The notion of films adopting a “videogame aesthetic” is – or was – a common critical observation, wielded as pejorative or praise depending, seemingly, on the critic’s personal opinion of videogames. Since at least The Matrix – a film visually and conceptually indebted to contemporary videogames while inspiring the design of games to come – and even Tron before it, the relationship between cinema and gaming has been more symbiotic than parasitic. Videogames inspire films and films inspire videogames; you’re just as likely to see videogames described as “cinematic” as vice versa.
Describing a film as akin to a videogame is generally a reflection on the film’s overt artificiality. However, in an era where games emulate photorealism, and movies like Maleficent and 300: Rise of an Empire slide towards blatantly computer-crafted visuals, the distinction between each medium has become increasingly blurred (at the most expensive end of the market, at least). Edge of Tomorrow, like so many CGI-heavy modern blockbusters, looks like a videogame, but its tether to the medium goes beyond its presentation. For better and for worse, this film as a whole so closely resembles a videogame you half expect to be handed an Xbox controller with your 3-D glasses. It’s the most “videogamey” movie yet.
Edge of Tomorrow’s conceit, taken from Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel All You Need is Kill, sees William Cage (Tom Cruise) “respawn” every time he’s killed. Since he’s an advertising executive shunted sans combat experience to the frontline of a battle against marauding insectile aliens, he tends to die a lot. Comparisons to Groundhog Day are mandatory, but the storyline is videogame mechanics through-and-through.
I’ve always been fascinated by the way mainstream videogames’ narrative-resetting repetition allows normal folk to experience superhumanity, not only through magical powers or fearsome weaponry, but the prescience born of knowing what happens next. Edge of Tomorrow harnesses that potential; Cage progresses – levels up – from a clumsy everyman to a supersoldier thanks in part to the training of war hero Rita (Emily Blunt), but mostly thanks to dying again and again and again. He’s a superhero born of repetition rather than cosmic rays or radioactive spider. The film’s first half, with its suitably quick-fire editing and Cage’s frustration at continually having to fight the same enemies, carries an almost nostalgic familiarity for anyone who’s button-mashed through the same cutscene countless times.
Screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth don’t hide the story’s resemblances to videogames, with exchanges like “What do we do next?” “I dunno. I’ve never gotten this far before.” There’s even an obligatory “game over.” Sadly, it’s not delivered by Bill Paxton, who channels R. Lee Ermey with relish in a small role. The design, especially the mecha suits the soldiers wear, is strongly game-inspired. The setting is in keeping with the obsessions of first-person shooters, combining post-apocalyptic sci-fi with World War II imagery (the main action set-piece is a beach invasion of occupied France because of course it is).
Edge of Tomorrow might’ve made for a great videogame, but is it a good movie? Director Doug Liman maintains interest and even develops tension with a potentially monotonous storyline, certainly. The film also leavens proceedings with some clever humour. It’s never more than adequate, though. Once the freshness of the timeline trickery evaporates, the narrative descends into predictability and conventionality. Neither Cruise nor Blunt has a substantial character to sink their teeth into. The special effects are impressive, but there’s little innovation in the visuals to match the central concept.
Much like the interchangeable first-person shooters flooding the videogame market, Edge of Tomorrow could benefit from distinguishing itself beyond its clever hook.
This review was originally published at The 500 Club.