All You Need Is Kill was re-released as the movie tie-in novel, in paperback form with Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt on the cover, and re-titled The Edge of Tomorrow.
So, the story started out life as a fast, light read for adolescent, geeky sci-fi fans in Japan. It's safe to assume that in order to produce a blockbuster sci-fi film with all the requisite special effects, Hollywood needed a major star in order to generate the requisite marketing. Brad Pitt turned the role down, but Tom Cruise accepted, and his films Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow were shot back-to-back.
In the book, All You Need is Kill, the hero is Keiji Kiriya, newly enlisted to serve in a war against the Mimics that has already been going on for twenty years and has already taken the lives of most of the world's able soldiers. Keiji is emotionally and physically unprepared for the D-Day style battle that he faces on the morrow. He enlisted because a librarian back home broke his heart when she married someone else, but now he's starting to realize he's made a terrible mistake. The novel begins with him waking up, preparing for the next day's battle, going to battle, and getting killed within 45 minutes. To his credit, he takes out a Mimic with him, and not just any mimic: a special one that has antennas.
And then he wakes up again. It's the day before the battle… he goes through his day with only moderate changes… he thinks his sense of deja vu is because he had some vivid dreams…he goes into battle and gets killed within the first 48 minutes.
Once he figures out that each time he dies his life is reset, as if he were in a computer game, he starts doing what gamers do: learning from each experience to get a little further into the loop before getting killed again, in the hopes of eventually getting out of the loop altogether.
In the book, and in an early script adaptation by D.W. Harper, Cage (the transliteration for Keiji in English) finds out that the great war hero, Rita Vrataski, was also caught in a loop for some time, but managed to escape it. She recognizes his problem and tries to help him use his (curse? superpower?) to get a tactical advantage in the war against the Mimics. Of course, a love story develops, though courting a woman that forgets all about you every 48 hours has all the tragedy and none of the comedy of movies like 50 First Dates.
That's the part that's the same in book and movie.
The movie, of course, has to age up Cage so that Cruise can play him as more of a man in the throes of a mid-life crisis a la Groundhog Day than as a coming of age a la Source Code. To make this work, the film actually makes some improvements on the book: it combines a slimey American journalist whose got a thing for Vrataski with the Cage character, and it has Vrataski train Cage, instead of Ferrell, Cage's military superior. Cage's platoon of misfits are given more rounded personalities, which is properly paid off. The movie has a better logic for what causes the time loop to begin and end: the Mimics in the book really are robots sent from the aliens that will invade after the Earth is terraformed for them, but the movie makes the Mimics the aliens and institutes an alien hierarchy. This makes possible the idea of alien blood, which confers time-looping powers on those who are drenched in it.
In spite of these improvements, the looping plot poses certain challenges. First of all, in order to fit so many iterations of the story into the length of a commercial feature film (remember Run Lola Run only had three iterations of its plot), a lot had to be elided. This means that we miss Cage's transformation from self-absorbed, cowardly media mannequin into a skilled soldier willing to sacrifice himself for the world, the team, and the woman.
Paul Gulino has discussed this aspect of the story intelligently and completely, so I will refer readers to his article in Script Magazine, which can be found here: http://www.scriptmag.com/features/storytelling-strategies-edge-ending
The looping structure itself can be challenging for some viewers. Even though as a genre, the time-loop sci-fi story, TV episodes, and movies have been with us for nearly one hundred years: there are numerous time-loop stories from the 40s and 50s, and more recently, excellent films as Source Code and Groundhog Day, not to mention episodes on Star Trek, STNG, The Outer Limits, and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In spite of all the examples of the genre that have come before, the time-loop story is still a challenge, and the challenging character has been reflected at the box office, just as it did for the sadly under-appreciated Source Code and 12 Monkeys.
Those who can follow the plot still find issues with it. Why, for example, does Cage wake up in an earlier point in his last loop than he did in all the previous loops? Also, the departure from the main character's point of view, which happens when he's dead, and other characters comment on his death (this happened in Ground Hog Day too).
The Time-loop story, by its very nature, violates causality. This is especially true of stories where a character's consciousness travels through time, but not his body (every time Cage resets, his body is the same: as Keiji says a few times in the original novel, it is his OS that is getting improved, not his muscle tone). What makes a time-loop story coherent is not sci-fi genre tropes, but the tropes of some other genre with which the time-loop story is often combined. In Source Code and Deja Vu, the hero is trying to find a terrorist. In other words, those films are sci-fi mysteries, although there are love story b-plots.
In Ground Hog Day the hero needs to become a better man, and he does it through love. In other words, GroundHog Day is a sci-fi Romance, or sci-fi love story. And, in spite of all the battle scenes and CGI alien monsters, so is Edge of Tomorrow. What holds the complicated plot together, and what makes the film accessible to a wider audience, is that the filmmakers chose to remain true to the love story logic. Cage and Rita Vrataski have a shared goal—to destroy the "hive mastermind" alien—but Cage has an additional goal that becomes more and more important to him as the story progresses, and comes more and more into conflict with his first goal, and that is to keep Rita alive long enough to win her love. Like the hero in Butterfly Effect, he gradually realizes that the only way to accomplish this is not to have Rita fight at his side at all. The only way she can live through a timeline is if she never goes with him -- if he leaves her doing her one-armed plank in the training room. And because that is the one moment of contact with her where he can choose to not have her fight at his side, when the story ends that is the moment he has to come back to, this moment of first meeting. The filmmakers try to justify it visually by having Cage completely drenched in the blood of the super-alien, in the hopes that in the rush of climactic events we will make an easy equation, "more blood=more control over timeline reset."
Yes, it's a plot hole. But it works, because it's true to love-story logic. Love is redeeming, love gives us new life, love powers resurrections. In the end, all you need is love.