It’s hard to come down on any new movie – especially a science fiction movie – that tells its own story without either being part of a franchise or based on a bestselling book. Once upon a time, movies like Edge of Tomorrow were summer tent poles. Now, it’s likely to be forgotten amid more recognizable brand names, which is a pity because it actually has a lot to offer. A lackluster ad campaign doesn’t help and star Tom Cruise is no longer the box office force he once was. But sometimes, it would be nice for a film like this to do well just because it’s new, different and relatively good.
Certainly the time-travel premise is nothing new, but mixing it into an alien invasion story holds a fair amount of punch. They also toss a little World War II into the mix with an updated landing on the D-Day beaches. (The film’s release on the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings is no mistake.) Giant parasites from beyond the stars have taken over Europe, and they’re looking at add Great Britain to the menu unless humanity stops them at Normandy. This time, however, it doesn’t go so well. The aliens wipe us out on course to total conquest.
Except… there’s one buck private (Tom Cruise) on that beach who finds himself in a bit of a Groundhog Day scenario. After getting killed on the field, he wakes up one day earlier, knowing exactly what’s coming and able to act on it. It doesn’t help him, at least at first. But the scenario continues and his skills improve, the potential reasons – and a reason to hope – make themselves clear.
How he got there is part of the fun, and further explains why Cruise remains one of the more interesting actors out there. His character, Cage, is an abject coward: a PR wonk who uses his dazzling smile to boost morale on CNN before a grumpy general (Brendan Gleeson) decides he needs to get his hands dirty. Most stars of this caliber place an undue emphasis on playing likeable characters. Cruise never shies away from the weasels – in point of fact, he’s very good at weasels – and his character’s general douchebag status makes him far more interesting than the bland good guy he might have become.
Then there’s Rita (Emily Blunt), a bona fide hero who he runs into on the beach and who may hold the key to his impromptu Phil Connors impersonation. To put her in the driver’s seat and leave Cruise’s character sputtering in her wake provides an interesting wrinkle on business as usual. (Bill Paxton also scores another scene-stealing turn as a skeptical sergeant keen to break Cage’s balls.) The whiff of standard character interactions is there, but the film finds new ways to dance away from them: not in any groundbreaking way, but just enough to keep us guessing.
Discovering the cause of Cage’s condition is one of the film’s primary joys, thanks to a clever script and no-nonsense direction from Doug Liman. It won’t set any records for bold innovation, but the filmmakers thought the scenario through and don’t ask us to swallow any gaping plot holes. The consistent logic helps bolster the scenario’s more shopworn components, along with a puckish sense of humor that reminds us to have a good time with an otherwise grim scenario.
Granted, a lot of the film is very stock. The aliens are serviceable, but nothing extraordinary and the film’s muddy look sacrifices distinction for plausibility. You can see the bolts and wires of studio assembly, put together from older ideas that keep its new ones from soaring the way they should. Having said that, Edge of Tomorrow earns props for marching to a different beat in an increasingly homogenized cinematic culture, and for treating its notions with the same respect it asks from the audience. Before it gets buried, we should take a pause and give it a little salute. It’s earned the honor.