Tom Cruise is a movie star for a reason. With his square jaw, dazzling smile and effortless physicality, he’s the man we feel comfortable entrusting with sci-fi action because he has a near-perfect combination of humanity and inhumanity. But he can be boring. Last year’s Oblivion tried to compensate for Cruise’s inherent and often beneficial blankness by literally multiplying the number of Cruises onscreen. Edge of Tomorrow takes a different and far more successful approach: Cruise’s blankness becomes the joke, and the narrative “Edge of Tomorrow”: See It Todayengine, and the emotional hook. Hidden beneath his muscular exterior is the man we all fear we’d be.
In director Doug Liman’s witty, dazzling subversion of the Cruise formula, Cruise is public relations mastermind Major William Cage, who never met a drop of blood or threat of danger from which he didn’t run away. (How ironic that a man who has faced one PR disaster after another finds himself playing a master of the form onscreen.) The world has been overrun by Mimics, a mysterious alien race that appears hellbent on destroying the earth’s population and impervious to every one of the military’s counterattacks. When a new innovation in military technology appears to turn the tide in favor of the human race, Cage charmingly sells the idea of the new technology to the public. But soon enough, he’s asked to join combat to set an example for the public, and he finds himself at the mercy of the cheerfully intimidating Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton).
After getting pushed around and set straight, Cage boards the plane for the outer coasts of France, where he and his fellow soldiers will touch down and lay surprise siege to the Mimics. But the plane explodes and Cage scrambles, but combat is too intense, and he dies.
Except he doesn’t. He wakes up to find that the day has started over, and no one else seems to notice or care. Essentially, he wakes up in the movie Groundhog Day.
Up to this point, the movie has already been unusually involving for a summer blockbuster of this kind. The opening news broadcasts detailing the relevant exposition are ominously scattered, and the initial scenes of Cage butting heads with his commanding officers are funny and filled with amusingly scripted details, like the sergeant forcing his squad to eat the playing cards he just discovered them using illegally. But the movie becomes truly special once Cage wakes up to rinse, lather and repeat. Like Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow mines this scenario for equal parts comedy and drama, effectively weaving together portions of Cage’s experiences so that the audience is always a few steps behind the characters, but not so far that the connection is lost. Cage’s journey is surprisingly poignant, given how little we know about his life pre-invasion or even pre-time loop.
Edge of Tomorrow also provides an unusually balanced central relationship, with Emily Blunt’s Rita proving the far more innately skillful fighter and the more experienced time traveler. Rita is the face of the anti-Mimic movement, and she’s also the only person who understands the scope of Cage’s plight. Cage goes from rescuing her one day to learning from her the next. The movie wisely puts the brakes on the obligatory sexual tension, choosing instead to focus on the emotional connection the two characters forge. Blunt’s performance is interior but convincing – she’s tough but not one-dimensionally so.
The middle third of this movie is a small masterpiece of editing and tight screenwriting. As in Groundhog Day, we don’t see every piece of Cage’s days, and the movie gets quite a bit of mileage out of obscuring Cage’s progress until crucial moments reveal that he’s already lived a particular part of the day several times over. When the time loop conceit recedes in the final act, the movie becomes slightly more conventional and loses a bit of its clever dynamism. For all but twenty minutes, Edge of Tomorrow is a full-bodied parody of the generic Tom Cruise movies that this movie’s marketing campaign advertised. In its final moments, it’s a satisfying thriller that largely earns its contrivance.
With a lesser movie star at the center, Edge of Tomorrow would be a clever idea with some solid execution. The juxtaposition of Cage’s reticence and Tom Cruise’s assuring presence provides the movie with a tension that supports the denser plot twists. Edge of Tomorrow hasn’t blown up at the box office, but it’s performed solidly and held on reasonably well several weeks in. It’s the kind of movie that likely won’t get the appreciation it deserves until years from now, when people are able to separate it from the recent of uninspired Tom Cruise action flicks. I hope it will be remembered for what it is: a movie that takes a smart premise and runs with it in the most interesting directions.