T. A. Hernandez
Stories Beyond Books: Edge of Tomorrow
As a writer, I'm always fascinated with the many different ways stories can be presented outside of books, including in movies, video games, animation, and so many more incredible mediums. And I love talking about stories and exploring why they work or don't work, how we connect with characters, and how some of the most important parts of our own lives are explored through storytelling. It's been a while since I've done a post like this, but today, I want to highlight one of my favorite movies of all time, Edge of Tomorrow.
Edge of Tomorrow (AKA Live Die Repeat) is a fantastic piece of sci-fi storytelling. Now, I'll be honest, action movies like this are very hit-or-miss for me. I have a hard time maintaining an adequate suspension of disbelief when a movie is just flashy effects and cool people doing cool stunts without much substance. On the surface, Edge of Tomorrow doesn't look like the kind of movie I'd particularly enjoy or want to watch over and over again (which I have done over the years). But there are are some key things that set it apart and really make it work for me.
I am going to be discussing specific plot details here, so don't read beyond this point if you haven't yet seen this movie. Instead, consider using your time to go watch the movie. It's excellent.
***THIS IS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER WARNING!!!***
Taking Time for Character Development
This is where so many action movies fail for me, because if I don't have a well-developed character to connect to, I'm not going to care about the story. Explosions are cool. Alien monsters that move at lightning-fast speeds are awesome. Epic battles between those aliens and soldiers in robotic mech suits are even more awesome. But if the story never digs deeper than that, all that awesome action gets old and tired pretty fast. Yes, even if the explosions are really cool.
Edge of Tomorrow avoids this problem by doing what I think any good story should do. It takes the time to develop its characters. Gasp! Shocking, I know, but if I had to point to any one thing that elevates this movie above so many others like it, it would be this.
Tom Cruise's William Cage isn't the most likeable character when we first meet him. He exudes charisma and confidence in the various interviews we see him in at the start of the film, but as soon as he's ordered to go into a situation where his life could be at risk, he tries to weasel his way out of it. He even goes so far as to attempt blackmailing the commanding officer giving him those orders. So when he's dumped on the base, stripped of his rank any any opportunity he might have to slink out of danger, it's pretty satisfying to see him get his comeuppance. Throughout the rest of the movie, we watch his slow transformation from a cowardly officer to a brave and competent fighter willing to go to extreme lengths to defeat the enemy. There's a scene about halfway through the movie where he goes off on his own, without Rita's help, and you really get to see the drastic change the events of the movie have created in him. There's a hardness to his character that wasn't there at the beginning, and the fact that he's willing and brave enough to go off on his own at all is another testament to how far he's come.
But he doesn't develop that courage and competence on his own. Our other major character is Rita Vrataski, AKA"the Angel of Verdun,"and she's given a good amount of character development as well. She's already hardened and ruthless when we meet her, a mirror of the person Cage will eventually become. She's the perfect foil to the cowardly, incompetent fighter Cage is when we first meet him, and watching the relationship that develops between them sucks you right in and gets you more invested in the story. (As a side note, I've always gotten some major Commander Shepard vibes from Rita, which of course just makes me love the movie even more.)
The supporting characters also get some decent development even though none of them feature very prominently in the story. With Cage stuck in a Groundhog-day style time loop, repeating the same day over and over again with the same group of people, it would have been very easy to let the secondary characters be just background props. But they're more than that. They're each memorable in their own right from the very first second they're introduced. Character quirks (i.e. Farell's accent and speech patterns, Kimmel's habit of ditching his clothes when he's in his mechanical exoskeleton) are used strategically here to ensure everyone in J Squad makes an immediate and lasting impression. When they do all get their big moment at the end of the movie, it's so much more impactful because we know and care about all of them, even though we've only seen them in passing for a few minutes.
Delving into the Emotions Beneath all the Action
This is another key point where action movies often fall flat for me. We have all this exciting stuff happening, but we don't slow down long enough to really feel the emotional impact of the danger and excitement or see how it affects the characters. Edge of Tomorrow really takes the time to show those quieter, more emotional moments while still keeping you on the edge of your seat with great conflict and exciting action.
After Cage dies and resets the day for the first time, we get several scenes where he's trying to find new ways out of his predicament. We see the emotional toll this takes on him as he becomes an anxious, ranting, sweaty mess and only succeeds in drawing strange looks from the rest of his squad. There's plenty of action interspersed throughout these scenes as Cage lands on the beach to fight again and again, but the focus is always on the emotional impact this has on Cage himself.
