I kill you, babe (spoiler notice)
“If I could've written any screenplay, I wish it had been Groundhog Day,” is the oldest chestnut in Hollywood. Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis wrote the quintessential time travel conceit: what if you involuntarily relived the same dreadful day? It's immediately thought-provoking: would your actions affect the outcome? What reason could this possibly have – some divine joke, a Christmas Carol warning? And with basically infinite time at hand, how could I improve myself? What brought it from tittilating to masterpiece was the smart screenplay that saw Bill Murray approach this situation from every angle. Sometime Twilight Zone, sometime rom-com, working on every level.
Edge of Tomorrow is one of the very few movies since that dare emulate Groundhog Day. This is surprising in itself. For all the longing to write it, the concept has become somewhat of a holy virgin – one does not touch it. Perhaps for this reason Tom Cruise's next apocalyptic near-future bombast-a-thon makes an effort to not even approach the same territory. Tonally it has more to do with Starship Troopers, Repo Men, Vanilla Sky even, than Murray stepping eternally into the same street puddle. Cruise stars as a smarmy military salesman who gets roped into being the spearhead against an alien invasion in a grotesque version of D-Day. This Normandy stretches on forever, and is a hopeless slaughterhouse. Cruise takes a monster down and is ripped apart himself. Then wakes up a day earlier, in the same army camp he was dumped in. From then on he lives (and dies) the same day again and again, trying to find a way to escape and destroy the aliens.
It sounds a little dry on paper, I saw you nodding off at alien invasion, but what follows is quite smartly put together. The repetition of scenes and moments, and the hundreds of little variations as Cruise zips through the events again and again, strike the right balance between explaining what is necessary and knowing that everyone in the audience has likely seen Groundhog Day. We know what's up. The rest is designed with an eye towards surprise. The film constantly plays with what we know and what Cruise knows. For some events, when we see them for the first time, he is also new to the encounter. At others he'll suddenly anticipate a move, dodge a punch without looking, and we know he's been here before.
The best moment, the emotional culmination of the entire idea, plays out in an abandoned mansion on the countryside near Lyon. Like what came before it, Edge of Tomorrow's beating heart is the romance between a man trapped in time and a woman outside of it. The twist is that this lady, played by Emily Blunt, once owned the same power but lost it. She knows what's happening to him, and this comes to a tragic conclusion in the house. Cruise is stalling for time, because he knows this scenario is rigged beyond repair. He'll lose her no matter what he does, and it's heart-breaking to see him straining to keep her alive. Of course he loves her, while she has forever only met him today.
And then Cruise loses the power and the last act is a serviceable James Cameron ending, all shouting marines and military gumption, which utterly fails to bring any of the wit and imagination that preceded it. It's frankly baffling. It feels as if the writers at this point threw their hands into the air and gave up. From a dramatic point of view it makes sense to up the stakes by removing the 'reset button' that gave Cruise an easy out. From an artistic point, it makes for utterly uncompelling sci-fi. We get generic shooty bits and an atrociously American happy ending – the death knell for such a sterling attempt to live up to impossible standards.
The tragedy is how close Edge of Tomorrow came, but regrettably there's no second try here. It's nevertheless a worthwhile picture, and for the longest time, better than you might expect.