Debating The Ending Of "Edge Of Tomorrow"
Are audiences too hooked on Hollywood movies that explain everything? A BuzzFeed Entertainment discussion! (MAJOR SPOILERS ahead!)
Adam B. Vary: It's no secret that we both enjoyed Edge of Tomorrow, Alison, but we've gathered here today to discuss a part of the movie that we disagree about: the film's ending. So, obviously, the rest of this conversation is going to be riddled with MAJOR SPOILERS about Edge of Tomorrow — and a few other major Hollywood films as well.
As you astutely observed in your review, Edge of Tomorrow uses video game logic — if I mess up and die, I just re-spawn at my save point and keep grinding ahead until I succeed — as a surprisingly witty engine for its storytelling, and a resonant metaphor for the exhaustion of war. That progress builds and builds as Tom Cruise's Cage and Emily Blunt's Rita get closer and closer to their goal of reaching the central "brain" of the alien Mimics that have conquered the entire European continent. Cage and Rita desperately need to kill that brain, because it allows the aliens to reset the day when they die and learn from their mistakes, a power Cage unwittingly hijacks in the opening 20 minutes of the film. Before they get to their goal, however, Cage loses that power, and when he and Rita finally make it to the alien brain buried within the Louvre, they both die in their successful attempt to destroy it. As Cage's life drifts from him, however, tendrils of alien brain goo enter his body, and ZAP, he's suddenly sent back to the very beginning of the film, before he was shanghaied into being a grunt in the war — and, more to the point, well before he and Rita actually ever meet.
I loved this ending, but before I staunchly defend it, I would love to hear more about your reaction to it.
Alison Willmore: I didn't hate the ending, but it did seem pretty hand wave-y — "And now the story's finished, so... have something happy!" This being a big-budget Tom Cruise action movie, I didn't expect it to conclude with our heroes both getting killed, the world never to know the valiant efforts of the man and woman who died taking down the alien force that threatened to exterminate mankind. So it didn't come as a surprise to me that the film volleyed Cage back in time to the beginning, where he's also conveniently poised to look up Rita (who, thanks to the time-looping shenanigans, has no idea who he is).
My main complaint with what happens at the end is that it seemed like a convenient betrayal of the logic by which the rest of the movie operated — why, if Cage has been sent back in time using the power of alien goo, do the rest of the aliens stay blown up? If he's returned, much wiser, to the start of the film, before he, Rita, and J-Squad ever set out on the mission to the Louvre, then shouldn't the aliens also still have their firm stronghold on most of Europe? He'd have the knowledge to destroy them, sure — as an officer, he could probably even arrange to have a squad of soldiers sent there to do it for him, after coming up with the right cover story to avoid getting labeled mentally unwell and hospitalized. (For a military force desperately trying to save the world from malicious extraterrestrials and apparently happy to throw a dude with no training out into a major battle, the United Defense Force seems a little oversensitive about mental health judgments.)
Adam, did that not strike you as some shameless screenplay magic on the part of writers Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth? Or do you have another read on what happened?
ABV: Oh, it was totally shameless, and I loved it. If I'm forced to parse the storytelling logic here — this is going to get really geeky for a second — I would venture that the alien's ability to reset the day meant that a part of the alien consciousness was still rooted in their previous "save point." So when Cage and Rita destroyed the alien brain, the entire world jumped back to the alien's last save point, which just happened to fall around the beginning of the film. (Cage's save point, by contrast, was the last time he'd lost consciousness, i.e., when he was knocked out and shipped to the front lines.) And at the very moment both the alien brain and Cage were dying, the alien's time-travel goo fused with Cage, and he jumped back in time with the rest of the alien horde. But since Cage wasn't of the horde, he survived the jump, and lived to see a better world — one where he isn't a coward, where the world is safe, and where Rita is alive.
Make sense? Doesn't matter! Because what I really loved about this ending was how it fulfilled the elemental human fantasy baked into its video game/Groundhog Day premise — if you had the chance to redo your life enough times, you can reach a perfect outcome — with a refreshing minimum of exposition.
Ugh, exposition! So many movies now are hopelessly, helplessly clogged with it. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 — blood and genetics and eels and daddy issues and subway stations and military healing machines-cum-hoverboards! Godzilla — MUTOs and nature and mating rituals and echolocation and Nevada and JUST LET THEM FIGHT ALREADY! Haven't you felt that for the last 10 years, Hollywood's most common storytelling gear has been to tell, not show, to lard up the screen with huge action sequences bracketed by scenes that explain every convoluted detail of what is about to happen in those huge action sequences?
AW: Oh, absolutely. And adding to that are the growing obligations toward franchise-building and seeding cinematic universes — not only do films have to spend so much time explaining their own, often elaborate premises, they have to introduce elements that have nothing to do with the story at hand in order to set up sequels and spin-offs. Meet this new guy! He's not important now, but we're considering giving him a movie of his own! Hollywood's also gotten so reboot-happy that, like Cage in Edge of Tomorrow, we keep getting dumped back at the most explain-y part of any story — its origins.
I'd say that what makes Edge of Tomorrow so enjoyable isn't just the way it's so economic about its obligatory info dumps, it's that the movie also trusts the audience to pick up on certain details or nuances without having to spell them out. There's definitely a Starship Troopers-esque sharpness to its depiction of the military, from the glibness of Cruise's character (a former ad exec) initially managing the public image of the war while getting nowhere near it himself to the idea of the suits as a means to lure fresh civilians into combat — barely any training required! But, thank god, no character ever makes a speech about how or she is just a cog in the machine of war, fighting on behalf of people who never get their hands dirty, etc., etc.
