Following the grand tradition of films like Groundhog Day and Source Code, Edge of Tomorrow is the new blockbuster science fiction war film starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. With the world on the brink of disaster thanks to a significant and terrifying alien threat, humanity's last ditch effort for survival is a suicidal strike to the center of occupied territory through the beaches of France. Cruise is Major Cage, a high ranking public relations officer in the US army who finds himself drafted to the front lines of the conflict despite having no tangible fighting experience or interest in being there. After a run-in with a particularly mean alien (referred to as mimics), Cage dies, only to wake up at the beginning of the morning prior to the assault, retaining all of his memories from the aborted timeline right up to his death, making him a hidden asset to the war effort. As he relives the battle over and over, each time slightly more effectively than the last, he finds an ally in legendary war hero Rita Vrataski (Blunt), the Hero of Verdun, who has her own unique take on Cage's predicament. Cage is the key to stopping the mimic menace, and he and Rita will not stop until they find victory in the face of impossible odds.
We have seen this trope in the movies before, but Edge of Tomorrow makes it clear early on that it is not a simple retread of past ideas. Screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John Henry Butterworth (adapting the deliriously titled novel All You Need is Kill) inject a refreshing dose of levity into the extended sequences in the film's second act, relying on Cruise's effortless charm, Blunt's steely magnetism and some wonderfully realized editing to make the central conceit work beautifully. The script is mightily clever in both what it does and does not show, especially as it becomes clear that Cage has experienced much more than what is shown on screen. As he adapts to his predicament through iterative experimentation, the events bleed together and it becomes less clear just where Cage is in his own timeline, just how many times he's lived and died, let alone that of the war itself. Under less steady hands, this could have been a titanic mess. Luckily, these flourishes and visual gags are sprinkled in among the movie's two hours, especially considering that the overall structure of the plot is about as conventional as can be. The major movements of the screenplay, the transitions from act to act are thoroughly predictable, following a template that has been seen countless times before. The vim and vigor with which the screenwriters, actors and director Doug Liman approach the material make for a surprisingly watchable and engaging romp.
Cruise is the consummate professional as always, though he does get the opportunity to stretch out of his standard action hero mold a touch. The Cage character is reluctant, weasel-y and cowardly in a way we do not see too often our of Tom Cruise action heroes, though he does fall into old tricks of casual competence after three or four trips through the war. Still, it is nice to see Cruise play a bit off type in one of these roles, even for a little bit. His supporting cast is uniformly excellent; we have yet to see Emily Blunt in a pure action role quite like this (the closest analogue would likely be her work in Looper), and it feels like a part she was born to play. Her task is more difficult than Cruise's, as much of her character moments occur off screen or in one of the excised timelines, having to start from scratch with every new day, but she makes every bit of Rita believable. Not to be outdone in his own way is Bill Paxton, whose blustery and brusque Master Sergeant Farrell is the perfect sort of nonplussed authority figure for Cruise's mix of confusion, arrogance and indignation to bounce off each morning. He wears his silly little mustache and barks orders with glee, chewing every piece of scenery he can find. It is the perfect sort of performance to bring the whole world to life.
The action scenes are a treat, almost entirely thanks to the brilliant and exciting design of these alien mimics. They look like a sort of jumble of loosely connected neurons, not having any particularly strong design for ambulatory motion. Instead, they twitch and undulate erratically as they roll and dart and lunge across the battlefield. The unpredictability of the design and movement of these creatures breathes life into the theater of war, a necessary considering how often we are shown the same battle over and over again. The beach sequences are an unholy marriage of Saving Private Ryan and Starship Troopers, though with a noticeably PG-13 bent. The horrors of war are undercut by the constant replays, but this is not the approach Edge of Tomorrow is going for. It easily could have been a sort of Sisyphean existential nightmare (closer to how Source Code approaches the idea), but the gags and the quick cuts do cut through the depressive and exhausting subtext of Cage's ordeal. That is not the sort of film Doug Liman is going for, and honestly it does not suffer for it. To be fair, it is not all roses, as the last seven or so minutes of the film go a long way to undo the good will of the third act and violate the central logic of the film's rules. The finale is a case of overreach, but it is not nearly as bad as the overreach of, say, War of the Worlds, and the rest of the film still manages to stand on its own.
Edge of Tomorrow is just the sort of film that proves Tom Cruise still has quite a bit left in his tank even as he crosses 50. Unlike previous projects like Oblivion or Rock of Ages, this film feels worthy of his action star charisma thanks to a script that takes its plot and mechanics seriously, but is not afraid to take its characters a little less seriously when the oppressive tone needs to lighten a bit. Bolstered by one of the best second acts in recent blockbuster history, Doug Liman and co. have given us a deeply satisfying and thought-provoking piece of high concept pop art. Much like last year's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Edge of Tomorrow is not afraid to think big and respect its audience without providing a giant orgy of destruction for destruction's sake. The cinema landscape is all the better for it.