Saturday, 2 January 2016

War Movie Week Bonus: Edge of Tomorrow (Future Warfare)

Doug Liman's Edge of Tomorrow tells the story of an alien invasion with the strange twist that the protagonist, Major Bill Cage (Tom Cruise), finds himself forced to repeat the same day over and over again. At first glance, Edge of Tomorrow might look like nothing more than an entertaining action film borrowing ideas from the likes of Ground Hog Day and Source Code, but it is also a story about war. Edge of Tomorrow is in many ways a war film. It obviously draws from several iconic war films including Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan, and Black Hawk Down, and also addresses a lot of the same issues as those films. Edge of Tomorrow may be set in the future, but its ideas of war are still relevant both to the past and present.

Unlike many alien invasion films, such as Invaders From MarsIndependence Day or Battle: Los Angeles (all of which placed the invasion in a contemporary setting), Edge of Tomorrow opts to create its own vision of a near future, and with it a vision of a new kind of warfare. The war against the invading aliens (nicknamed "mimics") is one that challenges and defies any conventional understanding of how combat is supposed to work. In a way, this confusion and struggle to adapt to a changing world is no different from how the nature of combat changed with new technical innovations during World War I or how the Gulf War introduced a less clearly defined model of combat where the enemy could be anywhere.

Several details within Edge of Tomorrow easily bring out parallels with earlier wars. Out of all the possible locations the invasion could have happened, the writers chose to place the battle that was supposed to turn the tide in France, with a mix of British, American, and Canadian soldiers landing on a beach and working their way in. This may seem familiar, and with good reason. The film is obviously trying to draw a parallel between how the battle is being perceived with the events of D-Day during World War II, when hundreds of British, American, and Canadian soldiers landed on the French Coast in a desperate attempt to break through the Nazi's defences and gain a foothold in Europe.

Even the battle itself, when seen the first time, clearly draws on a mix of Saving Private Ryan's depiction of the Normandy landings and the start of Black Hawk Down. The characters are seen in choppers, rather than the boats used in World War II, but there is still an emphasis first on the rush of emotions experienced by the soldiers before the shooting starts. The action starts abruptly, and as soon as it does there is also a clear emphasis on the large number of casualties as soldiers are killed left, right, and centre.  Similar to the soldiers who are seen jumping or falling out of the boats in Saving Private Ryan, panicked soldiers are shown falling out of their dropships, complete with a disoriented Cage crawling onto the shores of the beach much like Captain Miller. There are even parallels in the form of the panicked soldiers desperately seeking cover while trying to figure out their next move.

World War II is not the only conflict to be referenced by the film. Another detail of note is the backstory that is given to the war. It mostly remains unseen, but the characters frequently speak of the first major victory against he aliens happening at the French city of Verdun. This town is brought up repeatedly, with Vrataski even being nicknamed "The Angel of Verdun" for her apparent courage and valour on the battlefield. This might not seem like much of significance at first, but there are a number of better-known cities the writers could have chosen instead.

The significance of this choice becomes clearer when one recognizes that Verdun was also the site of a major battle during World War I, fought in 1916 between the French and the German armies. This particular battle ended in a victory for the French, but not without cost. The battle claimed the lives of hundreds of soldiers on both sides, and in the end, not much was gained. The battle of Verdun that is referred to throughout Edge of Tomorrow is eventually revealed to have actually been a false victory; the aliens intentionally set it up so that humanity would think they had the upper hand in the war. In other words, the efforts of everyone fighting there ultimately turned out to be pointless, much like the French and German soldiers who died trying to take Verdun in 1916.

The top officers in the military, represented by General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) are hopelessly conventional when it comes to fighting the mimics. These are generals thinking like the men and women in charge today (it would not be unbelievable to assume Brigham has previously served in a more conventional war, perhaps even Iraq or Afghanistan), who are applying modern tactics to a futuristic war. In actuality, the war is not as clear-cut as they would like it to be. In fact, the mimics defy any modern understanding of conventional warfare, something that Brigham is unable to comprehend.

As is noted by Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) and her friend Dr. Carter (Noah Taylor), Brigham is making the mistake of thinking about the mimics as an army, and organizing their plans as such. This is a conventional practice for a general, and would be sufficient procedure for a war against humans, but as is explained in the film, one can only come anywhere near a position to fight the mimics if they think of them instead as a single organism. These beings have the equipment to be able to reset the day and anticipate the actions of their opponents. How does one fight a war against such an enemy?

This is what Brigham is unable to grasp. He is a relic of the past, a man clinging to obsolete methods in a changing world. This is really no different from the generals of World War I. Those men were coming out of the Victorian Era, and had been accustomed to organizing strategies based on infantry and artillery, often with imperialistic goals in mind. One of the major problems in World War I was that these same generals were struggling to adapt to a war where that no longer had a place for their ways. They had no understanding of what they were involved with, just as Brigham continues to apply modern tactics in fighting a war where they do not work.

The only ones who have any chance of defeating the mimics are the two central characters, Cage and Vrataski. They, along with Dr. Carter, remain the only ones to actually understand the true nature of the war, creating a natural divide with their superiors. Over the course of the film, Cage makes a few efforts to explain to the other soldiers what has been happening to him. His efforts to convince Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton) prove unsuccessful, and even after persuading Brigham, Cage is still betrayed and arrested as a traitor. The only people he manages to convince are Vrataski herself (who has been through a similar experience) and his bunkmates in J-Squad (though this takes several attempts).

There is a good reason for this. Much like in Paths of Glory, there is a divide forming between the officers and the soldiers. Cage even admits to being a coward at the beginning of the film, and tries to get out of fighting. The reason he is unable to convince any of the officers is because they do not understand the war. The reason he works with Vrataski is she actually understands the true nature of the mimics because she has been on the field. She understands what they are capable of and what they can do in the open, while Brigham remains heavily guarded in his office. This is not unlike General Mireau in Paths of Glory punishing a shell-shocked soldier as a "coward" when he himself would rather let his own soldiers die than face the embarrassment of a bad decision.

Edge of Tomorrow may take place in the future, but it is clear that underneath its surface as a simple action film is a surprising commentary on the nature of war. Edge of Tomorrow shows that while war has always existed, and likely will continue to exist, it is constantly changing. Technological advances, as well as changes in society, can change and shape the way war is perceived and how it is fought. These ideas make it relevant to wars across time: past, present, and future.


  1. Excellent review and this is one film I really want to see now.

    1. I'd recommend it. If nothing else, it makes for a pretty good action film.

  2. Great look at this film as a war movie (and not as a sci-fi action flick, which it is, but I think sells it a bit short). I think more folks need to check this one out. I'm surprised it didn't do so well in the theaters. The visuals are top notch, the action is intense and it is easy to enjoy at the surface level. But there is a lot going on if you dig a bit deeper. Thanks for delving into this one a bit.

    1. Was it a box office failure? I could have sworn with all the positive reviews that it was a hit. As you've said, it's a well-made movie with entertaining action but also these deeper ideas. It's funny how what looks at first like a fun action flick can suddenly turn out to be a surprisingly effective critique of how wars have been fought.