Sunday, January 4, 2015

Quick Thoughts: Edge of Tomorrow

Yesterday I watched last year’s science-fiction action film, Edge of Tomorrow or Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow. Henceforth I will refer to the film as EOT. Also, I will mention important plot details, so if you have not watched the film, please do so before reading these comments (assuming spoilers are a problem). Finally, my commentary focuses exclusively on one or two aspects of the film. That is to say, this commentary is not intended to be comprehensive.   

Many audience members familiar with the “summer blockbuster” are probably also intimately familiar with the Tom Cruise character archetype. Cruise’s characters, with a few notable exceptions, are too often unlikeable (but certainly redeemable), arrogant narcissists. Think Top Gun, Cocktail, A Few Good Men, Jerry Maguire, Vanilla Sky, and The Last Samurai. EOT is notable because it subverts the Tom Cruise archetype. This may sound counter-intuitive to those of you who have watched the film, because Cruise’s character, Cage, seems to experience a similarly banal arc. Unlike the characters from the films mentioned above, Cage does not possess any redeemable characteristic or set of characteristics that will eventually be resurrected as the film—and the character—develops. Unlike Jerry Maguire, whose fear of loneliness, abandonment, and insignificance informs so much of his undesirable behavior, Cage is a coward. Simply put, the coward, unlike shall we say, the megalomaniac, the sociopath, or the loner, repels audience sympathies. Cowardice is an irredeemable designation, thrust irrevocable into a vapid, forgot margin.

Yet, Cage experiences a clear arc, so are we to assume that Cage becomes something other than a coward? Is he, in effect, a coward transformed through repetition to become noble? Perhaps. The important difference is, of course, the repetition effect. Conventional wisdom argues one of two binary positions: either people have the capacity to change or people do not. EOT configures itself in stark opposition to the binary I just explained. Simply put, the film’s repetitive narrative thrust complicates and challenges this simplistic binary. The conditions of Cage’s ontology is so radically disrupted by his environment’s repetitive quality, he has little choice but to change. In this respect, EOT is an attempted reaction to Sartre’s No Exit and the theory of “the look.” According to Sartre, “the look” is simply the recognition of oneself as an object when confronted by another person. That is to say, when we confront other people (other subjects) we cease to be the subjective center of our universe. We become objects (objectified), not unlike traditional commodities like phones, clothes, and motor vehicles. This experience occurs without reprieve (assuming we elect to encounter other people). Since Cage repeats each day presumably ad infinitum until later in the film, he disrupts the object state of his subjectivity. What if, for example, any of use could actually know the moves, actions, and behaviors of those around us? Our omniscience would establish us as the subject par excellence, thus confusing the non-positionality of “the look.” But of course, this subjective position cannot last. Despite how unconventional EOT is, it is still a transparently conventional film that realizes its audience’s desire for a reconcilable arc. Cage ultimately losses the ability to repeat or “re-spawn” thus thrusting him unceremoniously back into the inevitability of “the look.” Cage’s experience leads its audience into assuming that Cage has, in fact, changed. After losing his convenient re-spawn ability, Cage continues to risk his life to salvage mankind and its threatened existence. But is it actually that simple?

The final point I want to make regards the film’s ending. After destroying the Omega, Cage is cloaked in a black, acrylic residue, clearly the Omega’s blood. He suddenly awakens in the aircraft that carried him to London at the beginning of the film. Like Marty McFly returning to an adjusted 1985 at the conclusion of Back to the Future, Cage’s reality is adjusted as well. He quickly realizes that humanity has won the war by destroying the Omega, thus negating his actions throughout the film. Not only is Cage alive and unharmed, but so is the film’s other protagonist, Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt). This entire sequence is left unexplained by the film. A cynical reading of this moment would suggest that this is once again the filmmaker’s attempt to acquiesce to audience expectations (i.e. the happy ending). However, a less-cynical reading would suggest that this is the actual horror of the film. Following the film’s logic, Cage is once again imbued with the Omega’s time manipulation ability. But unlike before, Cage is presumably unaware of or unaffected by this development. If Cage dies will he return to the aircraft? Perhaps. But what I find so horrifying is Cage’s choice to return when he returns. It is my contention that Cage now choices when to return. And this makes some sense, does it not? Cage learns earlier in the film that the Omega derives its power by manipulating time. Unlike its enemy, the Omega can return to the past and correct mistakes, which makes it a seemingly unbeatable opponent. Cage now presumably has this ability through a cross-species pollination. By returning to a moment in time prior to his declaration of cowardice (see the opening scene with General Brigham after the new reel montage), Cage attempts to erase this moment entirely. This is perhaps his definitive act of cowardice: eliminating any evidence (either act or utterance) of said cowardice. Remember, Cage is a spokesperson, therefore, he deftly understands the importance of the utterance as an act of rhetoric. It is precisely this declaration of cowardice that Cage needs to reconfigure or “spin.” This choice of “when” to return suggests that Cage has perhaps not changed, and it is this decision that reveals how dynamic EOT is. Cage is not an anti-hero or a tragic hero. Nor is Cage the film’s villain: Cage is a non-entity, determined less by what he is capable of (i.e. his potential) and more by what he is never capable of. Therefore, in yet another Sartre turn, Cage epitomizes the notion of “bad faith.” Cage cannot see beyond his own limitations as a coward. If he could, perhaps he would make a different set of choices. Quite simply, Cage refuses to understand himself as anything but a coward, even if the trauma and “growth” he experiences throughout the film insinuates character development. Similar to Sartre’s waiter, Cage cannot disassociate himself from his function. So as Sartre writes, “All his behavior seems to us a game.”    

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