First contact: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Last year saw the release of Edge of Tomorrow, directed by Doug Liman, and subsequently rebranded as Live. Die. Repeat. It is an adaption of the Japenese light novel All You Need is Kill by Sakurazaka Hiroshi.1

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)Edge of Tomorrow follows William Cage (Tom Cruise) as he is forced to fight on the front lines against the alien Mimics. In a disastrous battle, Cage is cornered by a Mimic and he detonates an explosive, killing them both. This would be the end for our brave protagonist in most other films, but instead Cage wakes from death at the beginning of the previous day only to return to the same battle to fight and die again as the film’s tagline suggests. Cage quickly discovers he is trapped in a time loop, the most recognizable example of which is most likely Groundhog Day (1993).

One of the most interesting features of this film is that Cage is not the battle-hardened soldier that viewers have come to expect from military science-fiction (and Tom Cruise). Rather, he is a public affairs officer, used to the rigors of office work, not the battlefield. His ineptitude in battle is almost comical: when he is strapped into his battle suit, he tries to tell the others in his squad that he does not know how to operate it. But of course they do not believe him and thinks he is joking. After the drop, he practically wanders aimlessly through the battlefield, repeatedly asking others where the safety on his weapon is. Cage takes on the role of the viewer, faced with a world whose rules he knows nothing about, but is thrust into without warning.

It is only once Cage finds Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), the “Angel of Verdun,” that things become clear. She explains that he is caught in the time loop due to coming in contact with the Mimic’s blood, and that she was similarly caught in a loop at the Battle of Verdun, where she honed her fighting skills. She helps Cage, teaching him to fight in a brutal manner: when he is wounded as they train, she kills him herself so that he can wake once more and train again with a fresh, whole body.

As others have noticed, the Live. Die. Repeat. nature of the film can be viewed as the experience faced by gamers in many action games. In Edge of Tomorrow, Cage’s existence is like that of an avatar in a roguelite game. A player is faced with a level through which he must progress. The enemies spawn in nearly the same locations every time, and the player learns these locations and how he can defeat them before moving forward to complete his objectives and win the game. A player’s avatar may die, but he will respawn at the beginning of the game and he will progress forward with the knowledge and the experience he has gained, expecting to get further in this attempt than he did previously.

It is in death that the movie finds meaning. For the film, death is not the end, but a new beginning: a beginning in hope of a better existence. The mouthpiece of this message is the film’s Master Sergeant Farell (played by the amazing Bill Paxton). When he retrieves Cage at the beginning of each day, Farell repeats axioms about the “baptismal” nature of war: “Battle is the great redeemer. It is the fiery crucible in which true heroes are forged. The one place where all men truly share the same rank, regardless of what kind of parasitic scum they were going in.”

To the audience, this initially seems like tired philosophical drivel meant to motivate and uplift those who are about to die for an empty cause; however, after Cage lives, fights, and dies again and again, it becomes clear that Farell is far more correct than he knows. In fact, Farell’s words are the crux of the film. Cage goes from “parasitic scum” who encourages others to fight and die while he sits behind a desk, to one who is “born again” in the “fiery crucible.” At the end of the movie, he is not the same man. He evolves from one who refused to go into battle, unwilling to die for the cause, to one who takes the fate of the world on his shoulders.

His transformation is reminiscent of Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) of Starship Troopers (1997), a film that masterfully explores the nature of war. In the beginning of the film, Rico’s teacher Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside) asks what the difference between a civilian and a citizen is. Rico answers, “The difference lies in the field of civic virtue. A citizen accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic, of which he is a member, defending it, if need be, with his life. The civilian does not.” Rasczak notes that Rico has answered in “the exact words of the text” and follows up with the questions “But do you understand it? Do you believe it?” Like Cage, it is not until Rico is “redeemed” through battle that he understands. He goes from a high school jock who joined the military “over some silly little girl who wants to look handsome in a uniform” to believing in the meaning of his military service. At the funeral of a friend, Rico says “Someone asked me once if I knew the difference between a civilian and a citizen. I know now. A citizen has the courage to make the safety of the human race their personal responsibility.”

Like Rico, Cage finds this courage as he makes it his mission to destroy the Mimics and save the world. He comes to embody Farell’s other axiom: “Through readiness and discipline we are masters of our fate.” Through the knowledge and experience he gains training and dying alongside Vrataski—Farell’s “readiness and discipline”—Cage takes fate into his own hands, changing the course of a single day, not for himself, but for the whole of humanity.

Edge of Tomorrow reveals a side of first contact that is nearly always explored, but not quite so head-on. In first contact, man is faced with the unknown, just as Cage is initially thrust into the battlefield without any knowledge of what will come. But with “readiness and discipline” man can overcome the unknown and survive first contact. This is not to say that one must be aware of the events to come as Cage was every time he landed on the battlefield, only that one must be prepared and equipped to face the unknown. This is reflected in Cage’s last day when he loses the time loop and must attack the Mimics in a manner and place he has never before attempted. It is the final day, there will be no other should he die, and yet Cage proves Farell correct. Even without foreknowledge of the day’s events, through readiness and discipline Cage masters his fate and succeeds in destroying the Mimics.

1. English translations of All You Need is Kill are now published under the name Edge of Tomorrow following the film’s release.

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