You realize almost instantly, and for so many reasons, that the new sci-fi adventure EDGE OF TOMORROW is different than what has come before it. Not because the story at its core is so different—an alien race called Mimics is slowly taking over Europe in a way that strangely mirrors World War II-era Nazi Germany and it's up to a united global fighting force to stop them—but because of the way that story reveals itself over and over again. But even before we get to the film's masterful gimmick, something else is unusual about the movie: Tom Cruise is cast as a coward. He plays Lt. Col. Bill Cage, which sound like a rough and tough rank and name, but he's actually a guy responsible for getting others to join the fight; he's a marketing guy for the new global fighting force.
But when the head of the troops, Gen. Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), orders him to join the first wave of a major push against the aliens on the shores of France to film the event for recruitment purposes, Cage balks and politely refuses since he had no combat experience, leading to him being thrown in cuffs and forced onto the front lines or be labeled a deserter and traitor. Under the command of Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton), Cage is tossed in with a rag-tag group of soldiers and soon placed in a weaponized exo-skeleton (apparently the fighting machine of choice in the future) and dropped into the thick of it, where it's clear the enemy has been waiting for a sneak attack. Not surprisingly, within the first five minutes of being on the ground, Cage is killed.
Boy, that sounds like a boring movie, doesn't it? But that's only the beginning. With a crackling script from Christopher McQuarrie, and Jez & John-Henry Butterworth (based on the novel/manga "All You Need Is Kill" from Hiroshi Sakurazaka) and confident direction by Doug Liman (THE BOURNE IDENTITY, MR. & MRS. SMITH), EDGE OF TOMORROW sets up a scenario that is complex without being complicated, and funnier than I would have ever guessed a non-comedy about the likely end of the world would be. For reasons I won't go into (but it has to do with a specific alien Cage actually manages to kill before he dies), upon dying, Cage wakes up about 24 hours earlier, back to when he wakes up at the staging area for the big invasion. He ends up living the same day all over again, anticipating some of what's about to happen, but ending up dead again nevertheless.
And then he starts to get it, and so do we. He has the opportunity to relive the day and improve upon it to the point where he can train himself on how to use his weapons, where the aliens will be and how to defeat them economically so he can move on to the unknown part of fight. Eventually he starts making shortcuts through his day, so he doesn't have to waste time meeting the same people over and over again. And finally, he befriends the poster soldier for the fight against the aliens, Emily Blunt's Rita Vrataski (a woman Cage helped build up in his recruiting job), who just happens to have experienced this same phenomenon at another big battle months earlier, making her a hero to all humans.
Each time Cage zips through a list of things he knows about someone to convince them that he's lived a particular scene dozens of times over is really funny and taps into a comic timing in Cruise that isn't tapped into nearly enough. As a bit of role reversal, it's Blunt who plays the unflinching badass—and quite convincingly, I might add. She's lost her ability to relive the same day over and over again, but in the time when she could, she saw all manner of horrors and death; she's the one with the thousand-yard stare. She's also the one that knows that if Cruise is injured in any way in the current timeline, it's faster just to pop him with a shot to the head and start again then waste time finishing the day with a dislocated shoulder or broken leg.
It's small touches like that that bring EDGE OF TOMORROW to life. The alien invaders are interesting enough creatures, in their twisty, tentacle-ish, lightening-fast way, but they're never given enough of a personality for us to really see them more as random targets in a video game. And that's not really an issue, because the aliens aren't what the film is about. Video games on the other hand are a big part of what's happening here. It's the restart mentality of the game that makes it so interesting, and the idea that you learn from you mistakes and forge through the boring stuff you've already mastered to get to what's new. The goal of EDGE OF TOMORROW is to find a sort of hive central command that controls all the others aliens; knock it out and hopefully the rest go tumbling down. Cage and Vrataski go through countless iterations of the same day to find the right combination of moves to achieve their goal.
So often, action films (especially sci-fi ones) are criticized for being too much like video games, when in fact they really aren't, beyond perhaps a first-person POV shooting visual style. But here, Liman, McQuarrie and company fully embrace so many aspects of gaming, including the aftermath of death, which is going back to the start and figuring out the fastest way to get through what to you is familiar. In a couple of instances Cage completely circumnavigates his own narrative to surprising and sometimes wondrous consequences.
In addition to Gleeson and Paxton, I should also mention the always great and slightly bizarre Noah Taylor as Dr. Carter, a scientist who worked with Rita when she was reliving the same day and has figured out the pecking order among the aliens and how they always seem to be able to anticipate the humans' every move. The film is so clever in the way it creates an almost infinite number of alternate timelines that is seems almost disappointingly conventional in its final push through the streets of Paris in search of the controlling alien. But by that point, the film has so utterly sold you on its structure, how it wraps up almost doesn't matter.
I also loved learning about the futurized weaponry, the armor, the way a soldier is prompted by a computerized suit voice to "Reload" (sound familiar?). But I especially enjoyed watching those moments of Cruise trying to figure out how to operate the damn suit—even releasing the safety mechanism is a challenge for his first couple of lives. Of course, Cage becomes the hero by the end of the film, but for about 75 percent of it, he's not really, and it's great that Cruise actually allows Blunt to share and even steal the spotlight for huge portions of EDGE OF TOMORROW. The film is smart, perfectly paced and acted, and gives us an original take on sci-fi action films by borrowing from other mediums in interesting ways.
For some reason, I love watching Cruise most when he's trying on a new kind of role. Cage isn't that far afield for him, but it's a vastly different take on the hero than he's put on in the past. EDGE OF TOMORROW should be a true joy for all science fiction lovers.