Film Note: Edge of Tomorrow (Live. Die. Repeat.)

Doug Liman’s first big break onto the Hollywood directing scene was the low-budget comedy, Swingers (1996). The film cost just $200,000 to make, and saw a domestic US box office return of $4.6m, a fairly successful amount for such a small-scale production. (1) A few years later, Liman would begin to dip his toes into the action genre, directing the first Jason Bourne movie in 2002, The Bourne Identity; a few years later, going on to direct yet another original action flick, Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005). Thus far, Liman had been running a more than successful career path through creating original film properties, particularly with regard to the action genre. However, around the mid and early 00s, large budget action films were beginning to change. Brought into the 21st century by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002), and made more certain in 2008 by Iron Man, a new taste for franchised and universe-building cinema was beginning to emerge; the most important financial aspect within the creation of telling screen stories is increasingly its potential to create bigger and more profitable sequels. Production companies such as Marvel now base their entire marketing and production schedules on building cinematic universes in which no single film stands by itself as an original, one-off property. “When Marvel Studios began making movies based on its comics … the studio made $6.1 billion for its first eight films. This success meant Marvel could green-light more movies. As a result, more than 20 movies … have been made or were scheduled for production by 2019.” (Fields, 2015, p.11) Since 2005, all but two of the highest grossing films each year have either been returning franchises from the past, or movie sequels e.g. Revenge of the Sith (2005), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), Spider-Man 3 (2007), The Dark Knight (2008), Toy Story 3 (2010), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011), Marvel’s The Avengers (2012), The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), Jurassic World (2015). (2)

In 2014, Liman directed Edge of Tomorrow, an old fashioned stand-alone action movie with a huge budget of $178m. The film stars the easily recognizable names of Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise. Although Edge of Tomorrow was able to make its money back to the sound of a small profit overseas, its domestic US gross was unpredictably underwhelming for a film with such high marketing potential. The film made $100m at the US box office, meaning a roughly estimated loss of around $78m. (3) Also important to note is the fact that Edge of Tomorrow was adapted from the original Japanese novel ‘All You Need is Kill’, written by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, a novel that was largely unknown inside the US. Unlike many similar contemporary Hollywood action films now being adapted from comic books or novels of counter-culture, (Jack Reacher (2012), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Watchmen (2009)) the pre-established audience gained by readers of ‘All You Need is Kill’ in the US would have been extremely small, if not almost non-existent. This may have contributed to the film’s poor box-office in the US since ‘All You Need is Kill’ held a wider fan-base in parts of Europe and across Asia, places in which the film was able to regain much of the losses made at the American box-office.

Edge of Tomorrow could be viewed as a big-budget ‘indie’ film. Indeed, this is how the director himself likes to view the assembling of the film, stating during an interview, “there was an intimacy between Tom, Emily and myself that didn’t make this film that much different from, say, Swingers. I feel like I’m an independent filmmaker … I feel like I’m the guy who made Swingers still, to this day.” (4) This blurring of filmmaking sensibilities creates an industrial confusion within the identity of Edge of Tomorrow as a film. The film feels and registers as a work of independent filmmaking, holding many steady camera tracking shots and numerous occurrences of an unstable, shaky camera aesthetic. The film registers very closely to the ragged and unpolished action style often associated with the films of Paul Greengrass (who took over and further developed the ‘Bourne’ series from Doug Liman himself). Edge of Tomorrow is frantic, hand-held and unsettled; comically nervous in its style, the film is restless, yet not consistently so. The editing within the film speeds-up and slows-down according to its action; sometimes adopting the style of an independent comedy, sometimes a contemporary ‘Borne’ action movie. Edge of Tomorrow plays fast and loose with its complex narrative, often becoming a self-parody, playfully using comedy and small character moments to mock the potential seriousness of its own plot. For example, the rate at which Cruise’s character dies in the film soon becomes comical. A constant stream of death after death occurs, sometimes as a result of small mistakes in timing, such as Cruise being hit by a truck, or even dying at the hands of Blunt’s supporting character, who chooses to kill Cruse over and over again for not concentrating fully during training sessions, almost as an act of playful punishment. Cruise’s constant dying persists so frequently that the notion of death soon transforms into nothing more than a minor annoyance. Edge of Tomorrow actively questions the seriousness of action films, acknowledging its own story as ridiculous and outlandish, leading on to reduce its central premise as frivolous, and choosing instead to concentrate more seriously on the dramatic narrative beats of its characters. The combination of these sensibilities results in a film that is often constructed to feel more like a work of independent filmmaking, yet within the large budget of a much more mainstream or conventional Hollywood action movie.

