Let’s get it out of the way: yes, Edge of Tomorrow has the same time-loop concept as Groundhog Day; no, it’s not nearly as inspired, but not necessarily because the idea is already tapped dry. On the contrary: there are moments in the movie where the sheer potency of the concept itself threatens to make it interesting. Only if Edge of Tomorrow wasn’t so sanitised: there’s a bleaker, more unforgiving story straining at the leashes here, but the presence of Tom Cruise and the overriding need of a summer blockbuster to appeal as widely as possible keep the lid on the beast.
The movie begins with a montage that has now been made familiar and weary through the recent deluge of zombie and apocalypse – and zombie apocalypse – movies: news broadcasters from TV channels around the world gravely reporting on an escalating crisis of global scale. It’s alien invasion this time, but other than announcements of ‘millions dead’ and an apparently irony-free map of continental Europe covered in pulsing red, there’s no real attempt to convey the scale and depth of the alien menace. Earth’s defence force is planning a big amphibious counterattack a la Normandy, and into this drops Cruise’s character: a smarmy marketer-turned-officer with zero combat experience, named William Cage. He is understandably mortified when ordered to be a kind of near-future Robert Capa for the landing troops, to film what is certain to be a heroic victory. One thing leads to another, Cage is demoted all the way down to a private, and shortly thereafter finds himself shuffling along in a mech suit on the beach, up against legions of ferocious space squid monsters with no intention of ending up on the walls of war exhibits. He soon meets a sticky end, only to wake up the day before, facing the battle all over again.
Much of the initial momentum in Edge of Tomorrow rides on the back of the undeniable appeal of seeing a hapless protagonist coming to grips with the purgatory of daily repetition. A drill sergeant’s barked orders, a squadmate’s insult, a clandestine poker game, a ship crashing just behind him – the incidental details become milestones that Cage and the audience latch on to. It’s not subtle, but it’s fun. After some uncounted loops, Cage runs into a war hero named Sgt. Vrataski, played by Emily Blunt, and stakes are raised. The concept, made so familiar by Groundhog Day, starts to wade into uncharted waters, and Doug Liman, the director, responds by trimming a variety of promising narrative branches. An endgame is revealed too early, the movie suddenly becomes linear and so robs itself of the chance to be playful and different. As more is revealed about the alien menace and what Cage and Vrataski need to do about it, Edge of Tomorrow begins to sag terminally. About two-thirds way in our interest is briefly re-ignited: there are tantalising hints of predeterminism at play which cross paths with some nicely human moments from the two leads, who for once are allowed to be away from the thunderous bedlam of CGI and THX. Had it followed this strand through, the film might have been rather special. As it is, the moment passes, and nothing stops Cruise and a tired-looking Blunt from reaching a tediously predictable denouement and a cop-out ending.
What’s a shame about Edge of Tomorrow is that there’s an undercurrent of darkness in the story that, if properly pursued, could have elevated it above the norm. One difference between Bill Murray’s time-loop with Cruise’s here is that the latter actually has to die before the day is over in order to repeat it. The film does find some humour in the main character receiving death from friend and foe alike, but it’s only skin-deep with very little pathos. Despite what the characters say, there’s no sense that humanity is on any kind of brink, that Cage’s mission has anything much riding on it. There’s plenty of explosions and deaths and screeching of metal, not to mention the wriggling tentacles of afterburner-breathing baby Cthulhus, but the violence is all surface and cartoonish. Had it been made with the spirit of, say, 28 Days Later (which incidentally also starred Brendan Gleeson), I wonder how good Edge of Tomorrow could have been.
Another thing worth pointing out is that the film is suffused with extremely strong video game influence, perhaps more than any among recent Hollywood output. Cage dies over and over again to reach the ending, and with each new life goes a little further. He ‘levels up’ by training with Vrataski, and tries different routes to get to a specific location. In the early stages, he’s kitted out to look like Mega Man. The final set piece is straight out of games like Dead Space and Mass Effect: a case of a movie imitating video games imitating movies. I’m the last person to decry the influence of gaming on anything, but in Edge of Tomorrow’s case, it doesn’t quite work. Another movie in the not too distant future will get it right, I hope.