After Oblivion opened last year and was greeted with a general shrug, people started asking all sorts of questions. Had Tom Cruise’s box office clout finally faded, leaving him nothing more than an aging star doomed to appear in endless Mission Impossible sequels instead of more interesting fare? Did Oblivion‘s failure combined with that of After Earth signal the end of the days when a big name actor like Cruise or Will Smith could draw audiences to the theater by the strength of their name alone? Are original science fiction films dead altogether, leaving us nothing but sequels, remakes and reboots? Edge of Tomorrow (and its box office performance) doesn’t exactly answer any of those questions, despite being a fun and entertaining movie, but it perhaps postpones the day when both science fiction films and the concept of the box office star are declared dead.
In the not-so-distant future, Earth has been invaded by aliens known as Mimics. Starting in mainland Europe, the invasion spread until humanity developed powered exoskeletons worn by soldiers which have made the battle much more even. Major William Cage (Cruise) works in PR for the US military, encouraging young men and women to sign up to fight and putting a positive spin on the war, keeping both public morale and recruiting numbers high. On the eve an all-out invasion by United Nation forces on the mainland in the hope of beginning a push that will lead to victory, a General orders Cage to the front lines, where he and a cameraman will be embedded with the troops to provide the heroic footage of victory the public will want to see. Cage, who has never seen combat and never wants to see combat, objects to this, but when he threatens the General he’s knocked out and wakes up in handcuffs at Heathrow airport in London, serving as the staging ground for the invasion.
He tries to explain his situation to the officer in charge, but the General has already sent ahead, telling them that Cage is a deserter who should be sent out in the first wave of the attack. He’s placed with a crew of misfits, each with their own mechanized suit, and they’re loaded into a plane and sent across the Channel into battle. Things don’t exactly go as planned, as the surprise attack turns out not to be a surprise at all. Cage’s plane is shot down, his crew is killed off one by one while he struggles to figure out how to even remove the safety on his guns, much less fight. He’s wounded by a different sort of Mimic, and as a last hurrah he grabs a nearby mine and sets it off, blasting the Mimic apart and splattering him with its blood just before he dies from his wounds.
An instant later he wakes up in handcuffs, seemingly resurrected the day before and set to live out events all over again. He tries to warn everyone that the Mimics know they’re coming and that everyone will die, but things play out the same way once more except with Cage remembering what he’s experienced. He starts to try to save his fellow soldiers one at a time, using his memory of how they will die to get them out of harm’s way, but never managing to save them all or to survive himself. However, when he saves a familiar-looking woman from a blast he could seemingly have had no way of anticipating, she looks at him mysteriously and tells him, “When you wake up, come and find me,” before they both die.
These intriguing words set the stakes for an alien invasion version of Groundhog Day, where existential angst and ennui have been replaced with action, explosions, and a sense of urgency as Cage realizes that the fate of humanity may rest in his hands. Edge of Tomorrow, directed by Doug Liman, is a reasonably clever, fun, and original film, and a great way to spend a hot summer day with a bag of popcorn. Despite its doomsday setup, it never takes itself too seriously, finding a good deal of humor both in its setup and in its characters. (For example, as the woman begins training Cage with every repeated day, whenever she wants him to simply start a day over she’ll pull out her gun and put a bullet in his head, much to his annoyance.) The film has solid visuals with a mix of practical effects, particularly the exoskeletons, and digital artistry, even if it does adhere a bit too much to the overly popular gritty, grey aesthetic that seems to invade every film in this genre these days.
Much of the film’s charm comes from its cast. Whatever you might think of Cruise personally, he remains an excellent actor, much more than his ageless good looks might lead you to believe. He starts off the film playing against type, and it’s fun to see him fully embrace portraying a coward who will do anything to get out of having to fight. As Cage grows into a hardened soldier, Cruise imbues him with a sense of weariness, helping us to feel the toll that endless repetitions of the same defeat have taken on the man even if we only see a tiny fraction of them. Bill Paxton gloriously chews up the scenery as the Master Sargent in charge of Cage’s wing of the invasion, repeating the same over-the-top military catchphrases with increasing bewilderment as Cage begins to memorize them and repeat them back to him. Brendan Gleeson is predictably solid as the General who sent Cage to the front line, and the rest of the cast makes the most of their small roles.
The real revelation here, however, is Emily Blunt as Sergeant Rita Vrataski, the mysterious woman Cage meets on the battlefield and seeks out for help. Known as the “Angel of Verdun,” Vrataski was the hero of a previous battle in the war, single-handedly taking out countless Mimics and getting her image plastered on TV, billboards and the sides of buses as inspiration for the troops. She understands Cage’s situation in a way that no one else seems to, and she sees how he can be used as part of her plans to end the war. Blunt, who has impressed in everything from The Devil Wears Prada to The Young Victoria to Looper, steals the show, both as the more interesting character and as the driving force of the plan, despite forgetting everything with each repeated day. She’s the sort of badass female soldier who could easily have been a textbook example of the misunderstanding surrounding “strong female characters,” simply thrown in as a token appeal to women but whose only role is to serve the lead male character without motivations or development of her own. Instead, she’s an independent character, serving her own interests and using Cage to achieve her ends, much more his equal than his support in the story.
In many ways, Edge of Tomorrow is the sort of film I wish Oblivion had been. It’s fun and exciting, funny and tense, and just the sort of film I want to see in the summer. The writers find clever ways to make use of the time-loop setup, while also finding ways (which I won’t spoil) to keep up the tension in a scenario where death is meaningless. Blunt’s performance as Vrataski raises the film above where it otherwise would have been, but even without here it still would be an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. With her, however, Edge of Tomorrow takes on a bit more importance and a bit more depth, making it a film that’s definitely worth checking out in a season dominated by sequels and reboots.