It’s a rarity to be pleasantly surprised at the movie theater these days, especially in the summer when studios want to give the people what they want, and what they want is usually the same old, same old. Edge of Tomorrow is a pleasant surprise. A Hollywood blockbuster with a tried and true formula, but employed with gusto and playfulness. This is the kind of summer movie we all say we want, popcorn-munching entertainment of the highest quality that takes you in some unexpected directions and plays against type. Godzilla is fine, the X-Men were good, but summer really begins with Tomorrow.
Tom Cruise plays Major William Cage, a PR flack for the U.S. Army, a talking head in charge of selling strategy in the United Defense Forces war against the Mimics, an alien race that crashed on Earth and has all but conquered Europe. Cage is a thoroughly non-Cruiseish character, he’s a wimp and a coward, and willing to do just about anything to avoid combat. To bad for him, that’s right where General Bingham (Brendan Gleeson) wants Cage, on the beach, showing the world that the UDF’s push to retake the European mainland is working.
When Cage refuses, and attempts to black mail Bingham, he ends of stripped of his rank, labeled a deserter, and tossed in with the infantry to storm the beach. (And by the way, was it intentional that Warner Bros. would open this movie on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the famous real-life invasion of France at the end of the Second World War? Discuss.) In the course of his first battle, Cage is smothered in the acid blood of one of the Mimics, killing him, but also sending him back in time one day before the battle.
Once the film (and Cage) gets stuck in the timeloop, it doesn’t let itself be satisfied with being a sci-fi Groundhog Day. The script, by the tag-team of Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) and Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth (Birthday Girl), allow Cage to have what seems like a fairly typical reaction to being on repeat, from a state of disbelief and uncertainty though his first rewind, to the go-for-broke second time around where he tries to tell everyone about the coming slaughter. Again, this is Tom Cruise super action man, and in the first 20 minutes he’s cowardly, in over his head and straight up mental.
That brings us to Emily Blunt. Blunt’s character is Rita Vrataski, a war hero known as “The Angel of Verdun” for leading humanity to its first real victory against the Mimics. Rita’s secret is that she once had Cage’s ability to repeat, and when their paths cross on the battlefield she recognizes Cage’s seeming precognition and tells him to find her when he wakes up. Blunt’s Rita is the real hero of the film, training Cage to lead them out of the battle alive and find the Omega, the Mimic brain creature that’s the center of their hive mind mentality.
It says a lot about Cruise that he allows himself to take a back seat in the world saving, and turns off the leading man charm to be, in the beginning at least, an unlikable character. Cage does eventually become Tom Cruise the hero, but it’s something of a character arc over the course of the film. Blunt meanwhile makes a good case for herself as an action star. According to lore, she was the original choice for Black Widow way back for Iron Man 2, so it’s good to not only see her regain her destiny, but to show that she’s more than up to the challenge. Blunt’s been great in rom-coms, historical dramas and even as Miss Piggy’s assistant, but Tomorrow proves that she’s true Renaissance woman of the big screen.
With two magnetic leads, it would be okay of the story of Tomorrow was just passably engaging as it went through the motions, but Tomorrow proves to be somewhat more inventive. Other reviewers have noted the video game correlations to the movie, the idea of trying to work your way through a level by learning where all the traps and bad guys are, and the only way to do that is to constantly die and start again. A video game is exactly what comes to mind, but Doug Liman adds another layer as we progress. As we travel with Cage, it might not be the first time he’s gone through certain events, it maybe his tenth, or his hundreth. Sometimes that means hitting an impasse, and sometimes that means when he thinks he’s achieved his objective only to end up having to go all the way back to the beginning to find a whole new goal.
For two-thirds of the film, Edge of Tomorrow manages to skewer convention nicely, but as it heads into the grand finale its energy starts to wain leading into a final act that relies too heavily on the big battle and an ending so contrived it could have come from the MacBook of the laziest Hollywood hack, and probably did. That’s a shame because like Pacific Rim, the script seems to want to lampshade those expectations. Both movies drop us into the end game, both feature a male/female partnership that has little to do with romance and more to do with mutual respect, and both use elaborate effects without losing the human touch.
The design of the movie is great. The alien Mimics look inspired by something out of Guillermo del Toro’s notebook, but they’re fascinating creations that seem to have no up or down, or left and right, but are bizarre kind of squid creatures that are made out of tentacles. The exo-skeletons used by the soldiers are also great, looking like something that was developed fast and as a first-generation technology seems bulky and unwieldy, but at the end of the movie you can’t help but be impressed by their coolness. There are also some great set pieces like the beach invasion and the partially underwater Paris.
There are some quibbles. The origin of the time travel power and its rules seem overly elaborate and random, and that Hollywood ending left a bad smell as the credits rolled, but overall Edge of Tomorrow is quality entertainment and possibly Liman’s best film since The Bourne Identity. Unlike Cruise’s last sci-fi film, Oblivion, its not predictable or derivative, and it allows itself room to not take itself too seriously at times. As the story bounces Cage back and forth though the same 24 hours, as a viewer you lose all track of time, enthralled by the on screen action. Cruise the movie star still has power, and he still knows how to use it, even if it means turning it off.