Watching in quick succession Tom Cruise's last two features, 2013's "Oblivion
" and "Edge of Tomorrow," is a fascinating study in howand how notto make great science-fiction. If the former picture, directed by Joseph Kosinski, was a viscerally expansive experience, a thinking-man's apocalyptic fantasy with mesmerizing visuals, a thoughtfully conceived script and enough attention to character to make it all come together in a pleasing dramatic whole, the latter, directed by Doug Liman (2008's "Jumper
"), feels like a deflating gimmick. Based on the novel "All You Need Is Kill" by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the film has the misfortune of arriving three years after the conceptually similar "Source Code
," wherein a man finds himself living out the same moment in time over and over as he attempts to prevent a calamitous tragedy from occurring. That picture, smartly helmed by Duncan Jones, held a thematic complexity, an emotional fullness and a chemistry between its lead actors that is entirely missing from "Edge of Tomorrow." Instead, following a stirring opening twenty minutes, screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie (2013's "Jack the Giant Slayer
") and Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth (2010's "Fair Game
") settle into a monotonous groove, the premise not engaging enough and the characters too flimsily one-note for the narrative's intentionally repetitive nature to avoid sinking into interminability.
When a deadly alien race crashes to Earth leaving devastation across Europe in its wake, a military unit called the United Defense Force is put into operation to fight the so-called "Mimics" and save the planet. Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is not a soldierhe claims to not even be able to stand the sight of bloodbut he is given no other choice when General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) railroads him into the resistance. Thrust into a war zone on the beaches of France, Cage watches as all of his fellow recruits (and finally himself) are wiped out by a sudden Mimic ambush. When he comes to, he finds himself back to the point in time when he first woke up on the UDF base, still a day away from the fateful battle that will kill them all. From here, Cage will die again and again, trapped in a perplexing time loop until he can find and destroy the vicious alien Omega. Faced against a seemingly unbeatable opponent, his only hope lies with the no-nonsense Rita (Emily Blunt), a soldier who has been in his shoes and understands exactly what he is going through.
"Edge of Tomorrow" springs off of the right foot, the first images overwhelmed with ominous portent as the Emergency Broadcast System alarm buzzes on the soundtrack. It will be a familiar sound for anyone who has ever watched network television, but what typically signals merely a test proves significantly graver as news reports spill out about falling meteors and mass catastrophe. Falsely accused of impersonating an officer to evade duty, Cage's initial entrance into an awful situation where he doesn't belong is urgent and thick with encroaching peril. As he faces off against the gruff Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton) before being sent up in a plane headed toward combat for which he is untrained, director Doug Liman does an expert job of positioning the viewer right next to Cage, forced to endure what he does. It is when the narrative starts going in literal circles, introducing comedic, even slapstick, elements into the protagonist's roughly one hundred demises, where the film's synthetic emptiness reveals itself. With the last 24 hours resetting themselves each time Cage dies, predictability and overfamiliarity takes over. This would be okay if, in the tradition of "Source Code
" or 1993's "Groundhog Day," there was more to hang ontoa fleshing-out of the characters, for example, or a moralistic destination to its madnessbut there isn't.
When Tom Cruise (2012's "Jack Reacher
") is on the screen, and he has a richly developed role to embody, he is never less than innately watchable. When treated as a pawn for the movie to play with, his commitment is sidelined in the face of filmmaker negligence. Virtually nothing is learned about Major William Cage through the course of the film, and so it is left up to Cruise to at least bring his movie-star charisma to the otherwise barren, deceptively intricate material. As Rita, Emily Blunt (2012's "The Five-Year Engagement
") is saddled with even less to do. Looking toned but unconvincingly tough, the gifted actress is stuck in a part that has few identifying characteristics. Her relationship with Cage lacks the soulfulness it calls for, so when she tells him late in the picture, "I wish I'd had the chance to know you better," it arrives with none of the intended meaningful impact.
Stricken with a terminal case of Attention Deficit Disorder, "Edge of Tomorrow" is so frantic for so much of its running time that it becomes increasingly wearisome before the halfway point. Looking like a spastic octopus mixed with an out-of-control mop, the creature design of the Mimic alien species proves thoroughly off-putting and even exhausting, reminding of a comically hyperactive Chihuahua with tentacles. These otherworldly baddies might be a threat to life, but they bring with them no sense of looming frightfulness or tension because they're always too busy aggressively bouncing around the frame. As big-budget sci-fi, "Edge of Tomorrow" is inconsequential at best and useless at worst, a far cry from Cruise's "Oblivion
" or "War of the Worlds
" and Blunt's "The Adjustment Bureau
" or "Looper
." As a suspect time-travel vehicle, the film isn't much better, its explanations as to the hows and whys things are happening holding the air-tight logic of a little kid who has thought the story up on the spot. The ending will be controversial to some viewers hoping for a less Hollywoodized treatment, but by then there is no redeeming it anyway. "Edge of Tomorrow" is technically handsome, but approximately as deep and lasting as a small parking-lot puddle.