When Bill Murray had to endlessly relive the same 24 hours in "Groundhog Day," it was to save his soul. When Tom Cruise does more or less the same thing in "Edge of Tomorrow," it's to save the world. In ways both general and specific, it's essentially "Groundhog D-Day."
Sometime in the reasonably near future, the Earth is under attack by extraterrestrials — or android soldiers sent by same — known as Mimics. The Mimics are big, ruthless, multitentacled, and protected by a carapace that can withstand most earth weapons. We are outmuscled, outnumbered and outarmed. In short, we are losing, with next to no hope.
Lt. William Cage (Cruise) is a slick P.R. officer with the worldwide United Defense Force — not exactly a battle-hardened type. So when UDF General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) orders him to accompany troops on the front lines of a crucial new top-secret offensive, he balks. The General — not being particularly sympathetic to pampered desk jockeys — has him arrested. After being knocked out, Cage wakes up at an infantry base, tarred as a grunt who tried to desert by assuming the identity and uniform of a P.R. officer.
Cage can't convince anyone of his real identity, nor would he likely find a sympathetic ally if he could. Class resentment runs high, and Master Sgt. Farrell (Bill Paxton) is amused by Cage's cowardly protests. After the briefest instruction in using a robotic armored suit, Cage — amid the rest of his platoon — is dropped onto a battlefield in France, which quickly turns into an open-air charnel house. Injured, our hero catches a glimpse of Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) — the world's most famous soldier, an inspirational figure known to all as the Full Metal Bitch — right before he dies... 25 minutes into the film.
And then he wakes up, exactly as he did the day before at the infantry camp. He assumes his experience was just a nightmare, but that doesn't explain how he knows exactly what everyone is going to say and do. After a few cycles of wake up, die, repeat, Cage is thrown together with Rita, who teaches him how to use this apparent time loop as a learning tool.
"Edge of Tomorrow" — a terrible title, suggesting a daytime soap opera from the '50s — is based on a Japanese novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, which in translation is saddled with its own awful title: "All You Need Is Kill." Sakurazaka was inspired in part by video games, where each new death provided knowledge about how to get a little bit further. By necessity, the movie contains a lot of elisions: every time he wakes up, Cage has to find Rita and explain to her from scratch who he is and what's going on.
Director Doug Liman ("Swingers," "The Bourne Identity") has dealt with this sort of temporal fantasy before (in "Jumper"), as have Cruise (in "Minority Report" and "Vanilla Sky") and Blunt (in "Looper" and "The Adjustment Bureau"). While "Edge of Tomorrow" clearly owes a debt to "Groundhog Day" (with dollops of "La Jetee" and "The Americanization of Emily" mixed in), it's inventive enough to feel fresh. Screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie ("The Usual Suspects") and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth clearly worked overtime at trying to iron out the twisted mechanics of the plot, the second half of which deviates strongly (and wisely) from the novel. The logic seems to run off the rails toward the end, but, with time travel, who can be sure?
Cruise provides another skilled iteration of his most frequent dramatic arc — smug wise guy gets his comeuppance and learns to be a better person — and Blunt makes a great action heroine, trumping her toughie she played in "Looper."
The film is being released in both 2D and post-production 3D versions. Seen in 2D, it's a great ride; and, as usual, it's hard to imagine that the extra "dimension" will add even an iota to the movie's effectiveness.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).