“Groundhog Day” and “Starship Troopers” make surprisingly compatible bedfellows in “Edge of Tomorrow,” a cleverly crafted and propulsively executed sci-fi thriller in which an untrained soldier must relive the same day over and over again — expiring violently each time — until he finds a way to defeat the alien marauders that have taken Earth hostage. That our ill-prepared hero is played by Tom Cruise lends a sly if perhaps unintended layer of subtext to this smarter-than-average star vehicle, insofar as the now 51-year-old actor seems to have embraced a similar trial-and-error career strategy: testing out one man-of-action persona after another in his ongoing (some would say undying) bid for bankability. Alas, B.O. success is likely to elude him this time out, as Warners’ June 6 release feels surprisingly low on buzz and audience awareness for an f/x-heavy picture with a $175 million pricetag. International returns will have to work extra-hard to make up the difference.
That’s a shame, because this enjoyably gimmicky entertainment is not only one of Cruise’s better recent efforts, it’s also arguably the most purely pleasurable film Doug Liman has directed in the 12 years since “The Bourne Identity.” And just as the amnesiac hero of that movie had to gradually get back in touch with his inner killing machine, so the initially hapless, aptly named Maj. William Cage (Cruise) must spend the better part of “Edge of Tomorrow” learning to unlock the ruthless soldier within. Introduced as a smiling representative of the United Defense Force, an enormous military operation designed to defend Earth against a nearly invincible alien race known as Mimics, Cage is a figurehead, not a fighter, which his why he’s so dumbfounded when Gen. Brigham (Brendan Gleeson, at his most hardass and no-nonsense) orders him into the front lines of battle, even going so far as to arrest him when he tries to wriggle his way out.
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Despite Cage’s vigorous protests to his commanding officer (a fine Bill Paxton) that there’s been some mistake, his fate is sealed: Strapped into bulky metal combat gear and equipped with high-grade weaponry that he has no clue how to operate, Cage, along with his fellow soldiers, is deployed from London and deposited, none too gently, on a French beach, where a fiery humans-vs.-Mimics battle is raging at full force. It’s hardly an accident that the setting immediately evokes Normandy, and while what follows isn’t exactly the opening sequence from “Saving Private Ryan,” it’s a brutal massacre all the same: The humans are gravely outnumbered, and even UDF’s star soldier, the tough-as-hell Rita (Emily Blunt), is killed in the onslaught.
Through sheer dumb luck, Cage does manage to destroy one particularly ugly, oversized Mimic, only to lose his own life when he gets a faceful of the creature’s highly corrosive blood. End of movie? Not quite. To his utter disbelief (although audiences will suspend theirs easily enough), Cage awakens to find that the day has started all over again, and once more he must attempt to talk his way out of the situation, get dropped into battle and try to survive the bloodbath on the beach as long as he can. Every time he dies, the clock is reset and he gets another chance to reshape the future, though it will take many, many replays before he learns how to navigate this particular cinematic videogame — where dying is as harmless as it is in “Candy Crush,” if rather more painful — and reach the elusive next level.
The screenplay was adapted from Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s much-lauded 2004 novel “All You Need Is Kill” by Christopher McQuarrie, who knows his way around a mind-bending mystery scenario (“The Usual Suspects”), and by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, who previously worked with Liman on “Fair Game.” Crucially, the scribes have solved the problem of how not to make the film play like a repetitive slog; aided enormously by James Herbert and Laura Jennings’ snappy, intuitive editing, they tell their story in a breezy narrative shorthand (and at times, sleight-of-hand), transforming what must surely be an unbelievably tedious gauntlet for our hero into a deft, playful and continually involving viewing experience. Among other things, “Edge of Tomorrow” is a movie that slyly teaches you how to watch it.
Under these tight structural constraints, a month’s worth of replays can be dispensed with in minutes, and an event that seems to be transpiring for the first time can turn out to be something Cage has already lived through on countless occasions. Over time, he figures out that, rather than try to warn his fellow soldiers that he has seen the future or fight his way off the beach, his best tactic will be to track down Rita before the battle begins. And sure enough, Rita not only immediately understands and believes what he’s telling her, but also has a trusty scientist friend (Noah Taylor) on hand who can at least partly explain how Cage, at the precise moment of killing the Mimic, became locked in a cycle of eternal recurrence. It’s at this point that the picture really spreads its wings, slowly illuminating the nutty rules that govern its futuristic universe, while also allowing Cage and Rita to break free of each day’s restrictive pattern in search of a stealthier, more effective plan of attack.
If “Groundhog Day” is an obvious influence, then those “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels are another (amusingly, whenever Rita feels they’ve taken a wrong or unproductive turn, she simply whips out her gun and resets the clock). Perhaps predictably, this is also the point at which “Edge of Tomorrow” blossoms into a love story of sorts, and if this development feels a bit perfunctory and emotionally undercooked, especially in the way it too easily softens Rita’s tough-girl edges, Liman handles it with a pleasing lightness of touch that extends to the proceedings as a whole. The final twists are likely to throw a few viewers for a temporal loop, but by that point, the film has more than earned their goodwill.
Following his creditable if unremarkable work in “Jack Reacher” and “Oblivion,” Cruise is in particularly appealing form here, in no small part because the role is one he can ease himself into, without pushing his undeniable charisma and physical prowess too aggressively. Although he’s initially slick and confident, qualities the actor could embody in his sleep (and probably does), Cage is soon revealed as a hopeless, ineffectual soldier trying to stay alive, and Cruise embodies this struggle with a refreshing lack of vanity that makes his eventual awesomeness — the product of endless drilling supervised by a merciless Rita — feel genuinely earned, rather than a foregone conclusion. (There’s hate-viewing crossover potential here, too: Cruise’s non-fans could do worse than see a movie in which he basically dies 500 times, and when he’s not, he’s getting his ass handed to him by spiky combat-training attack dummies.)
Blunt is alert, energized and emotionally present in a none-too-taxing role; while a bit more action for Rita would not have gone awry, the pleasure of “Edge of Tomorrow” is that it’s not an action movie first and foremost, but rather a cheeky little puzzle picture in expensive-looking blockbuster drag. The excellent production package is distinguished by the expertly designed Mimics, which resemble overgrown, radioactive crustaceans that got caught in an oil spill, as well as by the anamorphic 35mm work of d.p. Dion Beebe, who shot Cruise so memorably in “Collateral,” and who delivers a succession of stable, balanced yet dynamic images on a color palette of metallic blues, grays and browns. The picture will be released in 3D, but looked fine in the 2D version screened for review.