Breathlessly exciting, wildly entertaining, “Edge of Tomorrow” is a wake-up call to makers of formulaic alien-invasion thrillers. It’s also a reminder of why Tom Cruise is a big movie star. Here’s a light-speed-paced science-fiction blockbuster seething with white-hot combat, percolating with intelligence and erupting with wicked humor when we need a breather. Which is often.
In the near-ish future, Europe has fallen to the Mimics, extraterrestrial cephalopods the size of automobiles, racing along on their tentacles like cyclones of squid-ink pasta. The opening frames the aliens’ arrival as a developing TV news story, and the movie maintains that feeling of ground-level immediacy throughout.
Following a series of bloody retreats, Allied armies are massing outside London, preparing an attack that seems sure to repel the curiously dormant alien hordes.
The set-up is routine. It’s the execution that’s daring. We see the human counterattack, which runs into unexpected trouble, from the perspective of one recruit experiencing the disastrous battle again and again in a time loop. That would be Cruise, in his best performance since “Jerry Maguire.”
He plays Maj. William Cage, the U.S. military’s PR man, who has successfully packaged and sold the uphill war to the public with empty platitudes. He is a self-serving coward — “parasitic scum,” as one character puts it. When he blackmails a general to avoid leading a camera crew onto the beach at Normandy, he’s stripped of his rank and tossed into a combat unit headed for battle. On hearing the news, Cruise breaks into one of his trademark gallops — this time away from the fight.
On the battlefield, things go predictably wrong for this weasel, who perishes amid a cataclysmic blast-o-rama of exploding aircraft, mangled bodies and severed limbs. Then things go unexpectedly weird. Because his blood is contaminated with a rare form of plasma from a dying alien, Cage travels a temporal Mobius strip. Every time he’s killed, his life begins again that morning. Each time the deceased Cage wakes up, he knows he’s fresh meat for the grinder. And this tenderfoot, who can’t locate the safety release on his blaster, gets killed a lot.
With more reboots than a cobbler’s shop, Cage gradually transforms from groveling weakling to battle leader. On that journey he needs the tutelage of Sgt. Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt, 50 degrees cooler than usual). She’s a steely combat hero, hourglass-figured and resolute in battle armor that suggests a high-tech dominatrix. She’s also one of the few people with reason to believe Cage’s insane-sounding story.
Can you follow this? Trust me, it doesn’t matter. The film finds the ideal tone to tell its tale. The script (co-written by Christopher McQuarrie, who dreamed up “The Usual Suspects”) mines the situation for sublime gallows humor. Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity”) directs the darkly comic, ridiculously bloody action and quieter character moments with precision.
Cruise’s early reincarnations are awful (but awfully funny) dead-man-walking jokes. Later, when he re-enters the slaughter with polished combat skills, his fellow recruits gape at his prowess. The movie parcels out information cunningly as we move alongside Cruise. Every so often his character knows more about what’s going on than we do — he’s back from the future in every scene, after all — and those moments are a kick in the pants.
There are fine cameos from Bill Paxton as a sergeant who barks his orders in an arch, literary tone, and Brendan Gleeson as the allies’ supreme commander.
This is Cruise’s show beginning to end, though, and he’s wonderful. His seasick expression of anxiety, his stiff-jointed waddle in his military exoskeleton, his look of incredulity on his early reincarnations, all show us the shadow side of an actor too often trapped in superman roles.
There’s not a proper love story here, but the warming relationship between the slippery Cage and flinty Vrataski is solid and important to the plot. When Cage begins to value Vrataski’s life above his own, his combat strategy has to change accordingly. Cruise is magnetic even at the beginning of his zero-to-hero arc, and as for The Grin, it has never been deployed better. And never more infectious.