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Between Oblivion and now Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise is on a science fiction roll. His new outing isn’t as thoughtful or as visually awe-inspiring as the former flick from 2013. But it still looks damn good, it’s more tightly paced, just as substantive in terms of character and story, and a hell of a good time overall.

It also features a clockwork-like time-and-space plot gimmick that, while it doesn’t quite rank up there with a mind-bender like Inception, could at least qualify as Inception’s little brother. Major William Cage (Cruise) is an American soldier in the near future who finds himself dropped into a D-Day-style invasion of a French beach, combating an alien invasion that’s spreading across Europe. Shortly into the proceedings, Cage finds himself face-to-face with one of the alien “Mimics” – though it looks oddly different than the others – and he kills it at point-blank range with a land mine. After a brief but shocking shot of Cage covered in the creature’s blue blood with half his jaw blown away, he reawakens on base the day before the invasion.

He quickly discovers he’s caught in a loop: every time he dies, he reawakens at that exact spot and time, and can play through the exact events again, attempting different strategies and permutations. The script is by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth, based off Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s Japanese novel “All You Need Is Kill.” The plot’s cheeky riff on the experience of playing a video game is not hard to spot.

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While ostensibly an officer, Cage is basically a PR guy for the military with no combat experience. When General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) tells him he’s going in with the troops to film the invasion first-hand, Cage tries to hustle and then blackmail his way out of the assignment. Brigham has him arrested, tasered into unconsciousness, and then shipped off to join the invasion force with false papers saying he’s just a regular soldier. It’s one of the film’s few serious violations of believability, but it also sets up Cage’s character arc: he’s a bit of a self-serving prick, and his repetitions allow him to hone his combat skills, to build a connection to the other troops, and to gain a sense of cause beyond himself.

We find out the cause of Cage’s time-jumping relatively early, but its a well-reasoned premise with clear rules for the narrative world, and when the plot complications come in, they emerge organically out of those rules. The writing and execution are actually incredibly economical, and combine a real artistic panache with the kind of no-frills plot and character development you’d expect from a 1950s flick.

Cage also gets a guide in the form of Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), another soldier in the beach invasion who got caught in the same loop once but got out. She spots Cage as a fellow traveler, and becomes the Obi-Wan Kenobi to Cage’s Luke Skywalker. A darkly humorous pattern sets in where Cage has to reintroduce himself to her each day at the base – easy given her previous experience – and then they begin training and plotting anew. It also turns out Cage needs to avoid being taken by medics because a blood transfusion will undo his time-jumping ability, so whenever he’s seriously injured in combat or training (which is often) Rita has to dryly shoot him in the head to reset the loop.

Their relationship forms the core of the film, but it’s also where the film begins to play a little fast and loose with itself. It can be hard to remember that every time Cage dies it’s a reset for Vrataski as well – that he’s restarting as a stranger and building the relationship from scratch all over again. The way things between them proceed, it sometimes seems like the movie itself forgets that.

Other flaws include a failure to really go to town on its premise (What if Cage just said “fuck it” one day and left to live to old age, then shot himself to return to the battle out of guilt?) and the way the film subtly breaks its own rules at a crucial moment to adhere to tried-and-true narrative conventions. The possibility is raised that some sacrifices cannot be avoided no matter how many permutations of the scenario Cage tries, and then ultimately abandoned. So the story butts up against some more existential ideas without really engaging them. But their dark hint remains, lending the goings-on a bit more weight than they would have otherwise.

Overall Edge of Tomorrow is sufficiently well-executed that it flies past these modest hiccups, and it’s a serious accomplishment for director Doug Liman. The beach landing, while not as horrifying on a human level as the opening battle of Saving Private Ryan, echoes that sequence’s mad yet-surprisingly-intelligible ferocity. The weaponized exoskeletons the soldiers wear into battle look plausible as near-future technology, as are the helicopter dropships they ride in on. The Mimics themselves are creatively rendered, ostensible quadrupeds with some additional tentacles, and a greasy biomechanics look. They also move in a creepy spastic motion that plays like a Ray Harryhausen stop-motion monster come to life. Between the technology and the Mimics, Edge of Tomorrow is an impressive act of militaristic science fiction world-creation, up there with Aliens (Bill Paxton even shows up as the scene-chewing Master Sergeant Farell, who oversees Cage’s infantry unit on base).

I’ve compared Edge of Tomorrow to some pretty impressive films: Inception, Aliens, and Saving Private Ryan. It’s not as good, but it draws on strengths they all have. It’s solid and moving entertainment, and it’s been a while since I had just that much, well, fun in the theater*.

* See it on IMAX if you can, but not in 3D. It doesn’t add all that much viscerally, and in this case detracts from the quality of the visuals. This is a film with a classic sensibility, and should be viewed as such.

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