By Gary Dowell
Doug Liman had dropped off the radar as a filmmaker for most of the past decade, but with the surprisingly smart and suitably bombastic science fiction thriller Edge of Tomorrow, he pops back up with more of the high-concept action beats and character development that made The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith so much fun.
More importantly, Liman takes the movie’s “Groundhog Day meets Independence Day” premise (adapted from Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel All You Need is Kill) and runs with it a way that makes it more compelling than it theoretically should be. In lesser hands it would have been a tedious slog; here, it’s an engaging and fast-paced popcorn flick.
At its center is Tom Cruise in the type of role that he’s always played so well, that of the self-absorbed asshole who grows into some semblance of a decent human being. In this instance, he plays Major William Cage, a public relations officer for the United Defense Force in a near-future in which the planet is under invasion from ferocious aliens called Mimics who have laid waste to Europe. He’s content to do his job safely behind the lines, so much so that when General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) assigns him to cover a D-Day style assault in person, Cage goes too far to get out of the mission. rather than being embedded with the troops, he’s busted to Private and assigned to a squad with them.
It’s clear from the beginning he’s doomed; strapped into a combat exoskeleton that he isn’t qualified for (he can’t even disengage the safety switch for his guns) and dropped on the beaches in the middle of what amounts to the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan by way of Starship Troopers, he’s dead in minutes.
That’s when things get weird. Cage immediately wakes up on the morning prior to the invasion. Again he tries to talk his way out of his situation, again he is dropped into the same hellish battle, again he dies — and again he wakes up. He retains his memories of each permutation of that single day, and gradually learns to work the predicament to his advantage with the aid of a fellow soldier, Sgt. Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who holds vital information. First they turn him into an ideal soldier, then formulate a plan of near-endless trial-and-error as they attempt to thwart the invasion, re-setting the clock each time via a violent death for Cage — a particularly deranged form of reset button that makes one empathize with video game characters and Wile E. Coyote.
It’s a great role for Cruise (whose smug public and on-screen personas are often as irritating as they are charismatic) largely because watching him gamely die a violent death over and over again is just as cathartic for us as it is for Cage, and to do so with a lack of vanity. It isn’t long before our frustrations are worked out along with the beleaguered hero’s and we’ve become as emotionally invested in the inside ride as he is. (Arguably, it’s also a metaphor for the ups and downs of his career.)
It doesn’t hurt that Cruise is backed by a small but talented cadre of supporting players: Blunt catches us off-guard as a hard-edged warrior who’s died her own share of deaths; Bill Paxton comes close to one-upping R. Lee Ermey as a crusty, no-nonsense sergeant; Noah Taylor gets a lot out of limited screen time as the requisite boffin; and Kick Gurry, Dragomir Mrsic, Charlotte Riley, Jonas Armstrong, Franz Drameh, Masayoshi Haneda, and Tony Way do a lot with very little as Cruise’s squad of crazy-brave grunts of the pseudo-Full Metal Jacket variety.
All references to other films aside, director Liman and screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and John-Henry and Jez Butterworth go beyond merely aping the obvious to exploring a twisty, potential-filled premise. In doing so, they deliver a rare movie in which montages are an essential part of the storytelling, rather than a narrative shortcut. It’s a tightly written story, with its own rules for viewing that it teaches to the viewer as it plays out.
More importantly, they give us a summer blockbuster that is just plain fun.