“Edge of Tomorrow” could (half-) jokingly be titled “Groundhogs and Aliens,” but that doesn’t mean one should take it lightly. Tom Cruise’s latest would-be blockbuster is the kind of summer movie we need more of but see progressively less of, an elaborate actioner with a brain that combines its special effects with a story that merits serious attention.
Some have compared the film’s premise to that of a video game, as its hero dies violently in battle, awakens to a point shortly beforehand, and starts over. This is lazy thinking; “Edge of Tomorrow” really has more in common with “Groundhog Day,” because its hero is fully aware of his time-warping predicament, as well as its advantages, and finds his character being shaped because of it. If the 1993 Bill Murray/Harold Ramis collaboration was about a lousy man who learned to be the perfect version of himself, “Edge of Tomorrow” is about a coward fashioned into an ideal soldier.
William Cage (Cruise) is a U.S. Army public relations specialist in the near future, a time in which most of Europe has been conquered by aliens. Cage, a slick fellow with zero combat experience, finds himself unexpectedly thrust onto the front lines of a 21st Century Normandy invasion, where he’s killed almost immediately. Fortunately for him, he reawakens at the start of the previous day, where he finds himself repeatedly thrust into combat with no hope of survival, but no hope for death, either.
Cage’s only ally is Rita (Emily Blunt), a legendary, sword-wielding war hero who once found herself caught in a similar time warp. She has been stripped of the power, but is the only one who can help Cage properly utilize it, and with her help, he begins slowly advancing towards victory over the invaders, his cowardice replaced by bravery and his inability to fire a gun shifting into unparalleled combat expertise. The catch: As Cage comes to care for Rita, he sees that winning the war and moving forward will certainly entail her death.
“Edge of Tomorrow,” based on a Japanese novel, makes apt use of its high concept without stretching it to the breaking point. There are plenty of laughs in the form of Cage’s many demises, which are stripped of their grisliness by his apparent immortality. His constant “resets” are efficiently edited, often slyly revealing to us that there might have been dozens or hundreds in between the current and previous setup.
This is one of Cruise’s best performances in quite some time, one that utilizes his trademark smirk to initially create a weasel, while his energy and ferocity make his deadly transformation wholly believable. His character arc doesn’t prove profound, but it is admirable, seeing this frightened man desperate to avoid battle become a hero willing to put his own needs last (51-year-old Cruise, like Cary Grant before him, can still do coming-of-age). Blunt, who apparently once remarked that she didn’t want to play a “spear carrier” in a Tom Cruise movie, does precisely that here, though her severe countenance makes her an ideal feminine killing machine. The nature of her relationship with Cage is mostly chaste, with a kiss thrown in for good measure. What’s more unexpected is the level of suspense that director Doug Liman manages to build as different incarnations of Cage, Rita, and other soldiers (including a highly amusing Bill Paxton) slowly progress towards victory with each reset.
Taking obvious inspiration from militaristic cinema such as “Saving Private Ryan” and “Aliens,” the action is flashy and loud, filmed with a slightly shaky camera and quick cuts that thankfully retain coherence. Even at a medium PG-13, the various battle scenes illustrate war as a terrifying grind that indiscriminately extinguishes its participants. The finale is a great example of back-to-the-wall, impossible-odds plotting, one made even tenser by the possibility of Cage’s permanent death, which is an alarming proposition after we’ve witnessed him spend years stuck in the same two day period.
“Edge of Tomorrow” comes to an end that is perhaps too tidy, but that sticks the landing, nonetheless. It hasn’t been a bad summer for blockbuster movies so far, with “Captain America 2” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” setting the bar pretty high. But it’s a treat to see a major, effects-laden spectacle that’s not based on a universally-known intellectual property, which features a story one isn’t likely to see copied anytime soon. Repetition is a key theme of “Edge of Tomorrow,” and to its credit, in the grand scheme of contemporary cinema, it manages to avoid doing exactly that.