At one time, the title for Doug Liman’s new release was All You Need is Kill and it featured a raw 18-year-old military recruit sucked into a time-fractured narrative that had him reliving the same day on what seemed like an endless loop — a D-Day style attack on an alien outpost on the Normandy beachhead that concluded with great losses to the human forces. The recruit died each day, only to wake up at the start of the day with the knowledge of what was going to happen and the ability to learn from the previous day’s mistakes. Incorporating the knowledge only went so far, though. He continued to die and come back, rebooted into the scenario.
It was a videogame, one of those first-person-shooter players with an ever-expanding arsenal of tech and impossible moves that you would learn because you had hacked into the game’s code thanks to the constant dying and returning. You can see where this premise would have intrigued Hollywood executives with dreams of tapping into the gamer community.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the multiplex.
Liman (Mr. & Mrs. Smith and The Bourne Identity) scrapped that perspective, focusing on a more familiar, albeit loopier, sci-fi action adventure that feels, on the surface, like a cross between Groundhog Day and Starship Troopers. Upon closer inspection, Edge of Tomorrow — the rebooted verison of All You Need is Kill — recalls more independent-minded fare like Duncan Jones’s Source Code with Jake Gyllenhaal or Rian Johnson’s Looper with Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Hanging on the precarious Edge now is an older and far more reluctant officer named William Cage (Tom Cruise) with zero battlefield experience; Cage is a cagey marketing pro who used his ROTC service to finagle his Major rank. Assigned, so he believes, to provide behind the scenes promotional support before the upcoming beach-storming offensive, Cage runs afoul of General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), the no-nonsense commander of the human forces in Europe, and winds up demoted. Now he’s one day away from what will be a colossal ambush and slaughter, but somehow on the battlefield Cage lives long enough to take out an alien fighter. And just as he succumbs to a deathblow, he miraculously wakes up at the exact moment when he finds out he’s been demoted.
And in Groundhog Day/Source Code fashion, Cage replays the daily events in truly spectacular detail, inevitably leading to his death somewhere along the line, but the seemingly endless loop allows him to learn from his mistakes, offering the slight possibility for him to develop a plan to halt the alien incursion. A chance encounter with a glorious Valkyrie named Rita (Emily Blunt) teases him with the knowledge that he’s not the only human who has experienced this time-displacement issue. So Rita and Cage, with able assistance from Dr. Carter (Noah Taylor), another time-looped war-gamer, embark on a clever and rather humorous series of repeated adventures that tend to feature questions like, “We’ve had this conversation before, haven’t we?”
Plus, there’s the delicious joke for audiences who are not Tom Cruise fans; Edge provides the opportunity to see him die repeatedly. Rita, a warrior in the James Cameron Ripley (Alien)/Sarah Connor (Terminator) line, endeavors to train Cage and to transform him into the perfect weapon in this war. This requires trial and error — lots of trial and error, meaning he dies fighting training bots, aliens on the battlefield, and just as often at the hands of Rita who has no problem putting a bullet in his head in order to start things over.
What naturally occurs, though, is a bonding, thanks to the repeated exchanges and interplay between the two (and to some extent, the larger cast of characters like Bill Paxton’s Master Sergeant Farrell in the unit Cage gets assigned to). This is where Edge of Tomorrow shines and hits its target. We come to see Cage as more than a mere gamer, eager and intent on beating a score; he’s a real character who evolves — from a would-be cowardly dodger to a cunning fighter and tactician — before our eyes. We never learn anything more about who he was before he landed in Europe, but we can imagine that he was a smooth talker with no meaningful connections back home. Yet Cage, through his interactions with others, develops a satisfyingly human backstory.
Liman subverts expectations for what a summer blockbuster is supposed to provide us, sneakily remaking a sci-fi action movie into a character drama with more than a few genuine laughs. Sounds almost indie and edgy, right? (Opens wide Friday) (PG-13)
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