Edge of Tomorrow ★★★★

“Take care of Private Cage.” “All day?” “Something tells me it won’t be nearly that long.”

There are many ways to be a “good” actor. One can be a chameleon, slipping under the skin of various roles in ways rendering the performer unrecognizable. One can be a character actor, filling out small and varied parts in an unobtrusive but rich manner. Or one can be a star of the old-school variety, the sort who, no matter what role he is playing, always seems to be playing some variation on a single theme (often described as playing himself, with its uncomfortably euphemistic intimations).

Many performers fitting that bill show up frequently on lists of favorite actors: Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Jack Nicholson. Many of them are popularly lauded and critically acclaimed. Many of them have intensely devoted fan bases. And one of them is Tom Cruise.

If ever there were an actor who brought to his films a predetermined and unwavering sense of self-image, it is Cruise. Perhaps more than any other mega-watt star of the last 30 years, Cruise appears always to be performing, whether on the red carpet or in interviews or in his films. This doesn’t necessarily differentiate him from any other actor, but unlike, say, the casual (however much practiced) frankness of a Jennifer Lawrence, Cruise always seems terribly rehearsed—an android whose hard work results in a plasticine approximation of humanity, impeccable but not entirely convincing. He is a walking uncanny valley.

It is for this reason that one of Edge of Tomorrow's primary selling points may be that it features Cruise getting killed. And killed. And killed again. Maj. William Cage (Cruise) dies onscreen over 20 times, and countless more times offscreen, in inventive and often humorous ways. But no matter how much we may exult in Cruise's demise, one of Edge of Tomorrow’s greatest assets is Cruise, with all of the Cruise-ness he brings to it. As Alfred Hitchcock once said of Cary Grant, if you see a stranger get hit by a bus, you think tsk-tsk, that’s too bad, but if you see your brother get hit by a bus, your concern skyrockets; the same could be said for Grant, who brought with him the audience’s notions of urbanity and sophistication and humor and decency that comprised his star persona, making the filmmaker’s burden of characterization much lighter (or, alternately, giving the filmmaker expectations to subvert). Edge of Tomorrow seizes on all of the unctuousness and smarm and obviously cultivated competence that define Cruise’s popular image and plays with them to highly entertaining effect.

Unlike the typical Cruise hero, Cage does not start out heroic at all. Quite the contrary. Cage is a former advertising executive and current military PR man, a corporate shill selling the prospect of war to a weary public. That war—against an invading alien race known as Mimics, a seemingly unbeatable force that has taken over virtually all of mainland Europe—has received a much-needed shot in the arm in the form of a battle victory led by a propagandist’s dream, Sgt. Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), the so-called “Angel of Verdun” for her miraculous defeat of countless Mimics in humanity’s first success against the extraterrestrials. Summoned to London by Gen. Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), Cage learns that he is to be embedded on the front lines of the perilously named “Operation Downfall,” a massive push from Britain onto the beaches of France, designed to defeat the alien foe once and for all. But Cage is cowardly and sniveling. He won’t go to the battlefield—the very thought of a paper cut makes him weak in the knees—and if Brigham won’t relent, Cage will use his advertising prowess to turn the public’s disquiet over military and civilian deaths directly against the general. For his smile-laden, oil-choked threats, Cage is demoted to private and sent into battle as a combatant rather than a correspondent.

Director Doug Liman and his screenwriters (Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth) lay all of this out with remarkable economy, through snippets of news broadcasts and a delightfully tense conversation between Cage and Brigham. Once Cage is deposited at Heathrow for his assignment to the ragtag J Squad, he is demeaned by his fellow recruits and his new commanding officer, Master Sgt. Farrell (a scenery-chewing Bill Paxton), and with good reason. The flop sweat pouring off Cage practically soaks the viewer, and is exacerbated by Cage’s confinement to an exosuit whose controls and weapons are at best ill-defined. By the time he finds himself on the beach and face-to-face with Mimics—terrifying creatures that combine all the worst features of a scorpion, a tumbleweed, Medusa, and a downed power line—he stands no chance of success. Naturally, he dies.

