Edge of Tomorrow (2014): time loops and circles of hell


What goes around, comes around … and around. How Edge of Tomorrow is metaphor for crime, punishment and divine retribution.

Major Bill Cage (Tom Cruise) is serving in the US Military … media relations team, that is. After peddling the lie that anyone can become a super soldier without training, he finds himself conscripted into a war against aliens. There’s just one problem: Cage keeps dying – repeatedly.

The loop of love

What is time travel really like? It depends who you ask. According to NASA: “time travel is indeed a real thing. But it’s not quite what you’ve probably seen in the movies”. Crushed.

In film and fiction, at least, time travel takes us into the past, future and parallel worlds. It’s a journey, like any other means of transport, with a point of departure and destination.

Perversely, the point of sending characters forwards or backwards is usually to manipulate the present – to fix errors, avert disaster or gain better fortune in the here and now.

Enter “Major” Bill Cage, an ad man and, by his own admission, “not a soldier”. Then he’s forced into a futuristic but futile war, and is doomed to relive his mistakes over and over again.

After a freak event, Cage finds himself returning to the same moment each time he dies. Arguably this is a loop rather than time travel per se. There’s no destination so much as a reset (or respawn, technically).

It’s a bit like a “glitch in the Matrix”: déjà vu of the same moment repeating over and over again. Incidentally, like The Matrix, Edge of Tomorrow has parallels with gaming, too: the respawning, plus the reset to the same moment each time – like a game save.

How Cage responds to the glitch / reset suggests this story isn’t just about the quirks and quandaries of time travel. Instead, repetition comes to represent the pursuit of love. Cage accepts his fate to relive the same day repeatedly, because he gets to spend his limited life with the woman he cares about.

How does the time loop work?

The alien horde operates like a single organism controlled by a brain, which the humans call the Omega. When Cage kills one of its sentinels (an “Alpha”), the Omega winds back time to fix its errors.

However, this reset coincides with Cage getting killed at the same time. Somehow, this hooks him into the alien network, so his death(s) trigger future resets. In other words, the Omega treats the Major as an Alpha, i.e., one of its own game pieces.

This explains why Cage keeps waking up at the military base. Presumably, this point in time is meaningful to the Omega’s battle plan. It also makes things easier on the plot – not to mention audience comprehension.

When Cage finally slays the Omega, he respawns to an even earlier point in time (the start of the movie, in fact). We then learn a power surge somehow incapacitated the alien force that morning. This time, when the day begins all over again, humans have already won the war.

Or have they?

Edge of Tomorrow’s ambiguous ending

Cage’s connection to the Omega comes with visions that reveal its location. However, these can’t be trusted. The Omega feeds humans fake intel, luring them into either staged victory (like at Verdun) or annihilation (the end game).

Presumably the Omega chooses a human victim each time to pull this off – previously, it was Sgt. Rita Vrtaski (Emily Blunt). Alternatively, it’s just making the best of the unexpected mental connection to bump off its enemies.

Either way, once Vrtaski and Cage get blood transfusions, they unsync from the network. They can’t respawn, or at least, not with any memory of previous events.

This means the tension at the end of the film comes from Cage fighting the enemy ‘in real time’, without the safety net of respawning … or so he thinks.

Cage sacrifices himself to save the world, yet the way it plays out is ambiguous:

  • Cage’s eyes turn black just before he dies, suggesting he’s still connected to the Omega.
  • The Omega has previously let humans think they’ve won, i.e., Rita’s victory at Verdun.
  • His reaction at the end suggests Cage still remembers the previous loops (and Vrtaski).

We can read the end of the film as a bittersweet victory: Cage wins the war but loses the girl, because Vrtaski yet again has no memory of him.

But it’s equally possible Cage hasn’t won the war, either – and the whole thing is one more alien bluff (and the start of yet another loop).

Circles of hell

“Battle is the great redeemer”

Why is Cage stuck in a loop at all? The film paints it as an accident – and it makes for a neat story – but there are intriguing parallels with punishment.

Like Don’t Let Go, Cage’s repetition functions both as a means of mastery (of weapons, strategy, intimacy etc.), and as a kind of atonement.

And Cage has much to atone for. His marketing spin glorifies a suit of armour that supposedly turns regular folk into super soldiers. In reality, the war that awaits them is wholesale extermination: most of them die as soon as they land.

Cage thinks he’s immune to such rotten luck. But when he’s summoned to London and then sent to the front, it’s as if he’s handed all of his consequences at once.

