It's rarely a compliment to say that a movie is video game-like. That's usually shorthand for effects-heavy, narratively lightweight CGI shoot-em-ups. Don't get me wrong: Edge of Tomorrow has no shortage of big effects set pieces, a lot of invading aliens getting shot at, and the seemingly ageless Tom Cruise performing death-defying acts on a battlefield. Except that he doesn't defy death, and that's where the film borrows an important quality of video games to anchor its story: death is never the end.
Death in a video game means rebooting, going back to the last save point and trying again, this time presumably ready for what killed you last time. That's the situation facing Major William Cage (Cruise), a weaselly military PR flack who gets railroaded onto the battlefield by a hardened general (Brendan Gleeson) who feels it's soldier's wartime duty is to spend at least a little time on the front lines. In this case that means putting on a mechanized exoskeletal battle suit and going up against a horde of "mimics," fearsome alien creatures that have already conquered much of the earth.
Cage, woefully unprepared for battle, can't even figure out how to turn the safety off on the suit's guns when he gets dropped, D-Day-style, onto a French beachhead, only to die a few minutes later; and then awake the day before, back on the base just when this nightmare began. So begins his own video game, in which he eventually lives on the battlefield long enough to meet Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a soldier he only knows by reputation, because he'd been using her image in recruiting efforts following her heroic efforts in humanity's only victory in the war so far.
Turns out, her skill at that battle grew out of becoming caught in a loop similar to the one Cage is in now. Hers ended, but when she realizes Cage is going through the same thing, she instructs him to meet up with her after the next time he dies so they can work together.
And die he does, many, many times — often at Vrataski's own hand. Before they can take on the enemy together, she must train him, and she's harder than any drill sergeant. Once she's injured him beyond the point of usefulness, she kills him so he can start again. It's like Phil Connors' piano lessons in Groundhog Day, if the kindly piano teacher put a bullet in Phil's head every time his fingers started to get sore.
Given the world-in-peril stakes, it would have been easy to make this into a grim affair; gritty is the zeitgeist for sci-fi and superheroes these days, after all. But the script (written and rewritten by a number of people over the past few years, but credited to Christopher McQuarrie and Jez & John-Henry Butterworth) has a knowing comedic edge, and director Doug Liman embraces those lighter elements, particularly in the early scenes of Cage caught in the loop at the base, dealing with a comically tough-as-nails sergeant played by Bill Paxton.
Liman has gone the all-business route before with The Bourne Identity, and he's done far-too-glib with Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but this strikes an immensely winning balance between the two. Blunt plays it straight, the hardened super-soldier to Cruise's inept coward. He might get most of the laughs, but she puts the violent period on every punchline.
Ironically, Cage's functional immortality actually ends up highlighting just how fragile humans are. It's contrary to action movie dogma, where the hero's invincibility tends to defy logic. Here, his overall invincibility is a plot point, facilitated by just how easy he is to kill.
That makes most of Edge of Tomorrow refreshing and unexpected, both for its humor and for its upending of action norms. That also makes how badly it misses the landing all the more disappointing, because the climax falls so eye-rollingly back into those same conventions. Suddenly Cage has to become all but invincible to survive the big boss fight at the end of the game.
Of course, tradition also dictates that obviously we can't have a male and a female enduring these trials without them developing feelings for each other. Wouldn't it be even better if Cage and Vrataski weren't just fighting side by side, but kissing a little too?
No. While it might make sense for him, since he's been spending hundreds of repeated days with her, for her he's still new, as he's always been, and they've been spending most of their few hours together just trying not to die. Earlier versions of the script had Cage as a younger man, before Cruise was cast; the shoehorned-in romance is especially exasperating now that he's old enough to be Vrataski's dad.
Edge of Tomorrow does so much so well up to that point that it ends up being a minor disappointment, though. Cage's journey in the film is from cowardice to bravery; it's just too bad the film's convictions end up running the other way.