A tale told with sound and fury signifying perhaps the best big-budget sci-fi action movie since Avatar, director Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow is proof positive that a summer superthriller needn’t be mindless, this one so innovative in its storytelling and satisfying in its execution—particularly in the performance of star Tom Cruise—that I feel confident there won’t be a better large-scale movie this summer. In a movie about alien invasion and time travel, Liman delivers a first-class war picture with an intelligent screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie that is actually smarter than we are, and the sharpest direction of perhaps any large scale American movie this year. But it isn’t just the battle scenes that dazzle here, it’s the actors, pacing, cinematography, sound, creature creations and vivid CGI work running a two-hour marathon.
The picture opens with the now-familiar device of employing expository cable news footage charting a global catastrophe, this time informing us that a battle royale is underway with an invading alien force, indestructible and decimating the whole of Europe. The film immediately sets up a plausible war scenario where an allied army, the United Defense Fund, assembles in London, the opening scenes resembling a World War II war room followed by a D-Day recreation both gritty and haunting. Think Saving Private Ryan by way of Aliens structured as Groundhog Day, and you get what this wildly exciting movie is up to.
A top-form Tom Cruise is Maj. William Cage, a ranking officer and advertising executive whose job is to recruit for the Fund, himself with no practical battle experience. Cage is shocked—and terrified, which Cruise handles with panache—when his steely general, played with relish by Brendan Gleeson, orders him to the front. Cage, inexperienced and under confident, resists but soon falls under the command of wily Sgt. Farell (Bill Paxton) a hard-ass who runs a platoon of go-getters who plunge cocksure into a doomed Normandy battle from a breakaway aircraft in the film’s first bravura sequence. It’s during this bloody beach battle that we meet the Mimics, an alien race that feels part Transformers and part Starship Troopers, all terrifying, metallic spindly Calamari-like creatures that lay waste to the soldiers, including Cage, who dies beneath one, covered in its blood.
To his disbelief, he wakes up again—alive—back in boot camp, and is forced to relive the same events, including his death. And then he wakes up again. And again. And with each rebirth, he’s able to learn and grow as a soldier, and anticipate the aliens’ moves, guiding his squadron to better outcomes. But the aliens can anticipate as well, hence the quagmire.
On the battlefield he meets Sgt. Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a legendary fighter who has earned the nicknames Angel of Verdun and “Full Metal Bitch,” and she trains Cage and having once had the same power he now possesses, reveals keys to the Mimics and Cage’s condition. They hatch a plan to use Cage’s newfound power to master the Mimics at their own game, and kill them where they live, in a pulsating, orb-like nerve center deep beneath a waterlogged, abandoned Paris. But there’s more, and a critical reason why the creatures are using Cage by granting him these mysterious powers.
Like the recent X-Men: Days of Future Past, Edge of Tomorrow, based on the novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, is about the butterfly effect, and how each redo of history creates a more acceptable future, and this is about as thematically deep as Edge of Tomorrow gets, but no matter. Cruise, back in peak 80s movie god form and delightful as the both insecure and alpha warriors, is matched by the lithe Blunt, pumped up into a lean machine. But what’s special about their union is that it never veers into romance, and that while they are intensely physical on the battlefield, it’s their combined brainwork that just might save the world. They’re brainy and brawny in equal measures.
Edge of Tomorrow is a complete rush of a movie, one that may not be the deepest, but nonetheless means serious business as an adventure movie, populated with two compelling characters, rich supporting performances, extremely cool aliens and some of the most intense action sequences in memory. The cinematography and sound design deserve to be experienced on the largest screen, with the best sound.
Credit director Limon (The Bourne Identity) with effectively trapping us in a puzzle, and one forcing us to revisit near-impossible levels and challenges while the characters and plotting are always ahead of us. The trick of this whole thing is that for all of the scene-repeat-scene business, the editing is crisp and coherent, a feat of storytelling in service of a movie that requires scenes of explanation which could have easily been rote exposition, but in McQuarrie and Liman’s hands are economical and fast-paced, relying on humor, unexpected cuts and a lot of very clever “restarts,” courtesy of no-nonsense Blunt’s trusty revolver.