Live and Learn

edge-of-tomorrow-7Private Will Cage wakes up with handcuffs on his wrist and an officer’s boot in his side. Moments later, he’s whisked away by a no-nonsense sergeant and plopped into a company of close-knit friends that already dislike the new blood (even if he wasn’t branded a traitor). After the typical half-inspirational, half-deprecating pep talk, they board their troop transports, which get inevitably peppered with artillery fire as soon as they’re over the beachhead battleground. Our protagonist watches in horror as his comrades are crushed, stabbed and shot to death, and manages to best one of the tougher enemies before succumbing to a gruesome wound.

Then he wakes up in handcuffs again. And again. And after the third time, it becomes clear that staying dead just isn’t in the cards.

It takes Cage one or two resets before serious déjà vu creeps in, but anyone with even a passing investment in popular culture has lived through his war-movie nightmare one too many times. From Full Metal Jacket to the latest Call of Duty, we all know the score; we’ve seen the same one-dimensional caricatures live, die, then live again. The woman entirely defined entirely by her aggressiveness and the “cah-razy” comic relief both fulfill their prescribed roles to a T, untouched ingredients in a recipe followed religiously by filmmaker after filmmaker. They’re each given one-word names like Griff, Kuntz and Skinner: once a signifier of intimacy within a squad, these simple monikers now betray the cheap cardboard used for construction.

EDGE-OF-TOMORROW-7 (1)Though Cage’s infinite time loop proves to be a valuable advantage in the war, it initially serves as a personal hell. Every time he inevitably dies on the battlefield or at the base, he’s subjected to the same swift wake-up kick, poor R. Lee Ermey impression and botched troop deployment ad nauseam. This infernal repetition gradually shifts Cage from dismay to utter aggravation; by this point, he views his reality with a cynical, knowing attitude the rest of us apply to the myriad Colonial Marines or Mobile Infantry in our fiction. It’s a situation well-known by veterans of Deadpool and Matt Hazard, whose characters regularly smash through fourth walls with tongues firmly planted in cheeks, but these observations rarely make their way into straight-laced, Hollywood blockbuster fare.

As the one character given agency, Cage naturally focuses on saving himself and the other soldiers above all else, but the banality of his surrounding ensemble pushes him to alter his scripted encounters and liven up his purgatory. He finishes others’ sentences, predicts their punches before they’re thrown, and even recites J Squad’s life stories to the rest of the team. The latter inspires the greatest amount of animosity and bewilderment between Cage and the walking stereotypes, but through anger, their wafer-thin complexion transforms into far more substantial characterization. Cage’s distillation of their histories pushes them to silently rebel against their own shallow portrayals, eager to prove that they are more than a list of successes and failures.

Though these segments tend to lean on humor, watching them fight to escape their well-worn archetypes feels honest, even optimistic. When media dives into its own stereotypes, they’re played for cynical laughter, merely making the observation that “Hey, this Sir Lancelot hero is pretty hokey” without contributing much else. Edge of Tomorrow recognizes that yes, these staples of filmmaking have long lost their ability to fasten a plot together, but we can easily alter them to the point where they feel human again. It’s refreshing, considered commentary, the likes of which we’ve rarely seen since the days of Paul Verhoeven’s “I’d buy that for a dollar!” or “Would you like to know more?”

Edge of Tomorrow isn’t some wunderkind; it still bears the same marks of the prototypical Hollywood fare, from complex CGI battles to an ending that wraps things up a little too neatly when it messes with the time-space continuum. But underneath that expensive shine is a heart that could lead to a better tomorrow for cinema.