It’s no secret that movies based on video games have a tendency to be really bad. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time might be the best of them, but calling a middling, forgettable movie like that the best of anything only goes to show how deeply flawed this category is. The problem, at least from my perspective, is that while film is primarily a narrative medium*, video games are primarily interactive. In games, story is often less important than how you interact with the game, and taking the story out of the context of that interaction leaves it feeling understandably incomplete. Games rely on interaction in a way that film simply cannot accommodate, and attempts at bridging that gulf have more-or-less failed entirely.
Until now, perhaps.
Edge of Tomorrow may be based on a Japanese light novel rather than a video game, but regardless it’s the best video game movie ever made. The premise of the movie is that in the (presumably) near future aliens have invaded and are consistently defeating the human resistance at every turn. The human military is gearing up for a last-ditch operation to try to finally gain some ground against the alien invasion and Major William Cage – a figurehead the military uses for propaganda purposes with no real combat experience – inadvertently finds himself on the front lines. As one might expect, he quickly gets killed by the aliens, but then immediately wakes up approximately 24 hours earlier. In fact, every time he is killed, he gets sent back to this same moment.
And that is exactly where Edge of Tomorrow cracks the video game problem. Dying and reloading from a checkpoint or a saved game is something that is so integral to the experience of playing video games that it’s taken for granted, and yet it’s part of the interactive nature of games that doesn’t have a place in a traditional narrative. Games only work because they allow you to try, fail, and then try again until you can perfect a challenge. The only way to become an unstoppable badass by the end of a video game is by dying over and over again early on. The arc of your progression in a game relies on failure, yet the idea of reloading from a checkpoint in a movie at first glance seems totally unintuitive. How do you build stakes and drama out of a situation where a character can hit the reset button as soon as things get dicey? Yet Edge of Tomorrow does just that without it ever becoming tiresome or negating drama. It’s actually quite the opposite.
The opening of the movie – before all the death/respawn shenanigans start – plays out like your run of the mill sci-fi action film without much new to say. It touches on all the common tropes you would expect, and even has a group of characters that feel like rejects from Aliens’ Colonial Marines (the film even casts Bill Paxton, in case you were wondering if this might have been accidental). It’s a story scenario straight out of any number of video games you’ve played and serves to highlight the fact that most of these stories are not really spectacular when told in a traditional manner. However, once the film starts playing with its try, fail, try again structure, it instantly abandons preconceived notions and becomes something wonderfully unique.
Who knows if the opening of the film was intentionally stilted to highlight this shift, but either way it feels like the film is daring you to call it a gimmick. The truth is that this is THE center of the narrative; it’s the core idea around which all the film’s themes and meaning revolves, and it’s all handled in a very smart, very assured way. There’s nothing cheap or gimmicky about it.
The film attempts to make this mechanic work through clever editing, and the result is astonishingly effective. There are multiple instances where the film is able to get an emotional reaction from the audience through the use of a cut. There are a lot of laughs in this movie as well as a few moments of poignance, and it’s impressive how many of these are achieved through the editing. Aside from that, the strength of the editing helps give the story its weight and sense of urgency and allows this time travel idea to work without feeling like a cheat. The film does take a small misstep near the end, but in general it all works flawlessly.
To give away any more would be to do a disservice to the film, but I would strongly encourage you to check this out, especially if you are interested in game design. It seems sort of funny to recommend a movie for the purposes of game design, but there are so many incredible ideas brought forward in this movie that not only show how the mechanics of video games can be translated to film, but also give back and propose really interesting mechanics that games themselves could utilize. I can’t wait to see what game designers inspired by this movie come up.
I haven’t seen as many movies this year as I had by this time last year, but of the ones I’ve seen Edge of Tomorrow is among my favorite. It’s fun and clever in a way that I wasn’t expecting. It’s a perfect summer blockbuster, and I can’t recommend it enough.
*Yes, technically film is primarily a visual medium, but since non-narrative film is so rare – especially in the types of films I’m discussing – I’m calling it a narrative medium for the purposes of this review.