In the not-so-distant future, what appears to be an asteroid (but is actually a space ship) crashes into the Earth, unleashing a vicious alien race, hell-bent on eradicating the human species. And they're very good at it. High enough stakes for you? Well this is a Tom Cruise action movie, after all. So expect nothing less. I should warn any readers now that the synopsis may reveal some spoilers, so if you like surprises, stop reading now.
Tom Cruise plays Major Bill Cage, a figurehead and spokesman for the U.S. Army who is great at signing up new recruits, but who hasn't seen a day of combat himself. And he likes it this way. Major Cage is invited by the General in command of the Unified Defense Force (Brendan Gleeson) to ride with the troops into what they expect to be a glorious final battle against the alien invaders. The General wants to be remembered well and hopes that gritty first-hand footage of the aliens' defeat will help to justify the huge loss of life that has occured in the war. But Cage has no interest in this mission: he flatly refuses the "request" and (after a botched blackmail attempt) tries to make his escape.
Cage awakens in handcuffs on a military base. He has been labeled a deserter, stripped of his rank and railroaded into becoming just another grunt in the fight against the aliens (called "Mimics"). Soldiers of this army are decked out in high tech exoskeleton armor. It has been claimed (mostly by Cage in his frequent public appearances), that these combat suits are so well designed and powerful that even an untrained soldier can be victorious simply by putting one on and showing up for battle. But this claim is put to the test rather quickly as the green and cowardly Cage stumbles into battle against a huge, seemingly unstoppable alien horde. Cage is out-gunned, outmatched and completely ill-prepared. After finally figuring out how to turn off the safety on his weapons, he gets off a few lucky rounds, kills one particularly bad-ass alien but then he himself dies, his face melting in acidic alien blood. Short movie, right? Except, immediately after his death...
Cage awakens in handcuffs on a military base. He has been labeled a deserter, stripped of his rank and railroaded into becoming just another grunt in the fight against the aliens. You see where this is going?
Apparently the alien that Cage killed inadvertantly bequeathed to Cage an ability to manipulate time. Cage has no choice or control over when and how he travels back in time, but each time he dies, the day resets and he goes back to the beginning. But he still retains full knowledge of his "previous lives." Like the protagonist of "Halo" or any other combat-based video game, Cage gets to start over, honing his skills and avoiding or destroying potential threats to make it further toward his objective. If he gets torn apart by a Mimic or shot by friendly fire, no problem. Just die and start over.
After a few failed attempts to convince his commanding officer (played with gusto by Bill Paxton) that the invasion is a death trap -- that the aliens know they're coming and are too well prepared to defeat -- Cage meets a special forces soldier, Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt). Rita, the legendary "Angel of Verdunne," recognizes exactly what Cage is going through, because she has been there. Rita had also been forced to relive a day of battle over and over -- building up her own combat skills in the process -- until finally losing the power due to a near mortal wound. She tells Cage, "when you wake up, come and find me." So he does, and the two work together to try to figure out how to use their time travel advantage to wipe out the aliens before the human race is lost.
The film is reminiscent of several previous movies: "Groundhog Day," "Aliens" and "Saving Private Ryan" are all echoed here. But somehow it still feels fresh and original. Tom Cruise fans will certainly enjoy the ride, and hey, if you're not a fan, then you get to see his character die over and over again, which is some solace. For me, I appreciate Cruise's charm and charisma. And I think he can carry a role well though he is often typecast. It's quite interesting to see him play the part of a sniveling coward, absolutely petrified of combat (which he does well, by the way). But over time, with experience and training, he grows into that powerful, seemingly invincible action hero that we've come to know.
There's some humor here as in one scene where Cruise attempts to escape from a training march only to roll under the wheels of a moving truck and make an awful squeal as he gets crushed and onlookers cringe. But all is well as he wakes up again and this time rolls just a little bit faster to avoid disaster. But for the most part, it's a serious exploration of one man's growth and the deep bonds he forms with others over time, getting to know them, even though they will only ever know him for a single day.
As an action-packed extravaganza, the film definitely benefits from a premium viewing in an IMAX theater (where I saw it). The massive screen and dynamic sound enhance both the immersion and escapism. Personally, I wasn't too impressed with the 3D (it's upconverted 3D, not shot natively in the format). The effects all looked spectacular, but live action shots had that unnatural sense of cardboard depth that you see in most upconverted 3D content.
For the most part, the film plays fair with the time travel premise. Cage uses his reboots to investigate where the supremely powerful "Omega" alien is hiding and to explore different approaches to getting there. If you can buy into the premise, the story that unfolds is fairly plausible. It's only at the end that I feel like they cheat a bit, changing the rules in a way that doesn't entirely make sense. But even so, it's easy enough to forgive the film its few conceits for the wild ride it takes you on. Recommended.