Edge of Tomorrow at 10: When Tom Cruise Reshaped His Narrative

Movies Features Tom Cruise
Edge of Tomorrow at 10: When Tom Cruise Reshaped His Narrative

Tom Cruise knows that nothing he does is ever “just” a movie. We often think of him, deservedly or not, as one of the last movie stars, one of the holdouts of a dying breed that’s been eclipsed by the kind of films that sell the characters and the premise more than the actors. We think of Cruise this way because he can still reliably front a movie, of course, but also because he’s learned the hard way what the greatest movie stars always knew: That every film, if you do it right, tells us something about who you are.

In a career spanning more than four decades, Cruise has worked to carefully craft an image to accompany his stardom, and while it hasn’t always worked in his favor, his awareness of this dual purpose to his film choices is undeniable. He spent the ’80s establishing his star persona, the ’90s simultaneously launching blockbusters and proving he could work with the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, Neil Jordan and Stanley Kubrick, and the 2000s cementing himself as a filmmaking force beyond acting, using his clout to make sequels and take bigger swings, becoming a film industry unto himself. 

Then came the 2010s, and a transformative period for Cruise that gave birth to the movie star we now know, the guy who emerges every couple of years to deliver a rollicking, stunt-packed spectacle unlike anything else his peers can offer, complete with behind-the-scenes footage proving that he’s putting his life on the line for our entertainment. Cruise came to that decade awash in controversy over his marriage, his views on psychiatry and his association with Scientology, all of which threatened his carefully controlled image as the Golden Boy Who Just Loves Movies. Two things happened in response. The first was an effort to pull back on what aspects of his private life were revealed following his divorce from Katie Holmes. The second was Edge of Tomorrow.

Released a decade ago this month, Doug Liman’s sci-fi action film is best remembered now as a film critics loved, but audiences simply didn’t turn up for in Mission: Impossible-style droves. In the years since, it’s only grown in esteem, as more and more fans see it, love it and clamor for a much-whispered-about sequel. Its status as a slept-on Cruise gem has only helped its reputation, and it’s now a kind of secret handshake for sci-fi action fans, a movie you make sure your buddies have seen. 

But looking back at the film now — in the context of the increasingly bonkers Mission: Impossible sequels Cruise has released since, and his self-proclaimed quest to save the theatrical experience with movies like Top Gun: Maverick Edge of Tomorrow feels like something more. If we take for granted, and I do, that every movie Cruise chooses to make is a reflection of an image he’s trying to convey to us, Edge of Tomorrow becomes a keystone for everything that’s happened since its release, the film from which Cruise emerged as the relentless showman we now know. 

Cruise plays William Cage, a slick and TV-ready media manager for the U.S. military who’s become one of the primary spokesman for a global war against an alien menace called “Mimics.” After crash-landing on our planet, the Mimics launched a land war against humanity, conquering much of Europe and leaving world governments struggling to find a solution. They think they’ve found it in a line of high-tech battle suits that allow humans to stand against the aliens with less training, and Cage leads the charge to promote the new tech and enlist as many volunteers as possible. Then, thanks to his own arrogance, he’s unwillingly put on the front line of the invasion that’s supposed to win it all for humankind. In battle, he dies quickly and brutally, soaked in corrosive alien blood that, somehow, also places him in an endless time loop. Forced to live the day of the invasion over and over, dying each time, Cage eventually links up with Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a badass war hero with a chip on her shoulder, and sets out to defeat the alien menace once and for all, even if no one else believes his time loop dilemma. 

It’s a fun premise, particularly when you throw in Liman’s raucous action sequences and clever alien designs that make the mimics look amorphous, sharp and impossible to track with the eye. Looking closer, though, Edge of Tomorrow works particularly well as a vehicle for Cruise, who has to take Cage on a genuinely satisfying arc while also serving his larger interests as a movie star.

Cage begins Edge of Tomorrow as a man who’s all about image, all about the spin. He wants the uniform of a soldier without ever actually fighting, wants the prestige and the power with none of the blood and the sweat. He wants to control his own narrative, something that fighting on the front lines simply can’t give him. With the time loop comes the realization that every time he dies, Cage will go back to the same starting point, live the same series of events and have the opportunity to correct his previous mistakes. When he finally meets Rita (played with zest by Blunt, who clearly enjoys a character with certain antihero tendencies), and finds that she once had the same ability, he’s finally able to grasp a narrative, and an objective, that he can practice to reach.

These ideas, coupled with Liman’s shooting style, will, for many viewers, immediately conjure up video games, something the filmmakers were definitely aware of in scenes where Cage and Rita walk through the steps of their mission like they’re reading a game walkthrough online. And yes, Edge of Tomorrow is basically about a guy who got the unlimited extra lives cheat and has to use it to beat the game. But revisiting the film, I couldn’t help but see Cruise’s casting as a media spin doctor, a storyteller, as a link to the filmmaking metaphors inherent in the plot. Multiple times in the film, Liman gives us a montage of Cage and Rita going through the same day over and over, dying each time, sometimes hilariously and sometimes brutally, cursing over their mistakes and knowing they have to start again. In filmmaking terms, these may as well be blooper reels, a long series of blown takes in which the actors must keep going back to one, trying again and again to nail the fight choreography and the emotional beats. 

This naturally puts Cruise in his element, playing a guy who just wants to get the movie right, make the story satisfying and bring the whole thing home, but the metaphors don’t end there. There’s also an element of (perhaps ironic) commentary on the kind of films we expect from Cruise in this narrative, and it’s built into Cage’s reluctance to fight. He tries everything to get out of his apparent destiny, even attempting to blackmail his superiors, and every time he’s put back in the meat grinder to keep fighting. It’s a movie about a guy who doesn’t want to just be an alien-killing machine, or cannon fodder for other, better fighters like Rita, who’s told over and over again that’s what he’s meant for. Cage pushes on because he has to, but along the way, he finds two things he can easily, enthusiastically grasp: A chance to bend the story to his will, and a human connection with Rita. 

By the time the film is over, Cage has merged these two things, finding a way to retain his humanity and his connection to other humans while also finding a way to bring this massive alien saga to a conclusion that pleases everyone. In other words, he’s learned how to be an action star and a good actor. Even by Cruise’s standards, it’s not a subtle bit of messaging, and the star’s efforts to sell this movie one person at a time with premiere travel stunts and screening surprises only underscores the point. Whether or not he’s actually made good on keeping that message intact since then is certainly a matter of debate, since his primary output in the decade following has been M:I sequels laden with stunts, but films like Top Gun: Maverick certainly prove that he yet hasn’t forgotten how to pull off that duality of action star and capital-A Actor.

Because we know that Tom Cruise understands movies are never just movies, we can view Edge of Tomorrow as what Bill Paxton’s character in the film would call a “fiery crucible” in which the latter-day Cruise is made. In the decade since this movie, he’s been a relentless champion for a certain kind of movie experience, a cheerleader for box offices around the world and a showman who’d rather die in the saddle of a motorcycle than make something that looks fake. Watching Edge of Tomorrow now, it’s hard to see it as anything other than the forge that produced this version of Cruise. It’s a movie about a man who has to keep going no matter what, and eventually finds that he’s really, really good at refusing to quit. Like it or not, that’s the Cruise we have now, and we have this relentlessly entertaining film to thank.

Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.

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