Soon his name feels pretty apt. First there’s the armour body suit (a cage) he must don with no training, just like his marketing spiel. There’s the restrictive time loop, which sees him condemned to relive his punishment for all eternity, like a metaphorical prison cell.

“Battle is the great redeemer”, Sergeant Farrell (Bill Paxton) croons, signposting the concept of punishment. “The fiery crucible in which the only true heroes are forged”.

Cage comes to embrace this philosophy. He embraces death – specifically, the selfless, sacrificial death that saves others.

He also belatedly earns his job title – Major – for real, through combat and graft, undoing the lie of the earlier pretence.

But in the end, rather like the damned figures of medieval hell tortured for all eternity by their own sins, Cage can’t escape punishment – however heroic he learns to be.

Selling war

Edge of Tomorrow may not be an anti-war movie as such, but there are parallels.

Most obviously there’s the chaos and carnage of the desert fighting scenes, with troops literally thrown to their deaths. Again and again, men and women are sacrificed to a futile, unwinnable war – even though Cage, Rita Vrtaski and Dr Carter try to convince General Brigham there’s a better way.

And how significant is it that Cage is an ad man? Marketing can be vital and important … until it sells you crap you don’t need and can’t afford, or convinces you war is painless. In thematic terms, Cage being an ad man is the same as him being a phoney Major and a coward.

Worse still, he uses his advertising skills to sell the war to new recruits. He sends them to their deaths on the basis of a lie – that their armour will keep them alive.

The inescapable time loop works as a metaphor for war, too: it’s relentless, inescapable, and makes victims of those at the bottom.

In the film, the military’s defence strategy is called Operation Downfall – the name of the proposed Allied invasion of Japan during WWII.

Reversing the RomCom

Romantic love in cinema is steeped in messages of male persistence: men earn love by not giving up.

They win love through sheer force of will, by not listening when women says no, or wooing her through deception. To be fair, what we’ve long packaged as romantic sounds hella creepy with hindsight.

Similarly, Edge of Tomorrow shows us Cage devoting eternity to winning the girl. He dies for her a hundred times (more so than for humanity, let’s be real). Their courtship consumes most of the plot … and yet, he doesn’t end up with Vrtaski, at least, not in the traditional sense. See also Ex Machina’s literal anti-climax.

Of course, you can still choose to interpret the film’s conclusion as resoundingly romantic. This is a man who would rather fight for the woman he loves forever, than live without knowing her at all.

The film’s other subversion is about masculinity and the source of heroism. Action movies overwhelmingly present courage and combat expertise as personality traits that all men have (see The Hunt for Red October).

Yet in Edge of Tomorrow, Cage is an incompetent coward. He learns to be a hero – to be courageous and selfless – through grinding repetition, which is at least more realistic.

Eventually, of course, Major Cage the coward realises his potential to be a saviour. At that point, no Alpha or Omega can overcome his Skywalker-like instincts or brute force.

Like weatherman Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, Cage gets the chance to perfect both the art of war and of love. Unlike Connors, Cage gets to the edge of tomorrow without ever truly arriving.

First and last

So what do we take from Major Cage’s battles with time and aliens?

Fiction tells us we can learn from history rather than being doomed to repeat it (as the saying goes.) Moreover, by hard work, we can overcome anything – even cowardice and lack of combat skills.

Cage’s countless repetitions also speak to the idea that anyone can master any skill with time (specifically 10,000 hours of practice, as productivity philosophies frame it).

This all returns once more to Sargeant Farrell’s signposting. Farrell hates gambling because: “it entertains the notion our fate is in hands other than our own”. In other words, don’t wait to be saved; save yourself.

Of course, there may be some truth in that. But does Cage gain mastery of his fate through practice? The film’s ambiguous ending suggests not exactly.

In the end, Cage’s fate is determined by an other-worldly being. That’s largely the alien brain that dictates when the reset takes place. But there’s another possibility that loops back to destiny as punishment or reward for our behaviour while alive.

The clue lies in names, in Alpha and Omega. They mean first and last, and are a direct quote from the Bible’s Book of Revelations – and the identity of God, no less.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014), directed by Doug Liman

What to read or watch next
  • All You Need is Kill (source novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka)
  • Minority Report, War of the Worlds, Oblivion (Tom Cruise, sci-fi)
  • Top Gun: Maverick (Tom Cruise, war, AI)
  • The Devil’s Advocate (time loops, hell, consequences)
  • Groundhog Day, Source Code, Don’t Let Go, Existenz (time loops)
  • The Great Wall, Cloverfield (sci-fi, alien-monsters)
  • Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, The Matrix (respawning)

Picture credit: Arfan Abdulazeez