Last Month at the Movies: X-Men: Days of Future Past vs. Edge of Tomorrow
The movies at the top of the charts this month were about what you’d expect: mostly sequels and franchise entries, a heavy dose of science fiction, a few animated kids movies (that the whole family can enjoy!), and a big budget comedy or two. Out of these, I’d like to compare a pair of sci-fi action thrillers that I saw last month, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Edge of Tomorrow.
Though it came out in May, X-Men: Days of Future Past retained its spot in the top five of the box office charts throughout most of June. And since it shares an incidental, though incredibly specific, plot device with Edge of Tomorrow, it bears discussion here.
Since the original X-Men was released in 2000, there’s been a new X-Men movie every two years or so. The most recent one brings the total up to seven. Though they exist in the same universe and are all part of the same franchise, the films can be broken up in three (almost) distinct series. The original trilogy (X-Men, X2, and X-Men: The Last Stand), the Wolverine movies (X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine), and the prequel strand (starting in 2011 with X-Men: First Class). In these movies, characters and storylines overlap, and the movies retain a fluid relation with one another, so that one can easily shift into the other without causing much of a disturbance. So it makes sense that Days of Future Past should be an amalgam of all the X-Men movies to date, featuring the cast from the originals and the prequel reboot existing all together, with an appropriately banal and ridiculous time travel plot to tie the whole thing together.
Edge of Tomorrow, on the other hand, has no prequels or sequels, and is only part of a franchise inasmuch as every Tom Cruise movie is entered into the pantheon of Tom Cruise movies. On paper, it sounds like more of the same, and in a lot of ways it is. Tom Cruise stars as Cage, an army PR rep turned unwilling soldier who finds himself stuck in a time loop fighting a race of hyper-intelligent, hyper-weaponized alien invaders trying to destroy humanity. Coached by super soldier Rita (Emily Blunt), Cage lives the same day again and again, starting over each time he dies, each time getting incrementally closer to destroying the aliens (and winning Rita’s heart). Though it’s more Groundhog Day and Days of Future Past is more Back to the Future, both take as their essential premise the idea of reliving and correcting the past to ensure the future. The way each film uses this premise shows why Edge of Tomorrow is a smart and entertaining action movie and Days of Future Past is a worthless pile of shit. Both films serve as a sort of meta-commentary on blockbuster film culture, but they have very different things to say.
The most notable and pioneering feature of Days of Future Past is that it manages to be part of an existing franchise, to tack on another 131 minutes to a successful film series, while adding exactly nothing to that film series; at the end of Days of Future Past, we are at once at the conclusion of that film, but also the start of the entire series. Let me explain. In the film, Wolverine — part of the original trilogy crew (Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, some other famous actors) — must go back in time, enlisting the help of the younger, prequel crew (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender) in order to stop a weapon from being invented that will eventually kill all mutants. Of course, they succeed, essentially erasing the entire history of the franchise. When he wakes up in the future (present), everyone who had died is now alive, the horrific events of the previous films have never happened, and the only one who remembers is Wolverine (this will probably somehow play into the next Wolverine solo movie). This is nothing less than the utopian blockbuster film: you sit through two hours of movie, and at the end everything is exactly as it was at the beginning of the series. It’s a magical formula of Hollywood economics — you add everything together, and at the end you come up with zero, with nothing other than a clean slate for the next film.
Edge of Tomorrow uses a similar technique of erasure. Each time Cage dies, he wakes up on the morning of the same day, with all the events he’d just lived erased, to start fresh. And like Wolverine, he’s the only one who knows this. The film operates like a video game, wherein a character who dies respawns at the beginning of the mission — or like a Hollywood blockbuster, in which each film is basically a rehashing of the previous film, and you’re never worried that the main character might die. However, while Days of Future Past, occupies its two hours giving knowing winks and strokes of reassurance to the audience, doling out each and every tidbit of the X-Men film universe in easily digestible and perfectly proportioned chunks, Edge of Tomorrow uses its running time to develop its main character — from a sniveling talking head to a hardened soldier — and construct a taut and compelling story. In fact, this was probably the most engaged and entertained I’d been at a movie of this kind since Avatar.
But the moment of the film that really got me was also probably the most predictable: when Cage loses the power to start the day over. As soon as he gains that power, the audience knows that the film hinges on him losing it at some point. But however predictable, the device still works. Never before in any film had I experienced a real fear of death as I did in Edge of Tomorrow. Just when the film had coerced you into a familiar rhythm, you are ripped away from it, and thrust, like Cage himself, into an unknown experience — something nearly unheard of at the multiplex these days. After reliving so many times these action movie scenes that we’re so used to, that Cage has gone through thousands of times, our expectations are laid bare, and we experience, however briefly, the raw terror of the characters. These moments of true confusion and fear, though short-lived, are the film’s greatest achievement. While functioning within the parameters of video games and mindless blockbusters, Edge of Tomorrow not only comments on the formula, but offers an alternative to the mindless gratification of that formula.
Where X-Men: Days of Future Past wallows in and celebrates the cynical mediocrity of Hollywood blockbuster ideology, Edge of Tomorrow, bearing all the hallmarks of run-of-the-mill, big-budget action flicks, manages to turn that model in on itself to create, if not a new, at least a real experience. Though it probably will not and should not go down in the annals of great films, it’s at least a pretty good $12 spent at the movies.
//Philip Conklin is a co-founder of The Periphery.