Later in the movie, there are some great emotional scenes with Rita, particularly at the point when she and Cage drive to that abandoned farmhouse where they find the helicopter. Their conversation in the car on the way there slows things down after the tense scene we just got where they were fighting for their lives in a moving vehicle. We learn a little more about Rita's past and what this fight means to her. The scene vividly illustrates the imbalance in the relationship between the two characters. Cage knows Rita pretty well by this point and has been through a lot with her, but to Rita, Cage is just some soldier she barely met and doesn't know or really care about beyond his usefulness to her.
There's a real emotional weight to that imbalance that you see come up again a little later when Rita crashes the helicopter. She tells him her middle name, and then Cage is left staring down at her body as the mimics close in. He knows her and cares for her, and by this point, he's probably watched her die hundreds of times. It's clearly traumatic for him, as it would be for anyone. Is it any wonder he decides to go off on his own when the day resets? It's a reckless decision, but you understand what it means for him because you just saw the emotional impact this fight is having on him.
A Perfect Balance of Humor and High Stakes
Another thing this movie does well is blending the high-stakes action and death with a fair amount of humor. Some of it is a little darker in tone, but that works well with the more morbid elements of the story. Poor Cage is stuck in a time loop where he dies over and over again, sometimes in very horrific ways, but there are also some funny moments mixed in there. Rita's callousness about shooting him when he's injured during their training exercises always gets a little smile out of me, and there's a certain scene involving unfortunate timing and a vehicle that makes me laugh out loud every single time I see it.
All those quirky side characters do a lot to contribute to the humor of the story, too. Master Sergeant Farell's dialogue is endlessly entertaining, and I swear I catch new little quips in it every time I watch this movie. The scene where he makes his subordinates eat their playing cards is also a fun one, not only because it's just such a ridiculous thing to do, but because of the way each character carries out this task.
Meaningful Plot Twists
Lastly, I want to highlight two of the plot twists that work really well in Edge of Tomorrow. There are more, some bigger than more heavily foreshadowed than others, but these two really stick out to me as examples of good storytelling techniques.
The first twist comes when Cage finally reaches the dam on his own, only to realize that the Omega was never there, that this has just been a trap to lure him in so the mimics can take back their power. It's a hard blow to Cage, Rita, and Dr. Carter as this is what they've been working toward for so long (even if Rita and Dr. Carter don't realize it), and it drastically changes the approach Cage and Rita must now take in order to discover where the Omega is. This event sets the characters back in a meaningful way and amps up the tension as you realize that the alien mimics are perhaps more dangerous and more intelligent than we've previously given them credit for. And that's exactly what a good plot twist should do - not just catch the characters and the audience off guard, but change the level of tension as well.
And that takes us to the second plot twist. After finally succeeding in obtaining the device that will tell them where to find the Omega, Cage and Rita are thrown for yet another loop when their vehicle crashes and Cage is given medical treatment....including a blood transfusion. This strips him of his power to reset the day, and that one, simple thing takes the stakes and tension all the way up. I really like this plot twist for a few different reasons. First, although it was foreshadowed by Rita much earlier in the movie when she describes the same thing happening to her, it still feels unexpected when it happens. There's a few seconds where Rita and Cage are sitting in the car and you figure Cage will just end his life and reset the day. When he comes to in the hospital and sees he's been given a blood transfusion, you really feel that gut-punch "oh crap" moment just like he does. Secondly, it strips Cage of his power and brings him down to rock bottom. He knows the invasion is going to happen the next morning, and now that he can't reset the day and change events for the better, there's a very high chance that everything he's done so far will be for nothing. It forces him into a corner and makes every action he takes from that point forward all the more meaningful. Suddenly, he has so much more to lose. He has everything to lose.
Additionally, this plot twists forces Cage to seek help from those secondary characters we've seen briefly throughout the movie. Suddenly, those characters aren't just background props anymore. They've become so much more than that, and they're going to play a major role in the climax of the story. Cage has to use all his knowledge from previous interactions with them to convince them to help, which means all those interactions he's had with them previously weren't included in the movie just for funsies, but rather to build up likeable secondary characters we care about whose lives are suddenly at stake. I mean, their lives were always at stake, but now they have a chance to fight for something that could actually work rather than just dying in vain in a plan that was doomed to fail from the start. This one plot twist ties all the characters and story elements together in a way that makes you realize how critical they were to the movie all along, even if you couldn't see it at the time. And that in turn just adds to the emotional impact of that last, epic action scene where they go to destroy the Omega.
I absolutely love this movie and really enjoyed rewatching it with my writer's brain engaged so that I could pick it apart and figure out why it works so well. I'd love to hear your thoughts about it or any other insights I may have missed, so be sure to leave a comment or shoot me an email if you want to talk more!