Ahh, the elusive intelligent sci-fi/action movie. Sometimes it’s hard to remember there ever being one with the kind of loud and mindless things we get all too often. Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow looked at first glance like it might well have been the same type of overblown and dopey that has become the norm. But, oh, dear friends, it’s so much more than that. Despite the backdrop of a global ground war against a nearly unstoppable alien enemy, this isn’t merely a war film, nor an alien invasion movie, nor even a time travel film; it’s a movie about an unworthy man trying over and over to succeed when everything in the whole world is telling him he probably won’t. That’s a story everyone can get behind. Add to it a lot of action, a lot of comedy, and one of the tightest scripts we’ve seen in forever and you’ve got, arguably, the perfect summer movie.
Based on a book and then a manga, both called All You Need Is Kill (I wonder why that didn’t stay the title [I don’t actually wonder that]), Edge of Tomorrow has a script written by the brothers Butterworth, Jez and John-Henry, and Christopher McQuarrie, who is no stranger to tight plotting seeing as he wrote The Usual Suspects and all. McQuarrie was brought onto the project by director Liman and star Tom Cruise to get the pacing right, but I also feel he had to have contributed a lot to the tone and the dialogue. It’s a script that’s continually funny without ever losing the dramatic tension.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. The film begins as a hostile alien force, which humans have nicknamed “Mimics,” have all but obliterated mainland Europe. An attack on London is imminent and the humans are staging a last-ditch, and supposedly surprise, campaign to storm into France and take out the enemy. The military’s PR man tasked with making the war palatable is Maj. Bill Cage (Cruise), a former ad executive and coward who has finagled himself the cushiest job in the whole offensive. General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) wants to send him into the war zone for good morale, but Cage not only refuses, he tries to blackmail the General when he’s given a direct order. He’s then tazed and dumped off at the staging area, stripped of his rank, and essentially made to be a grunt who dies right away. He doesn’t QUITE die right away, of course, and is able to kill a particularly rare variant of the Mimic before getting its blood on him and dying.
Cage then wakes up and relives the same day over again, a few times even, always dying on the beach and always waking up again at the same place. The only person who believes him is Rita Vrataski, the highly decorated “Angel of Verdun,” who achieved the closest thing humanity has had to a victory in the whole war. She knows what’s happening to Cage because it happened to her too. Now, Cage must use his day-repeating powers to learn to become a soldier and work with Rita to destroy the one thing that can end the Mimics’ domination once and for all. He’s just going to have to die about a billion times to do it.
Probably easily pitched as “Groundhog Day meets Halo” or something like that, this movie is actually much, much deeper. We get to experience the annoyance, pain, anguish, and glimmer of hope in Cage as he gets further and further into the day without dying and start to understand his concern for Rita, whom he’s seen die as many times as he’s passed on himself. The beauty of all of this is that there isn’t hokey and cheesy dialogue to explain the characters’ feelings; it’s explained through action and expression. You know, the way people would probably actually do it. There are really great moments between Cage and Rita and they’re almost all done without the crutch of them telling each other things. “Show don’t tell” is a very tired screenwriting adage, but it works, people. They begin to form a weird kind of relationship even though Cage has spent probably years of this one day with Rita and she’s spent only a few hours with him, although he knows everything. (Sidebar: isn’t it funny that the lead female character in both this and Groundhog Day is named “Rita”?)
Cruise and Blunt are truly spectacular. Cruise is always great in everything he’s in, but when the material is as good as this and allows him to do what he’s good at, he’s all the better for it. Blunt portrays the toughest chick in the whole future totally and completely. She wields a helicopter blade, for the love of awesome! But she also shows moments of vulnerability and compassion for Cage, even when she has to shoot him in the head yet again. There are also some delightful supporting performances, most notably from Bill Paxton who relishes his role as the Kentucky-born Sgt. Farrell, who lectures Cage every (the same) day about why the military is so great.
And we would of course be remiss if we didn’t mention the masterful direction by Doug Liman. What’s most impressive about it isn’t the frenetic action, the realistic CGI, or the way he weaves tender moments and comedic moments together so organically, though they are all quite impressive. What’s most impressive is that once he establishes the concept of a man reliving the same day, he uses the pace of editing to convey how much time passes for our lead. We don’t need to see every single attempt by Cage to do things. Show it once or twice and we get it. We also don’t need to see the very first time he gets to a certain point since it’s a lot more fun to see him know it inside and outside. It’s an action movie where most of the exciting bits happen within a couple of seconds of repetition or slightly different variations on the same idea. To trust your actors and script in a movie about aliens and personal mech suits is pretty incredible.
Ultimately, and most importantly, Edge of Tomorrow is fun, all the way from beginning to end. Even as you watch the more deliberate beginning to set up the predicament Cage is in, there is plenty to keep you entertained until the constant death begins. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it’s good enough to be completely okay if it did. To have a fun summer blockbuster with good characters, good action, and a tight and exciting script these days is almost unheard of. The smart sci-fi action movie is back. Let’s hope it happens over and over again.