Like it or not, video games are changing how we watch movies—or at least how we make them. As games become increasingly cinematic and movies look more and more like first-person shooters, the challenge for filmmakers is considerable: How do you take the basic, repetitive elements of a video game, and turn them into something that satisfies as a movie?
You start by making Edge of Tomorrow. There’s nothing accidental about the story’s video-game conventions; Japanese novelist Hiroshi Sakurazaka, an avid gamer, had them in mind when he wrote his popular and oft-translated 2004 book All You Need Is Kill, upon which Edge of Tomorrow is based. The Doug Liman-directed sci-fi action flick doesn’t skirt the challenges of Sakurazaka’s video-game structure, but confronts them head on and uses them to its advantage in surprising—and often very funny—ways. Don’t judge the film by its terrible title or its dull marketing. Liman’s movie is so inventive and entertaining that even its third-act misfires aren’t enough to sabotage the experience.
By now, Edge is rather famously a bullet-riddled reimagining of Groundhog Day, though I’d argue that 2011’s underseen Source Code is a more apt comparison. Tom Cruise (of whom I am, admittedly, a fan) is better than he’s been in a very long time as Maj. William Cage, a successful ad man whose firm was shut down in the wake of an alien invasion. The so-called Mimics, which look and behave as if an octopus got it on with a threshing machine and had several million babies, have made short work of the United Defense Force (UDF), an international coalition of armies that represents the sum total of humanity’s only chance to stave off the invasion.
That is, until the mouthy, cowardly Cage, now a media spokesman for the UDF, runs afoul of a brigadier general and gets himself dumped onto the staging ground of a D-Day-inspired strike known as Operation Downfall. Cage, who can barely even shoot a gun, is placed under the command of Master Sgt. Farrell (Bill Paxton), who plays den mother to a group of poorly disciplined cannon fodder known as J Squad. Before he can talk his way out of the situation, Cage is dropped onto the battlefield, where he suffers a gruesome death at the tentacles of a Mimic. The hook, of course, is that Cage is somehow stuck in a loop that finds him repeating his own death over and over again.
And that’s where things get interesting. Just like a playable character in a video game, death is simply a save point for Cage, who can remember and learn from his previous demises. He eventually meets up with legendary war hero Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), known to the public as the Angel of Verdun and to her fellow soldiers as Full Metal Bitch. (It’s a compliment.) Rita can both explain and exploit Cage’s loop, and the two quickly get down to the business of world-saving.
Their primary weapon, of course, is Cage’s ability, and in order to utilize it, he has to die. A lot. Edge of Tomorrow has a lot of fun with its reluctant hero’s regenerative abilities, finding unexpected and often darkly funny ways to off him. To go any further into the plot would be spoilerish, but it’s probably safe to say that Cage undergoes a radical transformation as he racks up experience points.
The action scenes, particularly the ones in the first half of the movie, are flashy and thrilling, but its Cage’s evolving relationships with the soldiers around him that really propel the story forward and keep things interesting. Cruise and Blunt, both cast against type as the cowardly Cage and the battle-hardened Vrataski, are both terrific, and have a great deal of chemistry—at least, until an ill-advised romantic subplot is shoehorned in toward the end.
Lots of things go south in those last few minutes. Edge of Tomorrow’s conclusion has supposedly been a sticking point since the film first went into development, and it does feel like a compromise—a rote and predictable assembly of clichés that doesn’t live up to the wit and spirit of narrative invention that define the movie’s first hour or so.
If it’s disappointing, though, it’s only because everything that comes before it is so good. Uninspired ending aside, Edge of Tomorrow is awesomely entertaining proof that an idea doesn’t have to be original—it just has to be well executed.