'Edge of Tomorrow': Design secrets of Tom Cruise's exoskeleton armor

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Image Credit: David James

If there’s one thing actors don’t like, it’s looking dumb onscreen. They just hate it. Which explains why Emily Blunt was relieved—honestly, she swears, relieved—to have to wear an 85 lb metal exoskeleton during the battle scenes in Edge of Tomorrow. “Can you imagine trying to walk like you’re in one of those suits, and then they paint it in afterward with a computer? You’d look stupid,” she says. “When you see the movie, the action looks authentic because we were genuinely put on wires and flipped around wearing these enormous suits.”

In Edge of Tomorrow (out June 6), Blunt and Tom Cruise play soldiers who fight an invading alien army with the help of supercharged exoskeletons — something like a cross Robocop and Ripley’s cargo-loader in Aliens. The costumes were designed by Pierre Bohanna, who also worked on Christian Bale’s batsuit in The Dark Knight and all sorts of magical thingamajigs in the Harry Potter movies. Actually, “designed” doesn’t quite do it justice — the suits were built like Formula 1 racecars, combining 275 custom-made components, plus another 150 pieces of hardware, all taken from concept to final product in 26 weeks. “We had to make it ourselves,” explains Bohanna, who cranked out nearly 100 suits by the end of the film. “That’s what I specialize in. You set up a manufacturing process that’s bespoke to it. All the CAD drawing, all the prototype work, all the molding, the casting, the fabrication, artwork, and assembly were all done in house.”

Inspiration came from a few different sources, including the original Japanese novel that served as source material for Edge of Tomorrow. (Though the suits in it are described as completely sealed-off shells, which Bohanna says would’ve obscured too much of Cruise’s multimillion-dollar face.) Bohanna and his team also looked at the cutting edge of real-life exoskeletons, including bionics developed to help paraplegics walk and military-grade suits like the Raytheon SARCOS and Lockheed’s Human Universal Load Carrier (which conveniently acronyms to “HULC,” like a French Canadian Bruce Banner.)

Trade-offs were inevitable. Soft or lightweight materials would be easier on the actors but wouldn’t look as believable. Self-powered suits would be closer to the movie’s version of reality, but even the military hasn’t quite mastered those yet. Bohanna’s suits have shock absorbers, but all the movement comes from the actors inside. With few exceptions, the suits were a one-size-fits-all model that adjusted to accommodate actors from 5’4” to 6’5”. “These are meant to look like military pieces of hardware, not a refined piece of engineering,” Bohanna says. “They’re brash, quickly-made pieces of equipment. So you’ve got to see the guys struggling in them. But it’s a massive worry when you take something like this and put someone like Tom in there. It’s a massive ask for anyone to put up with, let alone somebody that important. But the first time he put it on, it took him about ten minutes of moving around in it and then he fell in love with it. He wanted to put the suit on every day to get used to it.”

Naturally, getting in and out of a thing like that is a little more complicated than putting on a pair of jeans. Bathroom breaks and between-shot pauses turn into logistical nightmares that require a full team of wranglers and some imaginative solutions. “Let me tell you what happens when you’re wearing a suit that wears 85 pounds, and you need to get out of it,” says Blunt, who lovingly nicknamed her armor “Babs.” “They basically bring in these A-frames. It looks like a kid’s swing set. And they have hooks hanging from it. And you have five people hang you on these things to take the suit off you. Because if you just dropped it to the floor you’d probably kill someone.”

In fact, for all the high-technology design that went into the suits, Bohanna relied on some decidedly low-tech hacks to keep them working once the shoot started.  “I think we spent about £4,000 on cable ties,” he says. “They’re such a quick way of holding things together. If something popped off, we’d just snap them back together.”

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