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Tom Cruise is already the face of big-budget franchises such as the Mission: Impossible series, in which Cruise is constructed as a classical all-American action hero on a global scale. However, rare for a leading Hollywood man is Cruise’s willingness to venture onto more unstable ground in films such as Eyes Wide Shut (1999) or Magnolia (1999). In these films, Cruise’s characters are often extremely unlikable and obnoxious, creating the same sense of confusion around Cruise’s identity as in Edge of Tomorrow. Cruise’s character in the film (Cage) starts against type, he is rude, weak, unskilled, and stiff; attributes that are far from the Tom Cruise of Mission: Impossible (1996) or Top Gun (1986). At the start of his career, Cruise was a key member of a resurgence in leading American action stars, “the inflated musculature of Stallone and Schwarzenegger looked increasingly anomalous, and was replaced by the thinner, less muscular physique of actors like Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise, Keanu Reeves and Nicholas Cage. (Purse, 2011, p.96) Cruise emerged as a new type of action star, more sensitive, and with greater physical emotion. As Manohla Dargis points out in her review of Edge of Tomorrow, “much like old-school, pre-Method movie stars (Cruise) takes possession of his characters from the outside in, expressing their qualities and kinks through his extraordinarily controlled physicality.” (Dargis, 2014) Dennis Bingham also picks up on the unconventionality of Cruise as a traditional action star. However, Bingham draws attention to Cruise’s internal sensibilities to perform naturally, commenting that, “he tends (to) be … the initiator of action, about whom the audience does not give much thought because none is necessary … his acting is disciplined and minimal in its movement.” (Bingham, 2004, p.247-274) Edge of Tomorrow is a film in which Cruise does both, starting the film as weak and unfavorable, stiff within his physical movement, and arrogant in his tone. Edge of Tomorrow works on a level of personal transformation; Cruise is able to take this starting character, transforming him into the type of American action hero we see in films such as Mission: Impossible, thereby subverting audience expectation of Cage to great aspirational effects.

The philosopher George Santayana once said, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. A key significance found within the constructs of Edge of Tomorrow is its attitude towards its central theme of repeating history. As already mentioned, Edge of Tomorrow is a film in which we see our main protagonist, Cage, begin his journey as broken, cowardly, and unlikable. By using its time-looping plot to continually send Cage back in time in order to repeat each day, he slowly improves as a leader, eventually beginning to embody the persona of what we may think of as an American action hero. Cage improves as a man of action by making mistakes and learning from them. This is achieved in the film by allowing Cage to look towards the past as a source of improvement for future events. This expresses a tone of redemption, highlighting that even the most unlikable of character can change when given the opportunity to reedit past mistakes.

This concept has developed in culture from within the video game/digital generation, in which making mistakes while living technologically simulated lives can easily be replayed, reedited, or instantly undone by clicking ‘undo”. This has helped shape the mindset of a younger generation, “the digital generation has adopted a mindset of rapid-fire trial-and-error learning. They’re not afraid of making mistakes (and) operate under the strategy of useful failure” (Jukes/McCain/Crockett, 2010, p.2). In Edge of Tomorrow, Cage and Rita arrive on the beach to battle the aliens after each failed attempt at destroying them. In doing so, they begin to notice small details and potential dangers based on previous attempts to escape the beach; the exact timings that certain aliens approach, the directions they must turn to avoid being crushed by falling aircraft etc. With each new “life” Cage must plot a successful path of victory, thus establishing his ability to ‘undo’ the past as a vital tool in the battle to save humanity. This generational concept has also been helped by the rise of video games such as ‘Call of Duty’ or ‘Grand Theft Auto’, games in which the player’s progression to the next level is based on their ability to improve upon past trials.

