Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Edge of Tomorrow uses a science fiction war as backdrop to a story of a man who relives the same day over and over again, in the process getting to know more about a woman named Rita. We've all see this before, and wouldn't you know, it's the science-fiction that's actually the original bit.

If Groundhog Day hadn't been made in the early 1990s, but come along later in the decade, it very well might have been flawless. Not that it's not devastatingly lovely in even in its 1993 incarnation; Danny Rubin & Harold Ramis's screenplay is one of the cleverest, tightest, and at times most successfully bleak written for a comedy of that decade, and even in a less-than-perfect form, it's still probably the best mainstream romcom of the decade, as well - and the '90s, you may remember or you may not, were a goddamn competitive time for romcoms.

So no, let's keep the script, please. And let's keep Ramis's career-best direction, unshowy and dour in its subtle repetitions of shots and moods, and jarring without being overt in its subversion of repetition, in service to a script that is all about repeated moments. Let's keep most of it, in fact; but if the film had come out in, say, 1999 instead of 1993, we'd have had the film's biggest liabilities taken care of in one swoop, since they basically all involve the acting and the acting here is absolutely cemented in the 1991-1994 window like nobody's business. Bill Murray, playing protagonist Phil Connors, is absolutely fine in every respect, but he also does a lot of coasting on stock Bill Murrayisms too often, and when the script rather boldly takes a swerve into non-comedy and philosophical despair a little more than halfway through, he's not quite willing to follow it there, leaving the film robbed of some of the complexity and depth it by all rights ought to have. The Murray who emerged from 1998's Rushmore would have been amazing with that, while also still absolutely nailing the bitter sarcasm that underpins all the best early moments for the character. But let us not be too free with hindsight; the absolutely perfect Murray performance we don't have shouldn't rob us of appreciating the awfully good Murray performance we do.

But let's go right ahead and bask in all the hindsight we can gather for his co-lead: if Groundhog Day hadn't come out precisely when it did, then it probably wouldn't have starred Andie MacDowell, whose career on the A-list is functionally bookended by 1989's sex, lies and videotape and 1996's Michael, and whose undeniably attractive looks won her plenty of parts in films that benefited not at all from her hopelessly robotic, generically charming performance style. The only director who ever got anything genuinely good out of her was Steven Soderbergh, in sex, lies and videotape, and while Groundhog Day is by no means her nadir - she came much closer to torpedoing a seemingly bulletproof script the following year, in Four Weddings and a Funeral - the list of actresses available in 1992 who would have been more interesting in this part is by no means a short one. The worst thing - worse than her lack of chemistry with Murray, and in a romantic comedy, that's a pretty damning problem to begin with - is that McDowell's flatness ends up stripping the inner life and agency of a character that Rubin and Ramis worked very delicately to make sure would have those things, despite a scenario which by no means guaranteed that she would. And that, too, is something you don't want your romantic comedy to have; all the best romcoms have two vibrant and colorful leads, even those where one is clearly the main character and one is supporting.

Anyway, the fact that Groundhog Day works so well that even with that kind of black mark against it speaks volumes about just how great most of the movie is. The story - and I pray that you don't need me to tell you what the story is, but we'll run with it for form's sake - follows incredibly self-absorbed weatherman Phil from his job at one of Pittburgh's dingier TV stations to Punxsutawney, PA, home of the world's most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, for the traditional game of finding out whether the animal sees its shadow or not on 2 February. Having dealt with this light news story with the help of producer Rita Hanson (MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott, who would also not have shown up in the movie if it had been made too much later, also to its benefit), mixing breezy professionalism and caustic sarcasm in a truly impressive blend, Phil is ready to head back to the city; sadly, a snow storm that he failed to predict correctly sends them back to Punxsutawney. Phil beds down in his cutesy-pie bed and breakfast, in the hopes of getting up and getting the hell out; except that when we wakes up, it's still 2 February, and everything he lived through the day before happens again, exactly the same way. And it happens again, and again - to the tune of God knows how many times; some enthusiastic fans online have worked out various calculations to gauge just how many 2 Februarys Phil lives through, and Ramis has mentioned that it's around ten years at least, but even without leaving the text of the film itself, six months is specifically mentioned in dialogue.

It's basically A Christmas Carol: a pretty crappy human being is touched by a paranormal event, involving the manipulation of time, that causes him to re-evaluate how he interacts without other people (he even greets the morning that find him finally breaking out of his cycle by asking "what day is it?", though sadly he does not ask this of a boy on the street below his window). And it speaks very well of Ramis and co. that the film can so successfully make the transition from snarky comedy in the early stages that invites us to share Phil's world-weariness and cynicism and sense of unstoppable superiority over all the rural morons making his life so difficult, to sweet but by no means syrupy or corny love of humanity. It's an unflaggingly rewarding, tender character arc, one that Murray's performance doesn't quite sell as well as it might (to judge from the way he plays some of the scenes, I don't think he thought he had any better chemistry with MacDowell than I do), but the writing and construction are so good that it really doesn't matter.

Because holy shit, is Groundhog Day ever a well-constructed movie. There is, first and above all, Pembroke J. Herring's faultless editing, which stresses the sameness of each day while also underlining the breaks from routine with sharp, emphatic shocks to the film's system; and that while also doing the unsung work of all editing in all comedies, which is making everything funny (though the film is just as likely to do the work of stressing jokes through some really lovely tracking shots as through cutting). John Bailey's cinematography, while somewhat plain, captures the flat greyness of an overcast winter day perfectly: it's a chilly film, and that chilliness makes it easier to understand Phil's irritation at having to live through that day over and over again, while making the interiors seem that much more inviting. And of course, the photography also has to do precise, unspectacular work to make sure that the repetition is felt by having the buildings and spaces look and feel exactly the same, over and over again.

It's also a genuinely great depiction of a small town (and a tip of the hat, if I might, to how well the geography and architecture of Woodstock, IL work both with the scheme of repetition, and in building a physical space that feels contiguous and compact and familiar from multiple angles. Though I must also say that I know the town too well to personally buy it as Punxsutawney: especially since the buildings housing my favorite crêpe restaurant in northeast Illinois and my mother's favorite quilt shop are both present in several wide shots). If nothing else, the use of extras silently repeated in multiple locations, stressing the close-knit community and its small size, is a masterstroke of subtlety that recalls very little else in contemporaneous American cinema.

The whole thing is just precise and smart and fussed over without feeling fussy. There's some damned impressive clockwork underneath Groundhog Day, both at the level of writing and at the level of craft, but the sweet-and-sound tone of the film - which, in honesty, is frequently less than laugh-out-loud funny - is so compelling and enjoyable as to make all of its structure completely invisible to the naked eye. Room for improvement? Sure. But just about everything can be improved, and even without being perfect, this is one of the most remarkably imaginative, confident, and successful movies of its genre and generation, and a beautiful example of the Hollywood Machine purring along like a deeply contented kitten.