In their reviews for Edge of Tomorrow, most critics took the low-hanging fruit and compared it to the classic Ramis-Murray comedy Groundhog Day. It’s easy to see why. Each film features a protagonist who is forced to relive the same (bad) day over and over again until he figures out how to become a better person. Phil Connors and John Cage may be slimy, self-centered jerks today, but by the time they complete their journeys and move onto tomorrow, they have redeemed their entire lives through acts of heroism and charity.
But while Groundhog Day makes an apt if rather prosaic comparison, at its core Edge of Tomorrow more closely resembles another classic Bill Murray comedy: Stripes. The 1981 hit starred Murray as John Winger, a slacker cab driver who joins the Army on a lark and then – after an hour or so of sophomoric hijinx – suddenly turns into the Great American Soldier. It is almost two films in one. When Winger is in basic training with his fellow outcasts, Stripes trades on the spirit of the counter-culture, specifically the frat-house, snobs-vs-slobs ethos of Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s Animal House. But when he and his friends embark on a rogue mission to rescue their fellow troops from behind enemy lines, the film morphs into a glorified recruitment ad. You could even see it as the moment the counter-culture finally ended and morphed into the Reagan Era, a transition that Winger’s journey from apathetic slacker to celebrated war hero embodies. The movie is telling all the slackers out there in the audience, “Join the military, and you can be a hero, too!” Or, to put it more succinctly: Be all that you can be.
Edge of Tomorrow treads a similar path. Instead of a slacker cabbie, we get Cruise as a slick but cowardly PR man who would rather risk jail time than fight to save the human race. In the film’s first scenes, we see that Cage has plenty to say about the courage of the troops, but he is far removed from the realities of combat. For our era in which it is increasingly challenging to even discern when we are at war (and with whom), Cage is as nifty an audience surrogate as Winger was for the early ‘80s.
Of course, Cage is quickly plunged head-first into combat, and he emerges a changed man. First, he learns how to survive the battle, but the final destination of his hero’s journey is when he convinces his fellow infantrymen – who, keep in mind, have only known him for a day – to join him on a suicide mission that could win the war. Just like Winger, Cage’s trajectory takes him from sniveling coward to a leader of men.
But Edge’s propaganda is even more persuasive than that of Stripes because of how the film utilizes its star. We used to reboot our favorite movie franchises; now we reboot our movie stars, and Edge of Tomorrow functions as Cruise’s would-be return to glory. It is not until the film’s final shot that Cruise unleashes his trademark toothy grin and truly becomes “Tom Cruise,” the cocky, maverick action hero America fell in love with in the ‘80s. His turn in Top Gun, the quintessential militaristic action flick of that era, was the one that made him a star, and Edge of Tomorrow is his most pro-military film since then. And while it was a hit with critics, it failed to impress domestic audiences, grossing less than $100 million domestically against its $178 million budget. Cruise may have been hoping we would appreciate him digging into his bag of old tricks, but he failed to appreciate the lesson of his own film: if you’re going to try to re-live the past, you’ve got to learn something from it.