Aliens have invaded earth. A hesitant hero teams up with a battle hardened veteran to rescue humanity. They save the day! Insert a romantic subplot and lots of futuristic weaponry and CGI explosions and you’ve got what seems to be the recipe for another lackluster, stereotypical summer blockbuster.
Edge of Tomorrow, directed by Doug Liman, manages to make this tired sci-fi archetype exciting again by adding in a clever gimmick and fully exploring it with wit and ingenuity. The movie opens with Major Bill Cage (Tom Cruise), a smooth-talking and cowardly PR executive for the military who has never seen combat, being sent to the front lines right before a massive surge to exterminate the octopus-like Mimics, an alien species that for-some-reason-or-another wants to eradicate humanity. A battle on a beach ensues, with human troops storming in D-Day style. The action is kinetic, unrelentingly brutal and beautifully shot, with Cage clumsily stumbling about in a robotic suit, unsure how to even fire his weapon. Then, not even a half hour into the movie a rare kind of alien called an Alpha Mimic kills him.
That is, until Cage wakes up the previous morning, condemned to live the same day again and again while remembering each of his past lives. This allows him to hone his skills, learn how to better progress through the day, and anticipate future events. Along the way he teams up with Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a disciplined, no-nonsense war hero who once had the same time traveling condition as Cage but ended up losing it. Both actors make their characters’ development feel organic, with Cruise pulling off Cage’s shift from cowardly to courageous, leaving him unrecognizable from the beginning of the movie, yet also leaving the audience unable to pinpoint a single moment that this shift occurred. Blunt gives Vrataski moments of tenderness as Cruise eventually learns more about her after hundreds of trials trying to figure out what makes her tick.
Liman and Cruise inject plenty of humor into the film, with some funny situations centering on Cage’s ability to predict exactly what people are going to say before they say it, having already had the same conversation many times before. Liman also introduces clever perspective shifts, with the audience at first accompanying Cage as he learns the ropes of his new abilities, but then skipping over some of his lives, so that Cage knows what lies ahead while the audience remains in the dark, with the audience eventually catching up at the end. This tactful withholding of knowledge keeps the suspense going where tedium might otherwise set in.
Alas, the philosophy-nerd in me would have loved to see Cage grapple with existential angst at his cyclical rebirth, or ponder its ramifications for free will, but this movie wisely sticks to what it knows best, suspenseful action and intelligently, but not heavy-handedly, exploring its premise. The audience does get treated to a little humanist philosophy courtesy of a brilliant performance by Bill Paxton as Master Sgt. Farell. After catching his troops gambling, he lectures them in stereotypical drill sergeant manner about how they are the only ones in charge of their destiny, and how no outside force, whether it is God or luck, will save them on the battlefield. Viewed in this light Edge of Tomorrow can be seen of an affirmation of the humanist spirit of courage against adversity, human ingenuity, and faith in humanity.