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Audiences can now purchase official video games based from original cinematic properties, meaning that film audiences can control and manipulate film characters; “(the) technology of video games has improved significantly, allowing games to offer cinematic visuals and complex narratives.” (Brookey, 2010, p.4) This means that many films no longer hold complete control over their core narratives. Superman in Superman Returns (2006) may save the day without a scratch on his body, but by playing the Superman Returns video game released in the same year, a trial-and-error method is established as players attempt to complete levels, dying constantly, only to “respawn” as Superman again moments later. Edge of Tomorrow uses this gaming method as a narrative device, to some degree, becoming what Thomas Elsaesser labels a “Mind-Game Film”, which he describes as “movies that are ‘playing games,’ … films in which a character is being played games with, without knowing it or without knowing who it is playing these games.” (Buckland, Elsaesser, 2009, p.14) Edge of Tomorrow is a film in which our protagonist’s life is transformed into a ‘game’; we play the game with him as he tries to defeat enemies, fails, resets, and gradually aims towards the last ‘boss’ level. In this case, facing the ‘Omega’ the central nerve system of the alien invaders; only then may he complete the game presented in and by the film itself.

This video game aesthetic is supported by the large amounts of CGI and special effects present in Edge of Tomorrow. Large establishing shots of the chaotic battlegrounds are often presented; these show giant plains of soldiers fighting CGI aliens as crashing aircraft smash and collide into moving vehicles, creating huge explosions, and increasing a sense of what Tom Gunning calls “The Cinema of Attraction”. (5) Edge of Tomorrow holds a sense of cinematic authenticity; however, within the film’s use of digital computer graphic technology (which is also captured in the film by humans wearing artificial robot suits as extensions of their own bodies) we see a disruptive blending of the authentic and the inauthentic taking place, thereby mixing the cultural signifiers of ‘film’ and ‘video game’, resulting in what Jameson calls “schizophrenic temporality” (6), meaning that the cultural signifiers of the two are blended and broken down. This is also notable in other strongly influenced video game films such as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), in which visual game graphics are used to interact with real characters, and 300 (2006), in which most of the film’s content was staged and designed artificially in order to create a video game type world, one in which real actors would move and interact within. Brooks Landon suggests that scenes such as this can be, “so striking that they interrupt the narrative or actually work to undermine it … a kind of counter-narrative that often conflicts with the ostensible discursive narrative”. (Landon, 1992, p.68) Christine Cornea highlights another disconnection within this kind of overwhelmingly digital effect, stating that they “envision the destruction and decay of the high-rise city representative of a postmodern and post-celluloid world superseded by the malleable constructions of a wondrous but overwhelming digital environment.” (Cornea, 2007, p.263) Edge of Tomorrow straddles the line between film and video game, holding cinematic and narrative elements of both; its story lives within a world filled vastly with the same computerized elements seen in most modern video games, and its narrative follows the same progressive pattern of trial and error, of being unafraid of death or destruction in the face of danger since a new and equally meaningful next life waits just around the corner.

The idea of replaying mistakes from the past also holds political implications within the film in contrasting the tactical war efforts of Cage compared to his Master Sergeant, Farell. Farell views battle and combat as ‘the great redeemer’ referring to war as an almost biblical path to spiritual enlightenment. Farell’s views on war are strongly conservative; a proud and necessary declaration made in order to keep national and traditional values safe from the outside world. Cage, on the other hand, uses his time looping abilities to cut through to the heart of the problems facing humanity. Cage does not need to become a battle warrior, but rather, he must destroy the alien invasion by attempting to locate the root cause of the problem. Within the central nerve system of the alien’s base, Cage destroys the ‘Omega’, a symbolic stand-in for the root social cause of cultural conflicts. Cage’s methods of improving the world’s current situation can be symbolized as the tackling of social roots, disobeying a conservative perspective in Farell, and instead, searching socially in order to confront underlining cultural issues. In Edge of Tomorrow, the past is continuously looked upon as a moment progressively inferior to the present. However, the direct cause of this progression is never warfare, but rather, is actively attempting to escape the battlefield in order to seek a less militarized and more tactical method of resolving the situation more passively, and with as little force as is necessary.