ABV: Even better, there is just the one scene where the alien's power is explained — complete with a visual aid — and then the movie charges ahead into the rest of its story. There is no made-up "science" about how the aliens work (like that ridiculous hypothetical explanation I gave earlier), or lengthy walk-through of how those cool exo-suits work. The sequence where Cage and Rita keep grinding through a workable path through the battlefield was all action, no explanation — the audience is trusted to care about what matters, i.e., the characters. 'Twas glorious.
You've been Inception'd.
AW: Many of my favorite genre movies of the last few years, like Looper and Chronicle, have been ones that introduced their concept and then let it be explored by way of its characters and action, rather than by someone letting loose with a slew of exposition. But sometimes I wonder if I'm in the minority there. Proof of fandom's love of detail can be found in the countless wikis and theories and frame-by-frame analyses online, in obsessing over costumes and spaceship designs and hints at backstory. You and I may be a little exhausted by the exposition barrage Hollywood has tended toward, but is this just the industry giving people what they want?
ABV: Let's call it Inception syndrome: the idea that a movie is only worthwhile if there are so many details that you really need to see it a second time to understand what the hell is going on.
AW: Exactly — and what was such a bummer, to me, about Inception, as breathtakingly cool as it looked, was that it spent so much time on explanation and prep, only to have a lot of that be rendered meaningless when the action actually started and things didn't go as planned. Rather than be given the whole instruction manual off the bat, the audience could have been trusted to get the gist of a lot of it as the "heist" unfolded, and if some things were entirely clear, that's fine too. But then I'm reminded of Prometheus, which got torn apart by the nitpicky crowd for not making the meaning of its various elements more clear. Do you think people have gotten less tolerant of that kind of ambiguity?
ABV: No, I think people are naturally less tolerant of bad storytelling, and since the characters in Prometheus were so blandly drawn (save for Michael Fassbender's slinky android), the gaping holes in the plot were that much more exposed.
I mean, high-concept movies are by their very nature acts of high-wire storytelling. But to paraphrase Fassbender's quotation of Lawrence of Arabia in Prometheus, the trick is not minding that the film has a high concept. Edge of Tomorrow — like Looper and Chronicle — works because we are engaged with the characters and their relationships within the film, which are subsequently challenged and strained by the film's high concept. There are "internal logic" problems in all three of these films, but that doesn't really matter, because these movies aren't about their own internal logic — they are about how the audience connects with relationships between the characters, and the great "what if?" idea tucked within that high concept. (Looper: What if you could meet your younger self? Chronicle: What if you were suddenly a superhero, but also a teenage boy? Etc.)
I feel like a crazy person for even having to spell this out, by the way, but so many of Hollywood's biggest movies seem to have abandoned this basic core concept of good storytelling.
AW: Sure, because concept and giant set-pieces have started to take precedent over characters. I loved the action sequences in Godzilla, but found the characters almost shockingly generic, despite the appeal of what was, for a blockbuster, a pretty quirky cast. Those characters weren't people so much as functions of plot — Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins were there to deliver backstory, Elizabeth Olsen and Carson Bolde were there to be in peril, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson was around to conveniently be present at major monster crossings along the way.
ABV: And be pretty.
Michael Fassbender in Prometheus; Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Godzilla.
AW: I won't argue with you on that. But it does seem like a function of the direction these giant movies have been taking — Taylor-Johnson's not really the star of Godzilla, Godzilla is, and any follow-ups are always going to be centered on the monster, not the people in his way. And for the same reason, we rarely get the kind of neat, definitive ending Edge of Tomorrow offers, because it's better business to leave the door open for future films.
ABV: It almost sounds like I've convinced you that Edge of Tomorrow's ending is actually good, but I'll press my luck by pursuing this final point: So many of our most celebrated and popular Hollywood summer blockbusters — from The Avengers and Avatar to Jaws and Star Wars — have endings that push the edge of storytelling logic. (Wait, how will Loki's staff close the space-time hole over Manhattan? And could Chief Brody really shoot that obscured air tank with a soaked rifle while bobbing on the ocean? Etc.) But they are so deeply satisfying — Iron Man flying through the wormhole with the nuclear missile; Brody screaming with glee as he's covered in giant shark guts — that we don't mind the leap of logic.
I think maybe the issue people have with Edge of Tomorrow is that it feels like it should be over-plotted, but it isn't, so people are focusing on the time-travel logic when they really should be focusing on that fabulous final shot of Tom Cruise beaming with pride and relief and excitement that he gets to explain to Rita how they both just saved the world, and each other. Maybe?
AW: Oh, I still think the end's a bit of a cop-out, though I'll agree the laugh Cruise lets out is great, after he walks up to Rita for what is, for her, their first meeting. I do feel that the issue's ultimately not whether an ending feels unlikely in a larger storytelling sense but whether it feels unlikely in the context of the world the film's established — and for me, the Edge of Tomorrow ending didn't really fit with what had come before, though obviously your mileage may vary. Either way, I was happy to see such a satisfying, well-made blockbuster that didn't end with the movie equivalent of an ellipsis, with an after-the-credits stinger teeing up the next installment. Sometimes, ongoing storytelling feels overrated, especially after watching a movie that tells such a cracking tale in two hours, hits its ending, and is done.
ABV: And with that: Next week on BuzzFeed… (Joking!)