Watching a Tom Cruise movie comes with the implicit understanding that the three-time Oscar nominee is most likely to play the hero and, should his character perish, he'll receive a glorious sendoff at the end.
The surprisingly absorbing Edge of Tomorrow upturns that assumption within 20 minutes. Cruise plays William Cage, a public-relations maven thrust into a Normandy-like battle, with the forces of our embattled planet going like lambs to the slaughter against occupying aliens. He isn't at all prepared for war—in truth, he's only here at the unexplained whim of a bullish general, played by Brendan Gleeson—and watching his balletic descent from a Space Age drop ship is dizzying and horrific. A few minutes after landing on the alien-infested beach, he's dead.
Then he wakes up.
For convoluted reasons, Cage finds himself reliving the same 24-hour period—always ending in his own demise—ad nauseam. Think of it as Groundhog Day set in a futuristic war. They say it takes 10,000 hours to truly master something, and Cage slowly becomes a master of death. He learns to be untroubled by the jarring experience, to treat it like a momentary setback before trying again. Though the film's wry sense of humor somewhat undercuts the psychological toll of his Sisyphean endeavor, you can still see him waffle between hope and despair from one scene to the next. Edge of Tomorrow's recursive conceit often seems poised to devolve into a cheap gimmick, but, much like Cage, it consistently makes slight course corrections that keep it feeling fresh.
Director Doug Liman's film also ends up a fascinating application of video-game logic, more so than most movies actually based on video games. As Cage slowly improves, it's akin to a character accruing experience points, leveling up and making incremental progress via trial and error. It also makes his eventual super-soldier status feel earned and credible, emphasizing the fragility of even this most world-weary of fighters.
Still, the most striking presence here is Emily Blunt as a lionized soldier. Nicknamed the Angel of Verdun, she once bore the very burden that Cage is trying to understand. Constantly reliving the same day made her a battle hero—and led to her sobriquet—but it also forced her to witness the death of a loved one hundreds of times. That sort of trauma doesn't disappear when you hit the reset button.
Critic's Grade: B
SEE IT: Edge of Tomorrow is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at most major Portland-area theaters.