Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), former ad man turned recruitment shill in the war for humanity's survival, gets on the wrong side of a high-ranking general (Brendan Gleeson) when he refuses to go in with the troops to shoot some publicity footage of the next day's planned push against the enemy. He's arrested, stripped of his rank, and forced to jump into battle with a group of cannon-fodder recruits, wearing a mechanized battle suit he has no idea how to operate. He is almost immediately killed. Then he wakes up on the previous day, is marched right back to that same group of recruits, jumps with them into battle, and is killed again. Then he wakes up on the previous day.
Edge of Tomorrow is based on the novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka (2004), which was translated into English and published as part of the Haikasoru imprint's inaugural lineup in 2009. It was perhaps to be expected that Hollywood would shift the novel's setting from Japan to Europe (though the lengths to which the film goes in whitewashing the original story—whose cast, though primarily Japanese, is quite multicultural—are extreme). But Edge of Tomorrow goes even further when it blatantly models its war—against the squid-like, hive-minded aliens known, for reasons that are never explained, as Mimics—on the European theater of WWII, and specifically the invasion of Normandy. What director Doug Liman (working from a script by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth) is referencing isn't so much the war itself, however, as the films about it, particularly those of Steven Spielberg. Edge of Tomorrow contains blatant homages to Saving Private Ryan (1998), and its famous opening scene of the landing on Omaha Beach, as well as to the Spielberg-produced miniseries Band of Brothers (2001), whose characters parachute into Nazi-occupied France (Cage's troop transport is even hit by enemy fire, forcing his unit to jump or burn, just as happens to the men of Easy Company in Band of Brothers's D-Day episode).
Since all of these references and homages are being made at the same time and piled on the head of the same character, we end up with a situation in which Cage's unit paratroops onto a beach, hardly the most sensible of tactical decisions. This is only one of the ways in which Edge of Tomorrow seems eager to adorn itself with the paraphernalia of WWII without giving any serious thought to its meaning (or, indeed, to the question of how to retell WWII as a futuristic war against aliens). Another is the easy, glib cynicism with which the film depicts the military apparatus—Cage's refusal to even come close to a war that he has been stumping (and, it is strongly implied, lying) to get people to sign up for; Gleeson's cavalier willingness to railroad Cage and send him to his death; the army's utter indifference to the fact that Cage has no training for his mission, and that his fellow recruits are probably only slightly less doomed than he is. There is, of course, room for movies—even blockbuster action movies—in which the military is a sinister, uncaring machine of death. But Edge of Tomorrow doesn't actually care about exploring the way that the bureaucracy of war can end up treating human beings as expendable, any more than it is interested in exploring whether an untrained, fiftyish office worker is truly a "coward" for not wanting to be dropped into the middle of a battlefield. It merely gestures at these points, then moves on.
In general, Edge of Tomorrow is characterized by a failure to explore, develop, or even think very deeply about any of the ideas it raises. On one of his repetitions, Cage (temporarily) saves the life of Sergeant Rita Vratasky (Emily Blunt), the so-called Angel of Verdun (mixing up our World War references a bit), renowned for having killed hundreds of Mimics in a previous battle. Recognizing Cage's behavior (he has choreographed his movements to avoid the Mimics who killed him in previous iterations) she tells him to find her on his next repeat. When he does, Rita explains that she had the same power, temporarily stolen from the Mimics, who use time travel to perfect their strategy. If Cage can find and kill the Mimic queen before his power, too, disappears, the repetitions will stop and humanity will be saved.
This premise has, understandably, led to Edge of Tomorrow being dubbed "Groundhog Day with killer aliens," but this is a comparison which the newer film doesn't deserve. Twenty years on, Groundhog Day's screenplay remains one of the most perfectly formed pieces of writing ever to come out of Hollywood, delivering not only a funny, moving, quietly philosophical story, but a structure that proceeds like clockwork, using every minute of the film's running time to develop not only its main characters but the entire world around them, complete with myriad minor characters and plot strands, each of whose repetitions leads to a climax in the film's final act. Edge of Tomorrow, meanwhile, has a baggy, wasteful script, one that rarely knows how to use the repetition of scenes and lines of dialogue, so that they quickly become tedious and fade into the background.
When we first meet the rag-tag, rough-mannered members of Cage's platoon, we expect them to become background players, developing through each repetition as Cage learns about them and how to relate to them, but instead they disappear throughout the film's middle segment. That segment is taken up mainly with Rita training Cage to use his battle armor, but apart from the neat detail of her shooting him in the head, and resetting the day, every time he suffers a serious injury, these scenes are indistinguishable from a normal training montage. Near the end of the film, we discover that it has been skipping iterations, shortcutting past the first time that Rita and Cage make it off the beach, or the first time that they get a moment to breathe and get to know each other. Some skipping is obviously to be expected, but Edge of Tomorrow does it so egregiously that in its second half we see hardly any repeated scenes, as if the film had lost interest in telling a Groundhog Day-type story and simply wanted to be a run-of-the-mill alien shooter.
