Vague spoilers for Edge of Tomorrow below.
Action movies get a lot of shit these days for “looking like video games”.
In many cases, that’s fair. Games have become much more cinematic of late, and their over-the-top use of big-screen convention has generated a horrible feedback loop of weightless, often CGI-driven action. You know the kind: more focused on creating cool moments than about telling a story in an action scene or putting the protagonist through hell. We’re talking about heroes effortlessly mowing down hordes of enemies, or monster battles that mirror boss fights, with weak spots and big finishing moves. The Hobbit movies are particularly guilty of this sin: its action sequences virtually demand onscreen button prompts.
But the problem with these movies is not that they’re borrowing from the language of video games - it’s how they’re borrowing. Bad video-gamey films imitate only the surface-level aesthetic of games - the cool power-fantasy knockout moments - without realising that player effort and skill are what make those moments mean something in games. After all, the characters in games are just as weightless and even more computer-generated than those you see on film. But they’re controlled by players, and that creates investment that merely watching elves surf on barrels can’t deliver. In games, the cutscenes are a reward for putting yourself through hell; in movies, the characters get it right on the first try, and the result often feels empty.
Edge of Tomorrow is also a video-gamey movie - possibly the most video-gamey ever made. But rather than imitate how games look, the central conceit of the film's terrific script uniquely captures what it feels like to play a game. It understands why games’ coups de grace are satisfying on a far deeper level than Peter Jackson does. Devin’s review touched on this, but it merits further examination.
Tom Cruise’s character William Cage starts out at frame one with zero combat experience and zero desire for any, thrust unceremoniously into an incredibly heated battle. But when he dies, he wakes up at the start of the day to do it all over again. This is Run Lola Run - itself wearing its video-game influence on its sleeve - but with vastly more iterations. Reasons are given for why Cage gets his do-overs, but they’re treated as casually as they should be - they don’t matter. The point is that it's happening, and Cage has to deal with it. (And so does the audience!)
From there, the arc of Cruise's character mirrors that of you or me playing a video game. Cage gets incrementally more familiar with the events of the day, learning where the enemy Mimics will appear and how they attack, and adapting his own tactics to match. Occasionally, when entire avenues of strategy prove fruitless, Cage shifts his attentions to other potential branching points. His mistakes are characterised by deaths both spectacular and ignominious, through glorious combat and stupid accident alike. Each death and new iteration prompts a slight adjustment of Cage’s methodology, and gradually he “levels up,” going from twerpy, cowardly marketing guy to hardened warrior. The badass action-hero moments that emerge later are, thusly, earned. In effect, a significant portion of the movie is a training montage, expanded out to have its own narrative peaks and troughs.
The whole process reminded me a great deal of playing Dark Souls. I’m still plugging away at its sequel, one of the precious few games I’ve continued to play after reviewing it, so it’s fresh in my mind. It’s a game so punishing in its difficulty - not unlike Tom Cruise’s beachfront battle - that the only way to advance is inch by inch, memorising exactly what must be done, lest you die and return to the beginning of the area. It's all repetition, internalisation and death, making complex plans into instinct. Edge of Tomorrow features scenes of Cruise and Emily Blunt's Rita doing just this - as well as encountering the terrifying, thrilling rush of getting further than ever before, unsure as to what to do next. It literally made me bounce in my seat with happiness.
And even beyond video games, Edge of Tomorrow is all about practical learning: making mistakes and allowing one’s self to be taught by them. All good characters make mistakes, of course, but rarely are they foregrounded as much as they are here. Every action taken - or not taken - has consequences, and they must be brought to balance. In a sense, Edge of Tomorrow is about the human condition as much as Dark Souls is - about second chances and self-improvement, despair and determination, creativity and problem-solving. The look on Cruise's face in the pub, where it looks like victory is impossible? It's a look shared by anyone who's come up against overwhelming odds of any sort. When Cage finally declares himself a "dead man" and owns his fate, it's incredibly powerful.
Movies and games can learn a lot from each other. They can! They can also learn a lot from painting, music, sculpture, theatre, and the written word - and vice versa. All art cross-pollinates; not all of that results in beautiful flowers, but when smart people find new ways to bridge and connect mediums, the results tend to be exciting.
And thanks to not merely looking like a video game, but acting like one, Edge of Tomorrow is really god-damned exciting.