The life of a soldier named Cage in “Edge of Tomorrow” plays like a smudged CD, blatting the same note on repeat ad infinitum. An ad guy turned media spinmeister after an overwhelming alien invasion, the officer finds himself labeled a deserter and thrown into the infantry of a futuristic D-Day, clad in a tanklike exosuit. He, like the other humans in his unit, dies a horrible death fighting the thrashing mechanistic squid monsters that have taken over Europe. Then, in an instant, he awakes, as if to the strains of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” to replay the day.
Tom Cruise plays this perpetual Lazarus with his typical cockiness, fading into bewilderment, despair and determination. The mystery as to why he keeps Konami coding back into existence isn’t as interesting as you’d hope, but when he does figure it out he goes from being cannon fodder to the last hope for human civilization. And he dies over and over and over and over and over with nothing but new memories to show for it.
This is, as sci-fi action premises go, pretty decent. What pushes “Edge of Tomorrow” past the boundaries of genre and toward the more august realm of real cinema is its dedication to tone — this is an uncommonly cohesive, consistent and compelling. The action sequences rip across the screen and the plot moves spryly, even as it has to fold back upon itself like an origami accordion. The film builds by accretion, adding a smidge more in each successive day, twisting along the way. In a good way, it is extraordinarily stressful. Perhaps never before has one person died so many times in a single movie. A few dozen fatalities here, a handful there, and after a while you start to feel for the guy.
Director Doug Liman squeezes a couple of laughs out of the Sisyphean absurdity of this errand, and even a bit of romantic pathos. Cage’s unlikely guide on this mission of mayhem is an alpha soldier named Rita, played by a ferocious Emily Blunt, as if there were any other sort. She reveals to him that she once had the same looping power, and guides him anew each day, even when he has to reintroduce himself each time. This is the great burden of his recursive immortality: Watching her and everyone around him die over and over and over, even as he moves closer to solving his awful day.
Children of the videogame era will recognize this story structure: We’ve played it on a million late nights and rainy afternoons, on Nintendo and PC to PlayStation. Incremental progress followed by horrible death and revival is a staple of adventure shoot-’em-ups, where the only risk in wandering is the cost of your time. When life no longer is the currency of success — indeed, because his revival depends on a decisive death, Cage must avoid mere injury each day — then risk and creativity reign. Have we probed all possibilities? No sense in holding back if we have a guess to make, an avenue to explore.
Here, in action, “Edge of Tomorrow” illustrates a certain version of the entrepreneurship that supposedly drives the Millennial generation. No problem looms too big just so long as failure is always, always an option. Rather, after a spell, when failure becomes entwined with strategy, as Cage finds, a version of freedom results.
The adage that whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger turns out to be deficient. Instead, whatever doesn’t kill us merely delays our return as a craftier, smarter version of ourselves. Hang that notion on a crackling spectacle like “Edge of Tomorrow” and call it a killer summer blockbuster.