Tell me if you?ve heard this one before. A man wakes up and quickly realizes that he?s repeating yesterday, down to the last meal, salutation and conversation. He?s trapped in a kind of time loop. He can?t escape, but, he realizes, he can change. That may not make sense, given the logic of the space-time continuum, but it works just fine in fiction because, well, it?s fiction. To put it another way, ?There are no paradoxes in time travel, there can?t be.? Or so says a character in Robert A. Heinlein?s 1964 novel, Farnham?s Freehold, about space, time and the apocalypse.
This time around, as it were, the hero isn?t trapped in the maddeningly cute town of Punxsutawney, Pa., as Bill Murray was in Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis?s mind- and clock-bending 1993 comedy masterwork. The guy caught in the loop here is played by Tom Cruise, a star who doesn?t do ordinary well. He plays Maj. William Cage, a sensationally adaptable individual who, when confronted with Armageddon, courtesy of scuttling extraterrestrials, would prefer to avoid the fight. But this is a Tom Cruise movie, and so stuff happens, and then it happens all over again and again and again, initially with an engagingly light, comic touch and then with escalating seriousness as Cage?s insouciance turns into gravitas in a war that has united the human world against the alien.
The plot for ?Edge of Tomorrow,? which was directed by Doug Liman, has largely been gleaned from All You Need Is Kill, a splatter-heavy combat novel by the Japanese writer Hiroshi Sakurazaka. Mr. Sakurazaka doesn?t acknowledge ?Groundhog Day,? but he names his heroine Rita ? the name of the romantic foil played by Andie MacDowell in that film ? suggesting that he is obliquely paying a debt. The debt is more pronounced in the movie, in which Mr. Liman leavens Mr. Sakurazaka?s mordant, too-cool-for-school humor with some wit and a touch of romance with another lovely Rita, this one played by Emily Blunt. Mr. Liman ?s track record with strong female characters, like Angelina Jolie?s in his bullet-ridden comedy of remarriage, ?Mr. & Mrs. Smith,? bodes well for Rita.
Edge of Tomorrow, which has a script credited to Christopher McQuarrie and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, opens with lock-jawed earnestness and news reports of a global calamity. Extraterrestrials, kinetic creatures called Mimics that look like somersaulting metal octopuses, have conquered most of Europe with their lashing tentacles and are poised to take over the rest of the world. On the eve of a coordinated human assault on the aliens, Cage, a flack for the American military, is called into the office of a general, Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), and told that he?ll be covering D-Day from the front. Cage demurs, raising his brow and breaking out a small, disbelieving smile before beginning a soft-shoe shuffle toward the door.
This song-and-dance rapidly shifts your understanding of whom Mr. Cruise is playing and how. He?s funny! And watching him glide through the opening of Edge of Tomorrow ? a suggestion of Jerry Maguire edging his smile ? it?s hard not to think, Where has this guy been? It?s been years since Mr. Cruise felt this light on screen. His smile might have helped make him a star but, like Julia Roberts?s megawatt grin, it rarely beams as brightly as it once did. Part of this is due to his status as an action star. Yet it?s also traceable to a dearth of decent male-female romances and the ascension of mostly male yuk-fests like the gross-out burlesque Tropic Thunder, in which he dances in a fat suit.
In Edge of Tomorrow, Mr. Liman brings Mr. Cruise?s smile out of semiretirement and also gives him the kind of physical challenges at which he so brilliantly excels. Mr. Cruise?s great talent has always been body-based; he doesn?t put across complex emotional shadings, tunneling so deep into a character?s psychology that it can feel like a transmogrification. Much like old-school, pre-Method movie stars, he takes possession of his characters from the outside in, expressing their qualities and kinks through his extraordinarily controlled physicality. This kind of performance can be easy to overlook, shrugged off as little more than stunt work, as if acting through the whole body were somehow inferior to emoting with a big, TV-friendly face.
As expected, there are wow-worthy stunts and high-flying bodies in Edge of Tomorrow, which finds its groove after Cage discovers that he?s on seemingly endless repeat. In time, he figures out what?s going on and sets out to change fate, which leads him to Rita, a legendary warrior with the cutesy moniker Full Metal Bitch. Any thought that the diminutive-looking Ms. Blunt may not be up to that nickname is put to rest with Rita?s introduction, which shows her holding a fiercely beautiful yoga pose in a combat-training area while whirring blades circle her. It?s a perfect encapsulation of the yin and yang quality that enriches her character and the story, as when she and Cage, like a cloak-and-dagger Fred and Ginger, dart and dodge through a mission with perfect synchronicity.
Eventually, Mr. Liman?s eccentricities and the morbidly funny neo-screwball vibe that he establishes are swamped by generic pyrotechnics and noise. That?s predictable, given the high studio stakes and the industry?s faith in spectacles of destruction, but it doesn?t obliterate the movie?s pleasures. In his afterword to All You Need Is Kill, Mr Sakurazaka explains that he was thinking about video games while writing the novel. ?I reset the game hundreds of times,? he writes, ?until my special attack finally went off perfectly.? In other words, video games are a type of time machine that allows players, if they put in the hours, to achieve victory. Hence the movie?s clever tagline, ?Live, Die, Repeat,? which, of course, echoes the faith that every film genre fan embraces: live, watch, repeat.
Edge of Tomorrow is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Intense violence.