Edge of Tomorrow, the recent sci-fi epic starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, deals in particular with the possibility and inherent complexity of this question in stunning fashion. On the surface Edge of Tomorrow is a banal expression of the sci-fi genre; an alien invasion, at some point in the conceivable future, provides the backdrop for a plot riddled with witticism, heroism, and love. And yet, there is far more to the film.
Edge is more an exposition on how humans learn to engage with the reality of their circumstances without any predispositions concerning the terms of that engagement. The film, in its way, rejects any claim to human nature in terms of innate personal character in favour treating our collective experiences as emergent; as a product of the world we face for reasons beyond our immediate control. In this way the film can be said to illustrate how our fate is our own making, but that in making it we are far more malleable and influenced from without than we believe at first.
Importantly the imagery of the film is a none-too-subtle homage to myriad films made about the Second World War. The main character is Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), who emerges in his capacity as a propagandist for the United Defence Force, a global alliance contracted to fight the alien invasion. Cage’s uniform is, rather purposefully, a direct reference to that of a Second World War-era US officer.
But the character is not a manifestation of the innate honourableness and heroism our cultural imaginary generally projects on to this generation. Cage’s behaviour is immediately at-odds with the cultural mythology evoked by his attire. When informed by his superior that he will be imbedded with combat troops embarking on a massive invasion designed to re-take continental Europe from the alien force (another allusion), Cage unceremoniously tries to blackmail his way out of going. As a result he is incapacitated and arrested only to awaken dazed and confused at London’s ‘Forward Operating Base Heathrow’, stripped of anything that could identify him or denote his rank. He is branded a simple private, charged with attempted desertion, assigned to a squad, given weapons, shipped to France, lands on the beach amidst thousands of other troops, and is promptly killed by the aliens.
Killed, that is, after he is exposed to the blood of an alien of a particular character.
After this exposure Cage’s life functions as a check on the unfolding of time. When he is killed the day ends and begins anew with his awakening at Heathrow. Over time Cage learns his surroundings, begins to make changes in how the day unfolds, and manages to survive ever longer. In one instance he attempts to save the famous warrior Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) only to have her say “find me when you wake up” with her last words. In the coming scenes we learn Vrataski had a similar gift which allowed her to perform the military feats which have rendered her a hero, only to have it lost after receiving a blood transfusion. Each day, with more experience, Cage (re)approaches Vrataski, they establish what is occurring, and then make preparations for that day and push further in fighting against the aliens.
From here the nuances of the plot are best left to experience (it really is a film worth watching) but this dynamic allows the film to function in very interesting ways.
Over the course of the film Cage develops, becomes a warrior, and begins to harbour the kind of heroism that leads him to comprehend his physical survival as less meaningful than the merits of the war he wages. The important point here is that he learns; he is not naturally predisposed to heroism but imbibes it through engaging with the violent reality he faces. There is also no use of his upbringing or background as an explanation of his specific qualities—he is a hero born only of circumstances, which in fact is a complete change from how we first meet him.
As Cage returns to the beach, over and over again, it becomes clear that his numerous deaths serve as a singular expression of the massive number of lives lost in such conflict—they are at once the same day and irreconcilably different ones. Through his experiences the film reifies, simultaneously, the immense size and abstract nature of conflict as well as its singularity and individual effect. Cage comes to be both one among many and the many as one. He is not the same person as he continues to be re-born, and this is a metaphor that should be taken rather literally; the various ‘days’ he lives are expression of days which others have lived, died over the course of, and not awoken from.
Through Cage humanity’s myriad potential for change, its vulnerabilities, its emotions, is infinite flexibility within similar circumstances are laid bare in instances that are at once personal and emotive and universally applicable. Edge of Tomorrow is a stunning glimpse into how we behave in the world, and how our world comes to shape us, one day at a time.
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