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Since the ever-continuing stream of American alien conspiracy theories began, American pop-culture has always held a great interest with aliens. This was perhaps aided by a growing interest in space during The Space Race (1955-1972), and previously preserved within American culture by way of the Roswell UFO incident of 1947. Both of these events ignited the imagination of 20th century America, which in turn, led to many Hollywood action films taking advantage of a certain fear of foreign invasion within American culture. Notable examples of this include, Independence Day (1996), Mars Attacks (1996), Starship Troopers (1997), (The) War of the Worlds (1953, 2005), and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, 2008). Although an interest in alien invasion movies hit a peak during the 1950s, a continuing interest within the themes they present is still present to this day. Annette Kuhn states that, “our love affair with apocalypse and Armageddon, according to (Fredric) Jameson, results from the atrophy of utopian imagination, in other words, our cultural incapacity to imagine the future”. (Kuhn, 1990, p.116) The unseen and imaginative nature of supposed government alien conspiracies allows culture to peer into the uncertainties of the future, to take spectatorship pleasure in imagining the type of fictionalized dystopian world portrayed in films such as Edge of Tomorrow. H.L. Gold states that, “few things reveal so sharply as science fiction the wishes, hopes, fears, inner stresses and tensions of an era, or define its limitations with such exactness.” (7) It could be noted that Edge of Tomorrow uses its alien invasion plot to express current American fears of terror plots and threats from foreign invaders. Christine Cornea highlights that, “the rising tensions between East and West in the lead-up to (9/11) were partly expressed in the scenes of disaster included in many science fiction films that preceded the event … immediately following 9/11, the ‘what if’ of science fiction was retrospectively transmuted into a ‘what next’ (Cornea, 2007, p.263).

In Edge of Tomorrow, fears of the ‘what next’ are combined within references to historical events, particularly with regard to the Second World War; a major part of the film’s action takes place on a beach in France. These scenes hold strongly depicted references to the D-Day landings. Firstly, the mission portrayed by the scenes is described as the last big push against the invading alien force. An allied army of mostly British and American officers carries out the mission, yet Edge of Tomorrow partly takes place in London and never once visits an American city. During one time-loop midway through the film, Cage leaves the mission, avoiding the soldiers on the beach to lose the battle. In the next scene, the aliens reach London, destroying it quickly, placing echoes of wartime London lingering in its imagery. As with the Nazis in WW2, London is a main target for the aliens. The battle on the French beach acts as an active reference to save London. Interestingly, the film takes these historical references from the past, placing them within a post-9/11, futuristic world. Instead of boats arriving at the shores of the beach, we are shown huge futuristic aircraft plummeting from the sky. Instead of soldiers wearing helmets and basic uniform, the film depicts fighters wearing ‘exosuites’; powerful mechanical suits that act as robot extensions for the human body. This is a world set far into the future, yet still holding the same concerns of the past. Edge of Tomorrow uses recognizable historical reference points to depict the same tensions of the ‘foreign invader’ present in today’s post-9/11 America. To this effect, the film presents a future world unable to move beyond the mistakes of the past. Cage must relive those mistakes until he decides to avoid fighting on the battlefield, and instead, locate the alternative root problem to the situation in hand, only then can he progress into the future.

