For more than 30 years, Tom Cruise has portrayed an impressive array of characters on film, and the vast majority of them have one unmistakable characteristic in common: swagger. Whether commanding the skies in Top Gun, serving his country in the Mission: Impossible series, or solving a perplexing murder as Jack Reacher, Cruise has a reputation for imparting his characters with a sense of bulletproof self-assurance that adds inches to his diminutive height, much the way the camera adds pounds to his temporal co-stars.
To see him play a coward with that same sense of hubris in Edge of Tomorrow is downright alarming, though the real joy of the movie is watching as that self-possessed pretension is systematically dismantled and gradually reconstructed into genuine heroism. True, it doesn't hurt that Cruise is repeatedly broken, maimed, shot, and run down on his long, hard road to redemption (factors that might make this film as appealing to his detractors as it will be to his fans). But without that initial hyper-confidence in his own abilities, his character arc wouldn't be nearly as interesting as screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth work to make it by forcing him to face a Pandora's Box of his greatest fears.
In the not-too-distant future, a ferocious race of aliens dubbed "Mimics" have descended from the stars to stake their claim on Earth. Five years after arriving, they're poised to claim Europe. Because the extraterrestrial invaders prove unusually proficient in responding to mankind's typical combat strategies, the military begins outfitting its soldiers with weaponized bionic suits that increase strength, speed, and agility. Meanwhile, the military is certain that, by conducting a surprise assault on the west coast of France, they can catch the enemy off guard and defeat them. With victory in sight, General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) tasks Major William Cage (Cruise) with heading to the front lines and selling the war to the general public. Cage, however, is wary of the assignment due to his noted lack of combat experience, and unsuccessfully attempts to blackmail Brigham.
Subsequently awakening at Heathrow Airport, Cage is greeted by Master Sergeant Farrell Bartolome (Bill Paxton), who introduces the sniveling major to his new unit, J-Squad, as a deserter and a con artist. The next day, as J-Squad prepare to make the drop and attack the enemy, they are ambushed. Somehow, the aliens knew they were coming, and almost as soon as Cage lands on the beach, he is killed during a fight with a Mimic. Much to his shock, he awakens right back at Heathrow Airport, where the entire scenario begins to play out all over again. Desperate to break the cycle when it continues ad nauseam, Cage seeks the help of Special Forces soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), whose victories on the battlefield have turned her into a high-profile symbol of human strength and endurance. Eventually, thanks to repeated efforts, he manages to convince Vrataski that he is reliving the same day time and again, and after conferring with brilliant but disgraced scientist Dr. Carter (Noah Taylor), the trio devise a plan to use his unique situation to gain the upper hand over an enemy seemingly able to predict mankind's every move.
Much like the late, great Harold Ramis and his screenwriting partner Danny Rubin did in Groundhog Day (a film that's impossible *not* to bring up while discussing Edge of Tomorrow), McQuarrie and the two Butterworths use the repetitious concept as a means of exploring their protagonist's deeply flawed nature and reluctant push for self-improvement. In both cases, the structure affords the writers the unique opportunity to draw out the complex personalities of the people who surround that protagonist, while also exploring various potential outcomes. Yet the stakes are undoubtedly higher here, and by spending more time than usual with the rogue's gallery of misfits that comprise J-Squad, the writers manage to make the soldiers more than two-dimensional grunts. From the moment the smiling Farrell (a perfectly cast Bill Paxton) introduces Cage to his new troop, J-Squad's camaraderie recalls that of the gung-ho space marines from the sci-fi classic Aliens. But unlike that film, it's far from "Game over, man!" even after they're defeated in a devastating ambush, and the opportunity to see how they each evolve and contribute to the battle over time gives these familiar archetypes satisfying depth. Blunt, meanwhile, is positively mesmerizing as the notoriously tough war hero with some unexpected chinks in her armor. Contrasted against Cruise's initial cowardliness, their relationship makes for some fascinating character dynamics as the story plays out.
Likewise, by occasionally pausing to explore the grim absurdity of the situation, the screenwriters manage to inject some humor into the proceedings while maintaining an upbeat sense of momentum. Their work is perfectly complimented by the invigorating energy and style of director Liman, especially in the flair he brings to the film's plentiful action sequences. There's a very real sense of urgency in Edge of Tomorrow, and much of that stems from how the aliens are portrayed. There's nothing even remotely human or relatable about these terrifying creatures, and each time they appear in a whipping, whirling frenzy of death, your pulse will start to race. Even once we've glimpsed the endgame and the story becomes a bit more predictable, there's still plenty of fun to be had, and though Edge of Tomorrow isn't exactly uncompromising in its dedication to its central concept, a slight misstep in the final few moments does little to detract from the inventive, exhilarating action that preceded it.
Like many compulsively watchable films, the wealth of details in the writing, direction, and characterization all but ensure that Edge of Tomorrow holds many treasures to be discovered on repeat viewings. Perhaps the most exciting factor of all, however, is that as soon as the credits roll, you'll want to hit rewind and see it all over again.