A collection of uninspired trailers sold "Edge of Tomorrow" as a derivative, effects-driven science-fiction action thriller, and to be fair, it is — calling to mind everything from "Aliens" to "Starship Troopers" melded into a high-concept premise inspired by "Groundhog Day." But what those trailers drastically undersold is how much fun the film is and how expertly director Doug Liman utilizes those familiar elements to craft smart, witty, exciting popcorn entertainment that, for my money, is the best film of the summer so far.
The film's speedy, cut-to-the-chase prologue informs us that five years ago Earth was invaded by a race of alien beings called Mimics — terrifying squid-like creatures bearing a resemblance to the Matrix films' Sentinels on speed — out to drive mankind into extinction. After several major battles, the aliens have us up against the ropes. It's all led up to the planning of a massive, D-Day-like military operation that may be humanity's last chance.
Tom Cruise plays Major William Cage, a public relations officer whose job it is to sell the public on the mission. When he's given orders by General Brigham (the always great Brendan Gleeson) to take a film crew to the front lines to capture the military's efforts, he tries to talk his way out of duty. The General isn't impressed, and instead Cage finds himself storming the beach with the rest of the infantry, despite a vital lack of training. Cage fares better than expected, outlasting several more experienced soldiers and even managing to take out an alien or two. Then he dies.
He wakes up 24 hours earlier, before the operation has taken place. It seems that somehow Cage has been imbued with the ability to reset the day, each time retaining the knowledge he's learned from the previous attempt. But in order to restart, he has to die. So begins the central concept of the film, which has Cage reliving the same day in an endless loop, gradually learning enough to survive a little longer. On one of these attempts, he runs into Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a war hero whose prowess on the battlefield has earned her the nickname "The Angel of Verdun" (and the less flattering "Full Metal Bitch" behind her back). She seems to immediately understand what's happening to him, and tells him to seek her out the next time he wakes up. With infinite chances, together they might be able to find a way to defeat the aliens once and for all.
"Edge of Tomorrow" owes a great deal to past science-fiction films, but even more to the world of video games. Allowing its main character to hit the reset button on his mission, using extra lives to make a little more progress each time is an idea that should be familiar to most gamers. The assured direction of Liman, a perpetually underrated filmmaker, is critical to making it not feel repetitive, even as it continually repeats itself. The film's impressively constructed middle section, as Cage essentially engages in trial and error experiments to figure out how to survive, is absolutely brilliant. Liman (with masterful assistance from editor James Herbert) knows exactly how much to show the audience to avoid fatigue setting in when the day resets yet again. Occasionally we're thrust into a scene we've never seen before, and it's immediately clear whether it's the first time the characters have lived through it, or the hundredth. The script, credited to Christopher McQuarrie, along with Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, and adapted from the novel "All You Need Is Kill" by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, respects the audience's intelligence and trusts that we'll keep up. Most importantly, the writers make sure that the narrative is continually progressing, even as we loop back to repeat events.
Tom Cruise has faced a backlash over the last several years (arguably even longer than that), but there's no denying he's good at what he does. The actor completely sells Cage's path from coward to unlikely savior. He's crucial to the film retaining the human element of its story amidst all the special effects-driven action, and that's not an easy task — just look at Aaron Taylor-Johnson in last month's "Godzilla." Plus, if you're not a Cruise fan, there's still the chance to watch him die a violent death over and over again. Blunt is equally as good, adding depth to the quieter character moments, and unexpectedly convincing as a tough-as-nails soldier. Thankfully, the script doesn't overdo it trying to shoehorn in a romance between Cage and Vrataski. Yes, there's a hint, but it seems to be more about how much these characters have grown to respect and care for one another than a true romance.
The only misstep in the film is the ending, which feels a little too contrived for its own good, and it's a slight letdown considering what's come before. But until then, "Edge of Tomorrow" is so smart, surprisingly funny, and wildly entertaining that it's difficult to be too upset.