Towards the opening of the film, Farell suggests to Cage that today is his “judgment day”. As well as this, other references are made towards the type of world judgment described in the Book of Revelations; which include the form of biblical imagery depicted in the film’s advertising posters. On these posters, alien spacecraft arrive on earth, spiraling from the sky, colliding to the ground in huge explosions while the dying sun beams from broken gaps in the clouds, creating dramatic landscapes of disaster and devastation. The theme of judgment day can be connected to science fiction in what Kuhn calls, “The Alien Messiah”, which she describes as “an alien visitor (that) warns the inhabitants of Earth to eschew war and violence or suffer destruction”. (Kuhn, 1990, p.32) In this, the aliens of American pop-culture can often act as stand-ins for biblical voices, commenting on such issues as modern warfare and community through the potential threat of destroying society by warning of cultural individualism and nationalism as irredeemable human qualities. Edge of Tomorrow is able to redeem its human characters to an extent by depicting a (western) world unified by the end of a potential global threat. In Edge of Tomorrow, allowing an American to fight in the British army in order to save France and the rest of Europe diminishes nationalism; efforts to save America and American identity are placed aside in order to prevent a threat to human identity in general. Commenting on fictional monsters, Jeffery Jerome Cohen states that, “by revealing that difference is arbitrary and potentially free-floating, mutable rather than essential, (monsters) threaten to destroy not just individual members of a society, but the very cultural apparatus through which individuality is constituted and allowed.” (Cohen, 1996, p.12) Creating fictional aliens/monsters within pop-culture is an active system in which to depict the fears and concerns of a particular era. Sean Redmond points out that, “horror is claimed to present the unknown as threatening and works to re-establish the status quo, while science fiction is not supposed to present the confrontation with the unknown as dangerous, but as liberating. It allows for the possibility of change and development.” (Redmond, 2004, p.328) The alien invasion of Edge of Tomorrow may then be viewed as the redeeming of the world through a correction of mistakes or sins made by previous generations in order to create a new peaceful world. This is visualized within one of the last scenes from the film, in which Cage defeats the ‘Omega’ by swimming down to its center and destroying it, thereby killing himself. In a Christ type manner, Cage has sacrificed himself in order to redeem humanity; he is left floating in the water in such a way that references a baptizing. The sins of Cage during the opening scenes of the film are washed away after his sacrificial act. Once Cage overcomes the world-changing effects of the ‘Alpha’ and “Omega’ (which are also biblical references to Christ and the Book of Revelations) he is able to spare the destruction of man by committing to the ultimate act of humanistic morality. After this, Cage rises from the dead in order to live within the now peaceful and redeemed world; humanity is united through the destruction of an old world, and the creation of a new one.

  1. ‘Box Office Mojo: Swingers’, available online at: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=swingers.htm (accessed, 9/11/2015).
  1. ‘Box Office Mojo: Yearly Box Office’, available online at: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/ (accessed, 9/11/2015).
  1. ’Box Office Mojo: Edge of Tomorrow’, available online at: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=allyouneediskill.htm (accessed, 9/11/2015).
  1. (2014), ‘No ‘Tomorrow’ Doug Liman on the Blockbuster That Almost Broke Him’, interview with Doug Liman by David Fear, Rolling Stone, available online at: http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/no-tomorrow-doug-liman-on-the-blockbuster-that-almost-broke-him-20140606 (accessed, 10/11/2015).
  1. Gunning, T. ‘The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde’, available online at: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/film/gaines/historiography/Gunning.pdf (accessed, 02/12/2015).
  1. Jameson, F. (1991) Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham: Duke University Press.
  1. (1990), Quoted by Annette Kuhn in Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, p.15, London: Verso.

Bingham, D. (2004) ‘Kidman, Cruise and Kubrick: a Brechtian pastiche’, in More Than a Method: Trends and Traditions in Contemporary Film Performance, Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Brookey, R. (2010) Hollywood Gamers, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Buckland, W, Elsaesser, T. (2009) Puzzle Films, Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell.

Cohen, J, J. (1996) ‘Monster Culture’ in, Monster Theory: Reading Culture, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Cornea, C. (2007) Science Fiction Cinema, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Dargis, M. (2014) ‘Killed in Action by Aliens, Over and Over Again’, available online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/06/movies/tom-cruise-battles-invaders-in-edge-of-tomorrow.html?_r=0 (accessed, 10/11/2015).

Fields, J. (2015) Asking Questions About How Hollywood Movies Get Made, Michigan: Cherry Lake Publishing.

Jukes, I, McCain, T, Crockett, L. (2010) Understanding the Digital Generation: Teaching and Learning in the New Digital Landscape, Vancouver: Corwin Press.

Kuhn, A. (1990) Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, London: Verso.

Landon, B. (1992) The Aesthetics of Ambivalence, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Purse, L. (2011) Contemporary Action Cinema, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Redmond, S. (2004) Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader, London: Wallflower Press.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. beetleypete says:

    Another piece worthy of Academia, Darrell. I confess that I have never bothered with this film, seeing it as a video game style transfer to cinema. I might watch it on TV one of these days, but that’s about it.
    Still, you gave it a serious treatment, and it is undoubtedly a five-star appraisal.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  2. realeyezlife says:

    I loved the movie..have watched it already many times..Third best tom cruise movie in my eyes…#1 vanilla sky #2. minority report #3. edge of tomorrow

  3. wow, awesome analysis! you brought to light a lot of things I didn’t deduce in my viewing of the film.

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