That loss of interest also characterizes the film's handling of Cage's character. Going into its story, Edge of Tomorrow hints at two possible character arcs for Cage: his growth from a self-serving "coward" into a hardened warrior who is humanity's last hope, and the dehumanizing effect of living the same day of war over and over again, watching his comrades die, and dying himself in brutal, gruesome ways. It seems to have escaped the filmmakers how contradictory these two arcs are, but on the other other hand neither seems to hold their interest—both are gestured at, and both are eventually abandoned for the sake of a nondescript hero narrative.
Cruise seems well-suited to playing the smarmy, self-absorbed ad man that Cage was before being sent into battle—Jerry Maguire minus the spiritual awakening—but the film loses interest in this character as soon as it establishes its premise. After arriving at the invasion's staging area, very little mention is made of Cage's cowardice. Bill Paxton's southern-fried cartoon of a drill sergeant refers to it, promising Cage that battle offers him a chance at redemption, but his is the easiest character in the film to tune out, remaining a cardboard cutout no matter how many times we see him deliver the same line. Though she is largely responsible for his transformation, Cage never talks to Rita about his past or his feelings about the man he used to be. He never seems surprised at his transformation into a hero—indeed, once the parameters of his mission are established, he makes only a token objection to being asked to save the human race. He needs to be taught how to fight, but his willingness to do so is never again in question.
By the same token, Cage seems to experience no trauma or lingering psychological effects from having died so often. Unlike Groundhog Day's Phil, who cycles through nihilism, euphoria, and a god complex before reaching enlightenment, Cage appears to have no strong feelings about his new state and how it changes his relationship to the world and the rest of humanity. The constancy of battle and death in the film's premise could be used to explore the corrosive effect of war on a soldier's psyche—as was done recently in the far-superior film Source Code (2011)—but in Edge of Tomorrow, what gets to Cage isn't the inhumanity of war or his own inability to escape it, but the film's obligatory love story. His breaking point comes because he can't stand to watch Rita die again and again. Even then, it is marked not by emotional collapse but by manly determination, with Cage demonstrating that he has become the badass soldier that Rita was training him to be by leaving her in relative safety while he seeks the Mimic queen on his own.
Blunt is a strong performer, and more than convincing as a battle-hardened soldier, but she can't work her way out from under the film's problematic conception of her character. Even before Rita emerges as Cage's love interest the film seems incapable of depicting her in terms that aren't fetishizing—as evidenced by her two nicknames, the Angel of Verdun, which puts her on the kind of pedestal where soldiers rarely find themselves, and the Full Metal Bitch, which treats her toughness as something remarkable rather than the predictable result of years on the front lines. The more Cage gets to know Rita, however, the less human and self-directed she becomes. Their relationship is always unequal, with his growth into badassdom coming at the direct cost of her independence. By the nature of his condition, Cage ends up directing Rita's movements and choices, but by the end of the film she becomes a marionette in his hands, her every step choreographed by him. This is only a marginal improvement on scenes in which Rita doesn't even appear, because Cage has decided to keep her away from danger while he saves the day on his own.
As an action film, Edge of Tomorrow is solid but unremarkable. Its sole distinctive feature, the fact that Cage lives through the same battle sequences again and again and thus can map out his movements in order to survive and get to his objective, is inherently anti-climactic (it's also faintly unconvincing, a feeling that is borne out by the novel, in which protagonist Keiji points out that in the chaos of battle, a split-second delay or the difference of a single degree in your angle of fire can lead to vastly different results). And, much like the rest of the movie, this is something that Edge of Tomorrow eventually loses interest in. In the film's final set-piece, Cage, who has lost his power and has one last chance to kill the Mimic queen, gathers his platoon to make what they all know is a suicide attack. But the film literally loses sight of half of these secondary characters halfway through the scene (this includes the only female soldier other than Rita), seemingly too preoccupied with letting Cage have his hero moment (and a final clinch with Rita, of course).
Though their premises are wildly different, Edge of Tomorrow bears some striking similarities to Cruise's previous film, Oblivion (2013). In both films, Cruise plays a cog in the machine whose consciousness is raised by an encounter with a (much younger) woman, who reveals to him that he is somehow superhuman and thus able to save humanity. Oblivion is the better film, largely because Cruise's character in it is allowed to be vulnerable and fallible for much longer than he is in Edge of Tomorrow, but eventually both films fall prey to what feels almost like a cult of personality. By the end of the story, the entire film—not just the characters but the world itself—must be reoriented so as to acknowledge the awesome, Jesus-like heroism of Cruise's character, without ever having made a recognizable human being out of him.
One wants very badly for films like Edge of Tomorrow to be good. In our superhero-saturated, reboot-and-sequel-obsessed film landscape, films based on properties as relatively obscure as a Japanese SF novel are so unusual that, most of the time, they're the product of a foreign film industry. Tom Cruise is one of the few people in Hollywood who can make a film like Edge of Tomorrow (or Oblivion) happen, and it seems clear that this is a labor of love for him, that he is genuinely interested in SF and in exploring all the interesting ideas it contains. But whether he genuinely believes that every film he makes should be warped into the same hero narrative, or simply doesn't notice that he's doing it, the result, as in Edge of Tomorrow, is soulless and empty of all meaning or message. Especially given Edge of Tomorrow's obvious homages to his work, one wishes that Cruise could have brought Steven Spielberg along on this project, as the director has a proven track record of getting him to act, not just smarm.