Director Doug Liman has given us exactly the kind of sci-fi action drama we were hoping for from the indie filmmaker who snuck up on the action genre and booted it into the 21st century with 2002's The Bourne Identity. Edge of Tomorrow is, unsurprisingly, smart, cleverly playing with clichés it knows we're familiar with and even goofing on its own storytelling. It is also, surprisingly, funny, an unanticipated treat since it's set during an alien invasion that humanity seemingly cannot throw off.
Our hero, William Cage, is no hero. He's a coward and a sniveling weasel. He wears the uniform of a U.S. Army major, but he's a PR flack. We see some of Cage's smarm as he appears in bits of the montage of TV news reports that opens the film, and he himself embodies a sort of spin. For Cage is charming, movie-star handsome Tom Cruise in a smashing uniform, the very image of inspiring soldierly spirit when that is, in fact, nothing but image.
Cage's weaseling we witness when he turns it on Gen. Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), head of the "United Defense Force" that is about to launch a 21st-century version of D-Day with an invasion from England of alien-held France. His weaseling ends badly — the scene is a little marvel of witty writing in which character drives plot (which can be said of the whole script) — and Cage ends up in the middle of that invasion.
Like Cage himself, we get dumped right into the middle of this war. This alien-invasion movie isn't an alien-invasion movie. We see only snippets of the aliens' arrival and initial attacks, in that opening news montage, and we don't ever know, and never learn, what they want with us or our planet.
So what is Edge of Tomorrow, then? It looks very much like a video-game movie, in some respects, because what happens to Cage almost instantly on that invasion battlefield is this: He gets killed by one of the slithering aliens. And then he "wakes up" the previous morning, just as he has arrived at the invasion's forward base at Heathrow Airport, having accidentally absorbed the aliens' ability to do a limited sort of mental time travel.
As he lives this day over and over and over again, his actions are like those of a game: He gets better at using his suit of powered battle armor, and he accumulates knowledge that helps him get a little further each time. He "plays" that battle multiple times, and every time he dies, he jumps back to that "saved" moment on the tarmac at Heathrow.
Soon he has teamed up with fellow soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who knows what is happening to Cage because it happened to her. In fact, it's the reason why she has become the renowned "Angel of Verdun." Because she lived that battle over and over again until she won it for the human forces.
Unlike movies actually based on video games, though, this one never feels like we're watching someone play a game we can never join. Even as the day loops repeatedly through the same events, there's still a sense that things are moving forward. And, indeed, they are, in ways that often become supremely suspenseful, as when Cage has knowledge that Vrataski can never have: She is not reliving this day.
There is much that is deeply poignant here, as Cage gets to know Vrataski in a way that she can never get to know him, and as we discover that she experienced something similar at Verdun. The film does not linger on this, just accepts it as a tragic side effect of this war. There is an astonishing level of tension in events that repeat themselves, and it gets ratcheted up in the finale in a wonderfully ingenious way.
What Edge of Tomorrow ends up being about, is perception. How we see ourselves and how the world sees us are two very different things, and the difference is a wider gulf for Cage and Vrataski. She is lauded as a hero for reasons that no one will ever know about, an adulation that, it is hinted, she doesn't care for. And that officer's uniform that commands such respect for Cage is ironic in a completely diametrical way at the end of the film than it was at the beginning.
Heroism, for them, is more a matter of "You have no damn idea what I've been through" than it has ever been for any heroes ever before.