And then awakens at Heathrow, ready to repeat his day of battle-prep hazing before heading back to the beach and dying yet again. Naturally no one believes Cage’s story—for them, the day is happening for the first time—but Cage can remember his past experiences and learn from them. For example, he can remember that lovely Rita, Mimic maid, tells him, “Come find me when you wake up.” And so he does, leading to the film’s long middle section in which he learns how he got his power, and how Rita once had it too, and how the Mimics have the ability to manipulate time, and how possibly the alien menace might be defeated.

But before the thrill of victory comes the repeated agony of defeat. Liman gets a lot of comic mileage out of his Groundhog Day plot, with Cage’s deaths—often at the hands of an impassive, steely eyed Rita—played to hilarious effect. Of course Cage must grow as a human being over the course of his repeated days, shedding his cowardice for competence and his smarm for genuine emotion. And of course some of that emotion must involve Cage developing non-professional feelings for Rita. But the film keeps the courtship mostly at bay, and is all the better for it—for Rita, each day meeting Cage is the first, and her warrior’s approach to life makes their relationship far more a mismatched buddy comedy than a romance (until a poorly conceived out-of-character moment late in the film). Mostly Edge of Tomorrow is a sci-fi/action hybrid in the vein of Aliens (as Paxton and those exosuits strongly recall), with a clever videogame structure and an emphasis on comedy instead of horror.

Blunt is wonderful in the Ripley-esque role, bringing a poise and determination that makes her battlefield success fully plausible. (The repeated image of her holding and rising out of a yoga pose is a clever amalgam of skill and seduction, a well to which the film, not surprisingly, often returns.) And Gleeson is as solid as ever, adding depth and an underlying wisdom to a stock character given few scenes. But Edge of Tomorrow is Cruise’s picture, and he more than holds the center. The role of Cage plays to all of Cruise’s strengths—the insincere-but-effective persuasiveness, the eventual heroism in facing the Mimics’ queen, the million-dollar smile. All of the audience associations, both good and bad, that viewers bring to the table inform Cruise’s performance, but in the best possible ways, glossing over some of the film’s implausible developments and the speed with which it moves.

That speed is vital in avoiding the obvious difficulty of a story based in repetition. Liman and his screenwriters keep things fleet, cleverly ending scenes a beat before expected, eliding unnecessary information, and trusting the audience to keep up. No sci-fi blockbuster can be entirely exposition free, but Edge of Tomorrow comes as close as possible, eschewing draggy scenes of dialogue in favor of forward motion, running purposely just like the Cruise of popular imagination. By picking up at different points in previously seen scenarios, sometimes revealing new advancements, sometimes dropping into scenes experienced for the first time by the viewer (and the other participants) but not by Cage, Liman keeps things lively and fresh. The stereotypically boring experience of watching someone else play a videogame, which is essentially what Cage is doing, is relieved of its stupor by cutting out all the extraneous parts—each occurrence feels new whether it is or not.

The logic of the Mimics’ time manipulation and Cage’s role within it is fuzzy in the way of videogames and sci-fi, but is glossed over with enough finesse that it scarcely matters. And the finale devolves, perhaps inevitably, into a CGI-assisted über-battle, but—as with the other action scenes—Liman choreographs the goings-on clearly and effectively (with the unstated but obvious analogies to World War II battles going a long way in orienting the viewer). The internal logic may be imperfect, and the final clash may be a bit rote, but Edge of Tomorrow is far too entertaining overall to complain. Even the final scene, which could reek of rule-breaking and too-cuteness, somehow manages to work. Cruise’s smile is deployed one last time, but the scene, like so many others, ends before you anticipate, and without the character betrayal you worry may be coming. It’s another unexpected moment in a film full of them—a delightful summer blockbuster that jokingly comments on the sameness of its cohort while delivering something thrillingly different.

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