Tom Cruise has a killer case of déjà vu in “Edge of Tomorrow,” and he’s not the only one; viewers will pick out plot elements from “Groundhog Day,” “Starship Troopers,” “Source Code,” and “The Butterfly Effect” from this exciting sci-fi action epic, adapted from the delightfully-titled novel “All You Need Is Kill.”
The familiarity never gets in the way of the fun, however, with director Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”) and screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie (who recently directed Cruise in “Jack Reacher”), Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth keeping the plot moving forward (albeit in a circle) with surprising injections of wit.
It seems like a million years ago now, but there was a time when Liman made his name with explosion-free comedies like “Swingers” and “Go”; it’s that latter film that “Edge of Tomorrow” most often resembles, with its out-of-order-ticking-clock structure and its pampered protagonist who quickly finds himself way in over his head.
“Tomorrow” begins with a rapid-fire montage of news reports of an alien invasion of Europe; all seems lost until soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), also known as “the Angel of Verdun,” wipes out a bunch of E.T.s in the military’s new exo-skeleton armor/weaponry. The U.S. Army’s PR officer, Major Bill Cage (Tom Cruise), appears on news shows around the world to reassure the public that international fighting forces, equipped with similar battle suits, will have the same success as the relatively untrained Rita.
Cage is happy to put a positive spin on the war from a safe distance, but when the general (Brendan Gleeson) in charge of anti-alien combat wants to embed Cage with the front line of forces, the officer chickens out and refuses. Cage is arrested and knocked out; when he wakes up, he’s been busted to private and being mobilized out of Heathrow, with a barking sergeant (Bill Paxton) prepping him for the glory of battle.
That “glory” occurs the next morning, and it’s a catastrophe, with human forces being picked off easily by the aliens. Through sheer luck, Cage outlasts most of his comrades, even killing a larger, more threatening alien, who bleeds all over Cage before killing him…at which point Cage wakes up at Heathrow again.
Cage keeps trying to change the sequence of events, but he keeps dying and waking up and dying and waking up over and over again. Everything seems immutable — until he runs into Rita on the battlefield, and she tells him, “Find me when you wake up.”
Rita, it turns out, was also once infected by one of those larger aliens, and it connected her to the alien hive-mind, giving her the same cyclical immortality until a blood transfusion stripped her of those abilities. Mankind’s only hope is for Rita to turn Cage into a soldier (no matter how many times she has to kill him to do it) so that the two can find the alien alpha-mind that controls the entire invading force.
Like the wartime movies of the 1940s (not to mention Paul Verhoeven’s parody of same in “Starship Troopers”), “Edge of Tomorrow” is a movie where a callow, selfish d-bag learns to be a better person by going to war. We’ve seen Cruise on this jerk-to-gem path before, although this film seems almost cannily designed to draw in ticket buyers who are fed up with the actor. “Don’t like Tom Cruise?” the film seems to be offering, “Come watch him get killed over and over again!”
He’s actually delivering a nicely underplayed performance, as though he were aware that it’s the high-concept plot that’s the real star here. Blunt commits to the material as well; she might seem wildly miscast as a war hero, but given the strange circumstances by which Rita achieves her notoriety (as does Cage), it makes sense that they didn’t cast a Sigourney Weaver type.
Liman gives editor James Herbert (“Sherlock Holmes”) a lot to work with, giving us different angles on repeated scenes (except when making them identical is part of the joke); for a film about repetition, “Edge of Tomorrow” never feels tired or familiar.
If there’s anything disappointing about the film, it involves the ending; it’s a defensible one, but everything leading up to it fooled me into expecting something smarter or more daring. Ultimately, though, “Edge of Tomorrow” feels sharper and more clever than it might have been in other hands, and for a big summer star vehicle, that’s surprise enough.