Why We Montage
“It’s like Groundhog Day!” an audience member shouted, 45 minutes into a press screening of Edge of Tomorrow attended by my friend Eric Snider in Portland. If you’ve ever wondered why things like Two and a Half Men or Big Bang Theory are the way they are, it’s because these are the kinds of people that populate our nation’s focus groups and studio audiences, halfway house residents dictating studios’ assumptions about the average American. I swear, attend enough press screenings and focus groups, and you will eventually lose faith in the concept of the jury trial.
To borrow a comparison from the grunt that swamp creature made while attempting to ladle grease-soaked popcorn into his maw with a flipper, yes, Edge of Tomorrow is like Groundhog Day. That’s the pitch. Tom Cruise lives the same day – the day of a catastrophic battle against alien invaders – over and over again. Along the way, he meets some badly accented caricatures, hears Bill Paxton repeat a series of aphorisms, falls for Emily Blunt (Player 2, I think her character is called), and slowly but surely gets better at pew pew-ing stuff to death with his exoskeleton thingy.
“Groundhog D-Day,” “50 First Judgement Dates” – glib headline opportunities abound. But to extend the analogy, the major difference between Edge of Tomorrow and Groundhog Day is that whereas Groundhog Day takes a high concept and runs with it, Edge of Tomorrow just sort of tunnels into it. Imagine if Groundhog Day was 90 minutes of Bill Murray meeting with wild-eyed scientists exchanging charts and graphs about what was happening to him and how to stop it and maybe 90 seconds of all the fun stuff, like stealing groundhogs and trying to sleep with random coffee shop women, and you get an idea of Edge of Tomorrow. In Groundhog, the question of why Bill Murray kept reliving the same day was kept satisfyingly unspecified. Because the truth is, we don’t really care. We already bought in.
Edge of Tomorrow feels like a million monkeys with a million typewriters on a million grams of mescaline couldn’t have come up with it, but unfortunately spends all its style and energy trying to explain and resolve a plot device that we’ve already implicitly accepted upon buying the ticket. The craft and talent is evident, but it’s mostly wasted on non-stop exposition in an extended montage about vague aliens.
Every time I bash one of these movies, a commenter will tell me to “just shut your brain off and enjoy it, bro!”
Yeah, man, I’m trying to. It’s tough when a movie spends 40 minutes trying to make its dumb plot sound logical. Just make with the alien guts and everyone’s happy.
I don’t go into these things with a checklist, but judging by what I’ve enjoyed, I seem to have two basic requirements when it comes to mainstream sci-fi:
1. A big idea to play with. The way Her played with the idea of customizable consciousness or Transcendence played with the idea of the singularity – I don’t need a super profound allegory or a ton of character development, just a big sandbox to play in.
2. An interesting antagonist (the good guys are never as interesting as the bad guys in these kinds of movies).
That’s pretty much it. Edge of Tomorrow does a lot of things well, but it fails these basics. It’s a device in search of an idea in search of an antagonist.
In Edge, Tom Cruise plays a military PR rep with crushed abalone teeth and a rich malty tan who gets thrust onto the front lines of a war against aliens through his own off-putting assholeism. Like his best roles, in Magnolia and Collateral, his alligator smile and lizard eyes work best when depicting the disingenuous, and he’s well cast here. Bill Paxton and Brendan Gleeson get memorable turns as Cruise’s commanding officers, while the rest of his squad (J-Squad) is made up of Mike Tyson’s Punch Out caricatures, folks with veritable fathoms of depth, like the girl with dreads, a fake nose, and a terrible southern accent who calls everyone “bitch.”
Fine. I don’t need to know much about these people. But the film manages to waste a good 40 minutes of screen time explaining a time travel methodology that was more obtuse and convoluted than Scientology dogma. See, there are these aliens called “alphas,” and others called “omegas,” and the omegas use the alphas to manipulate time with their blood, and Tom Cruise got infected with their blood, so now he’s part of their massive central nervous system and reliving time along with them and… you know what, never mind. It’s not that it’s too complicated to understand — I mean, it is — but the bigger issue is that I don’t care.
Even with all that tedious exposition, we never get much of a sense of the aliens. I don’t mean I needed to know why they invaded Earth or their ten desert island discs or their turn ons, but I left the film not even knowing what their skin might feel like. You get no visceral sense of them – think the meaty chest burster in Alien, or the drool – those little things that make you feel the threat. Edge of Tomorrow‘s aliens, around which the entire movie is theoretically built, are just these semi-abstract Koosh balls made of slinkies that fly (?) around arbitrarily (sometimes in the ground, sometimes in the air). One of the key moments Tom Cruise keeps reliving involves his transport plane being shot down (relax, this is in the trailer). I still have no idea how the aliens managed to do this, because we never once see any of them manning a gun. Do they shoot the planes down with guns, or with fireballs from their mouths or big caustic projectile poops from their cloacas or whatever? I still have no idea. If I’m going to be scared of something, I at least want to know what its butthole looks like. Say what you will about Oblivion, the kill-droids were cool as hell – floating shiny iPod droids of fascism, complete with malevolent beeping sounds. That’s characterization. Edge of Tomorrow has virtually none.
As cute and shiny as Edge of Tomorrow is, and for all its cleverly-edited montage sequences, I never felt any visceral attachment to it beyond “gee, I sure hope this handsome guy beats this video game.” Because that’s all it really is, some guy gradually learning cheat codes. Groundhog Day left purposely vague the method of Bill Murray’s time travel, and never set an end goal for him to get out of it. He has to explore and gradually figure it out for himself, and you fill in the blanks. In Edge, a random scientist dude literally explains the entire thing in two minutes with an elaborate hologram sequence. Seriously, are the touch screen and holograph industries financing action films? How is it that every single action film of the last ten years manages to include a touch screen sequence?
If the entire plot of Groundhog Day was “kill Ned Ryerson,” and the movie consisted solely of montages where Bill Murray gets closer and closer to his goal and then finally achieves it, it’d be pretty boring. And so is Edge of Tomorrow.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.