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As Edge of Tomorrow begins, aliens have taken over most of Europe. Lieutenant Cage (Tom Cruise) is an American military spokesman forced into combat by a general (Brendan Gleeson) for reasons not made entirely clear. (Something to do with the general's fear that media manipulators such as Cage will make him the fall-guy if the human troop surge is unsuccessful.)
Cage has somehow achieved the rank of lieutenant without receiving any combat training or even learning how to turn the safety off on his weapon, so everyone in his group expects him to die quickly on history's second D-Day. When the battle arrives, he does manage to stay alive long enough to cross paths with super-soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt). She has been labeled the "Angel of Verdun," because she displayed nearly god-like skills in killing aliens at a previous battle.
As Cage is sprayed with alien blood, he appears to be dying. But then he suddenly wakes up—at the invasion's launching base on the morning of the attack. From there, he has to figure out why he is in a purgatorial time loop and how he can use his seemingly endless supply of lives to formulate the perfect plan to defeat the aliens.
Novelist Ursula K. Le Guin once suggested that in the best science fiction, the author should be allowed one reality-bending premise and then judged on how skillfully she can follow that premise's own internal logic. In Edge of Tomorrow, it is not the time-travel loop that is so hard to accept.
But it's harder to bear how the film fuses its sci-fi premise with an action movie's sensibility: one in which the characters become living, breathing video-game avatars, rather than human beings. And that doesn't work for this movie—because of the movie's own premise.
In the film's problematic second act, Rita tries to hide personal information from Cage because, as she reasons, the more you see another soldier as another human being, the harder it is to watch her (or him) die. The film tries to leverage this in the third act, but fails—largely because it never bothers to make either of these characters people or show their bond deepening. Instead, it loops through the battle scenes to show Cage's progress, suggestiing he is accumulating experience through montages in which Rita casually shoots her partner after each training session to "reset" the day.
In a very telling third act moment, Cage—weary from having lived the same day over and over—simply doesn't push a fellow soldier out of death's way. The screening audience howled with glee. Who cares, right? It's not as if, even in the movie's world, this grunt were a consequential person who was really, actually dead.
More than simply a joke that misfires, that scene is, I would argue, the film's most unintentionally honest moment and the one in which it becomes the very antithesis of the comedy classic it is so clearly invoking: Groundhog Day.
In that movie, Phil (Bill Murray) also had to learn to live his day right in order to escape it. But "right" meant something more than simply cracking the cosmic video game sequence of moves. He had to learn (and apply) a moral lesson.
Edge of Tomorrow is much more liberal than was Groundhog Day in its use of religious language; Master Sargent Farrell (Bill Paxton) ironically prophesies that it is on the field of battle that Cage will be baptized and "born again." But this turns out to be all clever punning and nothing more, irony for irony's sake. You should drop any hope that the nearness of death will lead to insights about the meaning and value of life.
The invitations to laugh at death end up backfiring, though. By removing even the possibility of death for most of the movie, the plot strips any decision of meaningful consequences. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has read any postmodern literature or even, say, the book of Ecclesiastes. The result is not a mindset that clings to life as something precious, but one that cavalierly dismisses it as something absurd and meaningless.
Tellingly, Rita asks "What does it matter what happens to me?" And Cage, and the film, can think of no answer.
(This conundrum is compounded by the incomprehensible epilogue, about which I can only say, without spoilers, that it appears to change the rules that supposedly applied to every scene before it.)
There are some slivers of entertainment here and there. Blunt is good, an unexpectedly plausible action heroine. Bill Paxton gives a marvelous little performance, made all the more delicious because his character is exactly the opposite of his career-launching role as Private Hudson in Aliens. Cruise, while clearly more comfortable in the film's back half (once Cage turns heroic), is still our best action movie actor, seemingly ageless, and capable of playing essentially the same character in film after film, using his undeniable charm and charisma to carry us past some really poor writing.
If it is hard to put aside the film's artistic and thematic deficiencies and simply enjoy it as a summer "things go boom" movie, perhaps that is because one hopes (although it is an increasingly faint hope) in something more from Doug Liman. Twelve years ago, Liman helmed The Bourne Identity, one of the best action thrillers of our generation. Like Edge of Tomorrow, it paired a seemingly indestructible male hero with an all-too-vulnerable female accomplice. Unlike Liman's subsequent genre films (Edge of Tomorrow, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Jumper) it had a bottomless melancholy, which sprung from its Bourne's growing ambivalence towards violence and horror at his own ability to dispense it without consequence.
When an actor or director makes a movie that good, I usually say I'll get in line for his or her next three projects, no questions asked. Edge of Tomorrow didn't persuade me to give up on Liman, but it did reset my own anticipation meter for his next film back to zero. Bourne is starting to look an awful lot like the outlier in his filmography.
The bulk of Edge of Tomorrow's PG-13 rating comes from military violence. At least one soldier uses an excremental adjective when expressing disbelief, and there is a quick shot of male buttocks played for humor. A soldier has a ship fall out of the sky and crushes him. Another is splattered with alien blood, causing his face to melt. Another soldier is shown (in the background) on fire. Vehicle crashes and explosions abound. The depiction of violence is less explicit and gruesome than an average episode of Game of Thrones, but it is pervasive and perhaps the more desensitizing for being divorced from any material suffering.
Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.