I enjoyed 'Edge of Tomorrow' a lot more than I thought I would.
Sure, it's a sci-fi action movie with a serious effects budget, but it also stars Tom Cruise and I much prefer Early Infectious Cruise to Later Scientology Cruise. I'd have liked most of his last dozen action movies far more if his characters had changed sex and been played by Summer Glau. This may be as close as we get, because while Cruise is the lead, he's walking throughout in the shadow of a strong woman who becomes his guide and makes him into what he ought to be.
The trio of credited screenwriters switch things up beyond that surprisingly feminist angle too. This could easily have been retitled 'A Million Ways for Tom Cruise to Die in the West' because it's a treat for audience members who want that supercilious grin to be wiped off his face in a very painful manner. That happens. A lot.
Major William Cage is also far from the usual lead. While he initially appears to be yet another hero who can do no wrong, ready and willing to take on the alien invaders du jour with a face charismatic enough to be plastered all over the news to drum up support for the war effort, he most emphatically isn't. In fact he's a rank coward who can't stand the sight of blood.
'I'm not a soldier, really,' he squirms and we believe him. When he's ordered to the European front to fight the Mimics, huge tentacled invaders from outer space who are wiping the floor with humanity, by General Brigham of the United Defense Forces, his response is to attempt to blackmail him into changing his mind. Needless to say, that doesn't work.
He wakes up at a forward base at Heathrow ready to be shipped out with J Squad as the lowest of the low: a coward, a deserter, a private, all the real army swearwords. Master Sergeant Farell has a spiel: 'Battle is the great redeemer, a fiery crucible in which the only true heroes are forged.' This line comes back to us often as the picture runs on.
And it runs on quickly. He's shipped out the next day, drops under fire and immediately witnesses the waste of war because the Mimics clearly know they're coming. Soldiers die everywhere: before they reach the ground, right next to him, even on him, while Cage doesn't even know how to turn the safety off on his high tech but refreshingly far from shiny battle suit. He dies quickly too, after taking down a Mimic with a mine, but promptly wakes up again back at Heathrow, just as he did a day earlier.
Yes, this is 'Groundhog Day' phrased as an sci-fi/action/war movie, but that's actually not the best comparison. I realised that this works best if you think about it as a videogame.
While Cage plays it slightly differently every time, he's kept on a consistent path where the detail around him remains unchanged. He's tasked with finding a path to get him through the storyline intact and, eventually, fight the boss battle to win the game. The catch is that it's a modern story-based game but with old school rules. He may have unlimited lives, but he can't respawn anywhere but the beginning and he can't save the game. He has to make it through the whole thing in one go. What we watch is the eternity of his attempts to learn the route to victory edited down into a coherent story.
Of course, as he doesn't even know what the endgame is, he discovers a guide in Sgt Vrataski. She went through exactly the same thing he's beginning to, which is why she's known as the Angel of Verdun, the most highly decorated soldier in the war. Sure, she killed hundreds on her very first day, but she lived that day a lot more times than one. Vrataski may well be the strongest, most matter-of-fact woman to appear in a Hollywood action movie since Ellen Ripley. Emily Blunt plays her with a refreshingly single-minded drive.
There's a reason why Vrataski was and Cage is stuck in a loop of time and the logic of it is handled rather well for a Hollywood movie, especially one based on a Japanese light novel, Hiroshi Sakurazaka's 'All You Need is Kill'. The Japanese haven't been known for subtle stories since Yasujiro Ozu, and the Hollywood studios don't even understand the word. The script, which went through major changes in development, is built with consistency in mind but with the opportunity for some believable plot twists to arrive later. It's the biggest success of the film, even with an expected ending and a weak coda.
There are problems, of course. Hollywood seems to be gleefully unable to allow its product to pass the Bechdel test, and finds a way to sabotage this film's chances with a few brief idiocies. While it attempts to hide its American mindset, it fails with an unfortunate faux pas. The fate of the world in this movie rests with an organisation called the UDF which is run by an Irishman; that really won't go down well in Eire. The film deserved better bookends too; the beginning is unsatisfyingly skimpy and the ending panders to convention.
Mostly, though, 'Edge of Tomorrow' is surprisingly strong. While the aliens are never a focal point of the film, just an excuse for the story and the effects, they remain agreeably alien. The editing is sharp, the action brutal and the humour surprisingly subtle. Most notably, I haven't enjoyed a Tom Cruise picture quite this much since Michael Mann's 'Collateral' a decade ago and with nothing apparently ahead of him except a sack of safe sequels, I may have to wait another decade for something as strong again.