Edge of Tomorrow: The Pinnacle of Video-Game Cinema

Photo: Warner Bros

Edge of Tomorrow is a fantastic Tom Cruise movie, as well as a clever and surprising sci-fi adventure. But most importantly, it’s the ultimate manifestation yet of video-game cinema. Not because it’s based on a game — on the contrary, the source material of Doug Liman’s extraterrestrial extravaganza is Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s 2004 graphic novel All You Need Is Kill. Rather, it’s because no film has ever so fully and enthusiastically embraced both the hallmark forms and content of games. The tale of military press-secretary William Cage (Cruise), who finds himself on a Normandy Beach–esque battlefield during an alien invasion and, after dying, winds up replaying that same day over and over again, Edge of Tomorrow practically begs for superficial comparisons to that modern classic of comedic do-overs, Groundhog Day. Yet it’s not Bill Murray who’s the real inspiration for Cruise’s repetitive saga but, instead, Halo, Wolfenstein, Army of Two, and numerous other games whose scenarios and set-pieces — as well as fundamental nature — are echoed in this summer spectacle.

Describing a movie as akin to a video game has become ubiquitous critical shorthand, and with understandable reason — for the past decade or so, films have become increasingly enthralled by the medium’s aesthetic and narrative devices. Equating the two has become an easy way to say that a movie has lots of empty CGI chaos and little character development. Movies like last year’s After Earth and 2010’s Inception were both equated with the experience of playing video games and “going from level to level,” completing tasks and defeating bosses in order to proceed to the next part in the game. However, any substantive analysis of recent effects-heavy studio pictures reveals that the two art forms have become far more conjoined than that — and, in fact, that movies are now routinely awash in story setups and stylistic signatures borrowed directly from Xbox and PlayStation hits.

The over-the-shoulder third-person perspectives of sci-fi skirmishes in District 9 and Elysium? Clearly modeled after Epic Games’s Gears of War. The dreamlike plot and world-building concepts and visuals of Inception? Think Minecraft or SimCity, with a touch of Heavy Rain thrown in for good measure. The platform-hopping sequence of Len Wiseman’s Total Recall remake? The offspring of Super Mario Bros. and company. The side-scrolling hallway fight through hordes of baddies in Oldboy? Credit Double Dragon and its fisticuffing mates. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. From Battle: Los Angeles and Crank  to The Matrix and 300, films now regularly take their shaky-cam warfare, urban-mayhem insanity, and super-slow-motion cues from console and PC games like Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Killzone, and Street Fighter — an ironic turn of events, given how those very games deliberately strive to resemble hallowed genre films.

Edge of Tomorrow takes this tendency to its furthest point yet. First and foremost, Liman’s story is itself a direct expression of the video-game experience. Forced to relive the same day ad infinitum, Cage trains with a famous warrior, Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), as well as memorizes the tactics of his enemies. Consequently, his situation directly emulates action-oriented video games, in which success is predicated on replaying the same scenarios over and over, both in order to hone one’s skills and also to learn enemies’ pre-programmed patterns of behavior. That video-game death requires going back to a prior checkpoint and trying again is identical to Cage’s stuck-in-time circumstance — and when Cruise injures himself or hits a roadblock and Rita must kill him so he’ll start over, she even refers to the process, in video-game terms, as a “reset.”

As such, Edge of Tomorrow’s very narrative structure is explicitly designed to recall gaming and its “try, try again” methods. Nonetheless, that’s only the most blatant way the film adopts interactive tropes. Cage’s means of fighting the aliens is a heavily armored exoskeleton that — as with those found in Elysium, Sucker Punch, Avatar, and many more — is a descent of Japanese anime’s mecha power suits, which have now become such a pervasive part of video gaming (see: MechWarrior, Steel Battalion, Armored Core) that the Xbox One console has been sold primarily via its AAA mecha title Titanfall. Moreover, thanks to Halo and its copycats, a hero donning high-tech battle armor to combat alien hordes — a notion seen early on in Aliens — has become a veritable gaming cliché, and one that makes Edge of Tomorrow’s sci-fi-by-way-of-WWII warfare seem like a cross between the PS3’s Resistance and Battlefield series.

That’s not all. Liman’s unstable handheld cinematography is the same faux-vérité stunt that he and others (including Paul Greengrass, Liman’s Bourne franchise successor) have been employing ever since Call of Duty confirmed that a volatile, in-your-face vantage point resulted in a heightened sense of immediacy and realism. (A visual strategy that itself traces back to Saving Private Ryan and even farther back, as Mark Harris writes in his book about World War II cinema, Five Came Back; in war recreations like John Huston’s San Pietro and in genuine D-Day footage by George Stevens, and John Ford, the shaky cam was already in effect.) Liman mainly shoots like this from a third-person perspective, à la Gears of War. However, he also nods to his first-person-shooter influences in an electric sequence in which Cruise’s airship is attacked pre-air-drop, with the director’s camera suddenly assuming Cruise’s harried perspective as he looks down at the beach looming miles beneath his dangling feet, and then up at comrades being engulfed in explosive flames.

Even Cage’s eventual partnership with Rita is a shout-out to the omnipresent co-op modes that come packed into online-ready console and PC titles. Rita is something like the ideal Xbox Live ally — maybe not as familiar with the game as you are, but immensely talented at the genre, and eager to tag-team up against daunting waves of foes. Meanwhile, Edge of Tomorrow’s background players, a motley crew of grunts who become Cage and Rita’s backup, prove to be colorful peripheral figures like those AI-operated soldiers who offer occasional support and funny dialogue (often via the voices of cameoing movie stars) in Call of Duty and its ilk.

In these regards, Edge of Tomorrow amalgamates countless conventions — shifting POVs, CG human-versus-alien imagery and action, multiplayer, slow-motion, mecha weaponry, on-foot and vehicular sequences, and an experience rooted in triumph through repetition — that are fundamental to video games. Whereas so many of its video-game cinema brethren do only one or two of those things well, Cruise and Liman’s film melds them all into one coherent, compelling whole. Far from an act of mimicry, Edge of Tomorrow instead naturally taps into the various ways that video games excite and engage us, and translates those into cinematic terms that work, thrillingly, on their own right — even if, admittedly, Cruise’s trial-and-error exploits do eventually make one crave a controller.

Edge of Tomorrow: Pinnacle of Video-Game Cinema