Edge of Tomorrow: The Return of War as Action?

With war, Hollywood has always trodden carefully, or so it had seemed to be the case.

Prior to the war in Vietnam, films depicting armed conflict (usually the First or Second World War) were mostly action movies, promulgating the heroic allied heroes triumphing over one-dimensional foes. They were not unlike the Marvel movies today, where the heroes are handsome and courageous whilst the villains leave little room for moral ambiguity. The likes of ‘Battle of the Bulge’ and ‘Stalag 17’ eventually became overshadowed by ‘Paths of Glory’ and ‘The Dirty Dozen,’ which, while depicting soldiers in the heat of battle, threw up a mirror at the failings of their commanders.

The onset of the Vietnam conflict led to the portrayal of participation in armed conflict as ugly and fraught with moral consequence. ‘The Deer Hunter’ and ‘Platoon’ became some of the most successful war films of all time while films glorifying the conflict were dismissed and often reviled. This did not change throughout the duration of the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, with mainstream films generally either critical of the conflicts themselves or the effects on those who participated. There have been recent exceptions to the rule whereby films can depict war without addressing its moral quandaries if they manage to be funny, light-hearted and clearly not meant to be taken to seriously ie Tropic Thunder.

President Obama last month announced, during his commencement address at West Point, that this year’s graduating class would be the first in 13 years whose alumni may not be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan. Throughout the beginning of this year the prospect of a lessened US presence overseas meant that in some circles public discussion surrounding some international conflicts became less heated than they were 5 years ago, rendering a very large film-going audience less exposed to these debates. The tides of change evident prior to the release of ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ in May meant that Hollywood could again be a little less circumspect in their portrayal of armed conflict and marketing of unabashed action flicks like one now gracing our cinemas.

The film follows Cage (Tom Cruise) in the not-too-distant-future being forced into battle with an alien foe along with millions of others troops in Earth’s United Defence Force. He lands on the beaches in northern France sporting some consummate battle gear only to be defeated by the enemy, but instead of dying he wakes up the morning before the battle. And repeat, and repeat, and repeat. As Cage tries to make sense of his predicament he tracks down Rita (Emily Blunt) and has to re-introduce himself to her every day while they figure out how to defeat the invasion.

Cage, in repeat mode, like Bill Murray before him, struggles through denial, anger, fear and finally acceptance before eventually learning to take complete advantage of his situation. Think Source Code/Groundhog Day/50 First Dates meets Starship Troopers.

‘Edge of Tomorrow’ tries so hard not to tread on any political toes it’s antagonists are as inhuman as the bugs Casper Van Diem and Denise Richards so bravely fought. There are no references even in passing to recent contentious real-world conflicts, instead alluding throughout the film to the First and Second World Wars; the viability of participation in these particular conflicts not being the subject of significant current debate.

This is made overly plain for the audience, with most of the conflict zone consisting of modern-day France. The first battle alluded to took place in Verdun, the central battle of the film actually takes place following landings in Normandy and there is clear discussion of progress made on the Western front as the military commander points to a map of Germany and Russia. The decision to do this assists in transplanting us to a largely extinct era and style of cinema where war films, like any other action films, projected one-dimensional villains; the defeat of whom were often fraught with little to no moral consequence.

‘Edge of Tomorrow’ is a cleverly constructed action movie which at least at the beginning feels more like a first-person shooter than a film. The audience joins Cage as he re-spawns on the same level over and over again and each time becomes a little bit better as he learns the field and develops combat skill and strategy. Cage’s suit, along with the other recruit’s gear, clearly draws a lot from Halo’s Master Chief, and the villains are strikingly similar to Halo’s Flood.

Brendan Gleeson pops in as the war-weary General and Noah Taylor (Locke/Vargo Hoat from Game of Thrones) makes a brief appearance. Tom Cruise is one of the only actors out there taking repeated gambles on original sci-fis (Oblivion) and for this we thank him. ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ is a movie you can enjoy without thinking too much about it because it is just what an action film is supposed to be; light, thrilling and clearly not trying to drive a point down our throats.