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Monday, June 16, 2014

The Edge of Tomorrow, Deus Ex Machinas, and Death (Spoilers)

I’m still not totally positive what all I’m going to cover, subject-wise, with Out of Left Field, but I’ve been seeing movies lately, so it looks like we’re getting another movie post.

I saw Edge of Tomorrow this past weekend, and it reminded me a lot of Pacific Rim from last year. And I mean that in the best way, as I really liked Pacific Rim; both are rather dark yet exhilarating war films about alien foes with specials powers (time travel versus being absolutely ginormous) wishing to conquer earth, and the humans who match that power to fight them off. Or, you could go with the Groundhog Day if Punxsutawney was the site of first contact with hostile aliens. Either works.

But one thing I want to focus on was the ending. Despite the rather dark tone of the film, the ending seems especially “Hollywood”-esque. For those who haven’t seen it and don’t mind spoilers:

Tom Cruise’s character (William Cage) loses the time-rewinding power in his blood after receiving a blood transfusion, meaning that the next death is permanent. Despite this, he rallies his squad and Emily Blunt (Rita) to go make a final assault on the central “brain” alien controlling the invasion. The crew arrives but faces stiff defenses from the aliens, going down one by one. In the end, Rita draws away the alien leader (an Alpha, in this universe’s lingo) defending the brain, leaving William open to plant explosives on the “brain” (Omega)…and also be stabbed to death. Yeah, turns out, there was only so much Rita could do to distract the Alpha guarding the brain (they weren’t allowed to kill it-killing it would only cause it to reset the day, allowing the Omega to prepare stronger defenses*). So, everyone dies, but the brain is destroyed, killing all the aliens it was connected to (which was the entire invasion force, thankfully).

*I’ve actually seen a few people online who were confused at this point too. To be fair, the movie does not spell it out this clearly pre-final assault; it’s explained around three-fifths through the movie, and well before the final assault takes place.  It’s definitely something that could slip a viewer’s mind, but it is still clearly laid out, nonetheless.

But! killing the Omega results in the day resetting. Yep, William, Rita, the army squad…everybody lives as the day resets further than Cruise had ever reset when he was in his Groundhog Day loop. The End.

I’ve seen some people online who are a little dismayed at that ending. And on some level, it does feel a little like a cop out. All of their sacrifices are meaningless, as everyone just winds up un-sacrificed.

But, when I actually think about the ending, I actually prefer it ending the way it did. And not just because endings with fewer deaths are more pleasant emotionally, either. I actually have trouble justifying an ending that doesn’t end that way, when I analyze the established rules of the universe.

So, the first issue: why does Cage reset? Well, as it turns out, bombing the brain covered him in Omega blood. The movie also established earlier that getting coated in Alpha blood was what gave him the powers in the first place, and that the Alphas were essentially extensions of the Omegas, more or less different parts of a single species. Both share the time travel powers, with the Omega in fact controlling it. Why shouldn’t it work the same way it did earlier in the movie.

Cage then rewinds to the start of the movie, rather than the day before the invasion (which he had been rewinding to for the rest of the movie). Now, you could say something like “It was just rewinding him to before he was in danger” to justify the increase in the reset, but it feels hollow. How would it know, how would that power work, isn’t this just making something up to fit the needs last-minute, etc. That’s just the problem with sci-fi, right?

Except…it again follows the pattern set up earlier in the movie. It’s easy to forget in the tense conclusion, but the final assault on the Omega is actually well before the beach invasion that serves as every other conflict in the film. Just as dying in the full-out assault sends him back a day and a half (the half day of the battle, plus the full day of training he receives before), dying in the final bombing of the Omega sends him back a day and a half (the full day of training, which now instead serves as planning the invasion, plus the half day to him waking up from a midday nap the day before the invasion that serves as the start of the film).

This just makes me very excited, just thinking about it as a whole. Not only is this would-be “deus ex machina” justified in-universe, but it is in fact fully justified by the most fundamental rules that built the universe: what caused the time-travel powers, and how the powers worked. Changing the ending to “everyone dies in the final attack” would actually be the thing that violated the established laws of the work. It gives the work a feeling of intricacy, like a great deal of thought and care was put into laying out the timeline (and there are few things I love more than an intricate and well-thought-out time travel plot).

It is worth asking from another perspective, though: would Edge of Tomorrow have been better if all of deaths had held? First, I think that, while deaths and sacrifices in fiction can be meaningful and important for a number of reasons, just assuming that deaths would improve any story is lazy. It’s like an attempt to take a shortcut; “Oh someone died, this work now means something.” If you read my first piece here, you may notice that I complained about the new Amazing Spider-Man series for taking this approach. A well-executed death (ha) of a character can make a work better, just as a poorly-executed death (ha, again) can make it worse.

So, what would the deaths have meant here? Well, for most of them, nothing. The squadron’s deaths were mostly for tension reasons-fewer people covering Cage and Rita’s backs means a greater chance that they ultimately fail. Once we know they don’t fail, it makes little sense to keep the J Squad dead if you’re already resetting the timeline and you finished with the scene you were adding tension to.

So Cage and Rita’s permanent deaths were the ones that would have had to mean something. But both still do sacrifice themselves; neither goes in to the confrontation knowing that they’ll come out alive. For Rita, this really could have been any other iteration of the loop; she’s been surviving off of William’s reset powers, and has already shown multiple times that she’s willing to die to fight off the aliens. Every time, she knows that there’s the chance that Cage fails, loses his power, and she never returns.

Actually, scratch that. Sometimes she doesn’t even meet Cage. Those times, she has no hope of coming back if she dies, and yet she goes in to combat every time.

Cage’s death is the one that has to mean something, in-story. And it does; it shows that Cage has progressed as a character. No longer is he the coward from the beginning, attempting to blackmail a military official to escape the war. He has grown, and sacrifices himself for the defense of humanity not knowing that he came back. The fact that he actually does come back doesn’t negate any of that, and given that him coming back makes more sense from a plot perspective than him staying dead, then I feel like this makes Edge of Tomorrow a work where death really doesn’t add anything to the film.

And really, that makes a lot of sense. We’ve seen everyone in this film die hundreds upon hundreds of times, and they come back every time. Why does it suddenly matter so much if they come back one last time? All things considered, if you’re obeying the rules of the fictional universe, and you aren’t adding anything to the story with the deaths, I’d much rather take my protagonists alive, thank you very much.

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