With superheroes, sequels and bids at new franchises running rampant at the box office, the image of Hollywood churning out mindless product has rarely been more extreme.
By contrast, "Edge of Tomorrow"—an original science fiction concept (admittedly based on the novel "All You Need is Kill") starring one of the world's biggest stars—arrives with the aura of a welcome retreat from redundant formulas. The flashy movie finds "Bourne Identity" director Doug Liman tackling his grandest-scale production to date, a futuristic scenario in which Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) finds himself suck in a loop on the battlefield with an invasive alien species —he relives the same day again and again, experiencing the same events each time out. His only source of support comes in the form of a hardened general (Emily Blunt), who once experienced the exact same phenomenon and recognizes it as an an ability absorbed from the aliens themselves. After the third or fourth repeat, she figures out his conundrum, and the two join forces in a loopy battle to locate the alien's power source—naturally mandating that Tom Cruise must die many times over in the process.
One could easily view "Edge of Tomorrow" as a symbolic criticism of commercial filmmaking: The major's conundrum, which finds Cruise battling through a CGI-laden battle field many times over, echoes the mechanical hack-and-slash process of the Hollywood studio system—which throws the same idea at the wall time and again with brutal efficiency, hoping against hope that something will stick. But no matter what happens, the process is self-defeating until somebody comes up with a fresh way forward.
Ironically, it's the accumulation of these repeated moments that make "Edge of Tomorrow" into an enjoyable ride—but its originality has some limitations. It's impossible not to observe the explicit borrowing from "Groundhog Day," an infinitely wiser and more astute storytelling accomplishment. "Edge of Tomorrow" is slick, but once its fancy plot dressing takes form, it has little more to offer aside from a few impressive action sequences and the infallible grin of its nimble lead.
The movie works just fine as a mild distraction, but arrives in theaters with a fanfare that suggests a far grander achievement. That's largely because it benefits from a contrast with its competition. Now that the Wachowskis' "Jupiter Rising" has been pushed to next year, "Edge of Tomorrow" is indeed the most original science fiction blockbuster of the summer, but there are much stronger options on a smaller scale.
Chief among them is "Coherence," which hits theaters in New York and Los Angeles on June 20th. Joining "Primer" and "Timecrimes" as one of the best time-bending science fiction movies of the past 10 years, writer-director James Ward Byrkit's supremely clever and economical comedy-drama finds a group of friends trapped in a war with alternate versions of themselves when a passing comet merges their universes during a dinner party.
Even as its goofy characters' constant frustration and confusion over their predicament gives the material a jovial quality, "Coherence" doesn't fully rest in their befuddled state. And it offers plenty of existential treats, as characters sneak out to witness their alternate selves and struggle to determine a means of surviving the night (before every possible reality collapses into a singularity). Byrkit's brilliantly labyrinthine script contains an internal logic that allows this inventive narrative to resurrect the joy of unpacking non-linear events -- last achieved to such a great degree with "Memento." Seeing it once doesn't do justice to the prospects of analyzing its confounding series of overlapping incidents. "Coherence" allows viewers to relish in the fun while providing payoff for those who dig deeper.
"Edge of Tomorrow," on the other hand, doesn't bother to address its scenario in literal terms. Once it's clear that each time the major bites the bullet, he reawakens on the same military base, Liman speeds up events with a series of repeated incidents that suggest he undergoes the same battlefield experience hundreds of times. As much as the movie has fun with prospects of killing off Cruise—frankly, it holds back more on the details than you might expect—it turns his experience into an ellipsis once the basic pieces have been assembled: Yeah, you get it, he dies a lot. Let's move on.
While that approach worked marvelously in "Groundhog Day" to evoke the character's omniscient awareness of his life, in "Edge of Tomorrow" it's a bland excuse to speed things up. Like many movies made on its scale, one can sense the germ of an innovative idea never fully coming to fruition.
It's worth noting that this isn't even the first riff on "Groundhog Day" to premiere in theaters this year; the delightfully raunchy comedy "Premature," which IFC Films' midnight label will release on July 2, involves a klutzy teen whose day restarts each time he ejaculates. (Being a hormonal teen, that means his day restarts a whole lot.) Writer-director Dan Beers' genial comedy uses the scenario to explore the frustrations of teen desire, particularly the way hormonal energy runs counter to the dry routine of daily life: The time cycle assailing its protagonist is silly and relatable at the same time.
But while "Premature" received a mixed response following its SXSW Film Festival premiere, partly because its sexual humor was considered too sophomoric (which, you know, is the point), "Edge of Tomorrow" has been embraced as a significant achievement in the crowdpleasing summer movie mold. That's not just overselling the movie in question; it's underselling the possibilities of movies in general.
Of course, it's tough to develop sophisticated ideas on a broad scale. Last year's big high concept event movie, Guillermo del Toro's "Pacific Rim," mostly confounded American audiences, and it wasn't even that complicated—just different from the usual form of lumbering, raucous Hollywood product. "World War Z" managed to smarten up the zombie genre, but hardly broke new ground in that respect. Only Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity" charted out a bracing new approach to producing spectacles based on original material, but it was released in the fall as an awards contender—instead of sending a message about the value of smartening up the summer period, the epicenter of blockbuster releases.
This is not a time of year when studios like to take risks. "Edge of Tomorrow" may generate the expectations of innovative escapism, but it's ultimately just a lively demonstration of the same beats we've seen many times before: Tom Cruise running, and running, and running, with no real guarantee that the journey will ever end.
"Edge of Tomorrow" opens Friday nationwide. Browse more critics' reactions to it here.