Monday, June 30, 2014
Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: The Edge of Tomorrow, Barack Obama's Sinking Poll Numbers, and the Endless Cycle of American Politics
by Matt McKenna
In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise’s character inadvertently acquires the power to relive the day he dies, a day in which he dons a bullet-spewing exoskeleton and is eviscerated by aliens along with the rest of his fellow soldiers. With this plot device as its core narrative instrument, the film plays out like Groundhog Day meets Elysium except with a glowing extraterrestrial hive mind in place of Groundhog Day's Punxsutawney Phil and ham-fisted action sequences in place of Elysium’s ham-fisted allusions to contemporary class warfare. This isn't to say, however, that Edge of Tomorrow is bereft of social commentary. Indeed, the film uses its narrative structure to great effect in its criticism of the endless repetition present in American politics. Whereas Cruise’s character in Edge of Tomorrow must repeatedly suffer the pain associated with being airdropped into a hopeless maelstrom of human carnage, real-life Americans must repeatedly suffer the pain associated with witnessing the hopeless maelstrom that is the presidential election cycle.
Tom Cruise plays Private Cage, a demoted military PR sleaze ball who is press-ganged into active military service for reasons that aren’t particularly clear to me. Against his will, Cage joins the front lines of a counteroffensive designed to repel the ongoing alien invasion that has steadily been conquering Europe. Naturally, Cage's public relations background has left him unprepared for intricacies of alien combat, and he subsequently dies mere moments after his boots make contact with the beach. Fortunately for Cage, a splash of alien blood finds it's way onto his grimacing, five o'clock shadowed face, imbuing him with the handiest sci-fi trope of them all--time travel. With his newfound power at the ready, each time Cage dies, he immediately wakes up the previous morning with the memory of his deathday still intact. And so the plot unfolds predictably: Cage relives the same day over and over until he finally has a perfect memory of the battle and the skill required to destroy the alien horde.
Clearly, the parallels between Edge of Tomorrow’s plot and American politics are strong, even if the film’s ending is a bit optimistic. Most obviously, Cage's attempts to survive the day and break his time loop represents the United States' attempt to break free from the tight grip of its national politics, itself a cycle in which even if the political party in charge changes, the partisan hackery and divisive rhetoric never do. Whereas Cage is shot, crushed, and blown up during each iteration of his hellish day, Americans are bombarded by political ads, hoodwinked into watching trite political bickering on television, and even conned into giving money to the political parties that perpetuate this terrible national distraction. Director Doug Liman deftly utilizes this parallel to make the point that the United States is desperately mired in its current political environment, and the only way for it to extricate itself from this environment would be for the American electorate to have an eidetic memory of previous elections and therefore not to succumb to the tired political tactics that arise during each election cycle.
That Americans must have a photographic memory of political events in order for the United States to replace its frustrating political cycle is represented in Edge of Tomorrow’s training montage. This sequence cuts together clips of Cage improving his combat skills as he relives the day with the benefit of knowing how the battle will unfold. Most interestingly, in addition to becoming a more deadly soldier, Cage is forced to re-grapple with the same moral dilemmas over the course of the many iterations of his deathday. For example, there’s a moment early on in the battle where Cage realizes he can save the life of his comrade by pushing him out of the way of a crashing airship. As the montage wears on, however, Cage no longer bothers to save the man. After all, what’s the point? The doomed soldier will live again just as soon as Cage dies and reawakens. Later in the montage, Cage becomes so frustrated with his current situation that he gives up and decides not to fight at all. Through Cage’s frustration and moral conundrums, Liman empathizes with Americans who wonder how best to engage themselves in the political process. Should they vote for a Democrat this year? A Republican? Maybe a third party? Perhaps they should simply sit out the upcoming election entirely. Of course, the difference between Cage and a real-life American citizen is that Cage’s memory makes him a better fighter and brings humanity closer to victory. The same cannot be said for Americans in reality and the political cycle they endure. Despite its populace having experienced national politics continuously in four-year bursts, the political atmosphere in the United States remains defiantly stable.
It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that Edge of Tomorrow has a happy ending. Eventually, the aliens are overcome by Cage’s ingenuity and the cycle is broken. American politics, on the other hand, show no signs of being overcome. Even when it appears as if a major change has hit the political scene--say the election of Barack Obama--the cycle continues and politics is not transformed. For example, despite moving into the White House with an absurdly high approval rating buttressed by Americans’ optimism in his ability to bring substantial change to political discourse, Obama’s poll numbers have since declined and are now indistinguishable from those of his predecessor. The cycle has unfortunately returned to its steady state. Even more disturbing, two of the early front-runners in the next presidential election are Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, owners of family names that are already represented in the list of American presidents. It is as if the political cycle has become so audacious that the names of our politicians needn't change anymore. Just as “Live. Die. Repeat.” is the logline used to advertise Edge of Tomorrow, “Bush. Clinton. Repeat.” might as well be the logline used to advertise the upcoming presidential election. Time will tell whether Americans will ever develop a vivid enough memory of its past elections to be able to alter the course of their country's politics, but in the meantime, Edge of Tomorrow is a pretty decent summer action flick, especially if you can grab tickets at matinee prices.
Posted by Matt McKenna at 12:22 AM | Permalink