It’s odd that, in an age when movies are more readily available than ever before in history, our conversations about cinema still fail to meet the requirements of a good literary argument: textual evidence. In Exhibit A, I will go back to basics in order to discover the answer to cinema’s big questions. Like: what’s really in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction? Why is Donnie Darko wearing that stupid man-suit? And in today’s installment: What really happened at the end of Edge of Tomorrow?
Edge of Tomorrow is the other recent movie where Tom Cruise fights aliens (this is the Groundhog Day one). When I walked out of the theater where I saw it last year, I had a general good feeling about the first couple of acts, a bad feeling about the last act, and a strong dislike of the ending–that last for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate. Maybe that’s because it took me a long time and close study to realize just how bullshit the ending actually is.
The extensive online and offline conversation about the film, and particularly this controversial ending, has been almost as entertaining as the movie itself. Plenty of movies have inspired fan theories (and I hold a few myself–someday I might tell you about my notion that the end of Minority Report is actually a dream), but Edge of Tomorrow seems to inspire a particularly energetic set of sci-fi enthusiasts. At issue is the weird turn the film takes in its epilogue–a turn that is seemingly unexplained by the movie. Many viewers of the film attempt to explain away that event with wild theories about multiple universes and creatures outside of time and so on; I’ve read at least a dozen totally disparate explanations, each more baroque than the last. But none of them has any merit over any other, because none of them are supported by the film. How do I know this? Presenting Exhibit A: everything Edge of Tomorrow has to say about time travel.
Spoilers, obviously, for the entire movie follow.
Note: each of the following notations gives a timestamp (in hours and minutes) and describes what happens in the movie when those events are particularly important to our understanding of the movie’s time travel and other mechanics.
0h03m: William Cage (Tom Cruise’s character) wakes up in the helicopter. It’s morning in London–sun is up.
0h08m: Cage is tasered for trying to evade his duty (hey, everybody runs, right? That’s a Minority Report reference, son, keep up). He wakes up at Heathrow (“On your feet, maggot!”), where it is probably still no later than noon.
0h14m: Cage is woken up before dawn to go on the invasion. It does not go well. The implication is that the Mimics know the invasion is coming.
0h24m: Cruise gets blood splattered over his face as he dies; he wakes up at Heathrow again (“On your feet, maggot!”). Events repeat themselves; Cage is realizing something strange is going on.
0h30m: Cage wakes up again at Heathrow (“On your feet, maggot!”). Cage has realized he’s caught in a loop, and is starting to game his way through the events on the beach.
At this point we have three facts that have been demonstrated by the film (none of which needed to be explained, all of which are clear):
1. Cage got alien blood on his face at the moment this began.
2. Events are repeating themselves (characters say the same lines, the grunts are still playing cards), to the point where Cage can predict them next time around, BUT–
3. If Cage can predict the events, he can alter his own behavior in order to change them.
0h34m: Rita tells Cage to find her when he wakes up. He wakes up at Heathrow again (“On your feet, maggot!”).
0h38m: Cage meets Rita. She knows what’s happening to him. Rita: “What happened to you happened to me. I had it, I lost it.” She mentions the Alpha blood but doesn’t explain.
0h41m: Cage meets with his tech support (Vanilla Sky reference!) and learns the following facts:
4. The Mimics are a hive mind society with three types: normal drones, big bad Alphas, and the mother brain Omega.
5. The Omega has the ability to control time. “Whenever an Alpha is killed, an automatic response is triggered. The Omega starts the day over again.” But after the reset, the Omega retains knowledge from before, just like Cage has experienced (fact 2 in my list).
6. Cage has “seized control of the Omega’s ability” by jacking into the hive mind’s nervous system, allowing him to reset the day whenever he dies. (Cage: “How is that even possible?” Carter: “Eh, I dunno.”)
7. “The Omega senses when it’s losing control of its power.” It’s searching for Cage and when it gets close, Cage will start having visions. (We’ll learn later that these visions are a trap.) Rita had these visions before, but couldn’t get to the Omega before she lost the power.
0h47m: Rita tells Cage he can’t just be injured; he has to die at the reset.
8. Through one or all of a list of factors (stay unconscious through the end of the resetting day, lose too much blood, receive too much new blood) it’s possible to lose the reset power, like Rita did did.
9. It is apparently impossible to transfer the power from one person to another.
0h50m: Cage receives his first vision of the Omega.
0h55m: Frustrated, Cage deserts the invasion before it happens; outside a pub in London in the morning, he watches as the Mimics sweep over everything.
01h05m: Cage and Rita are at the farmhouse, late afternoon on the day of the invasion (“it’ll be dark in a few hours”); Rita becomes aware that Cage has gotten to this point many, many times. He tells her he can’t find a path where she doesn’t die from here. He’s not wrong.
(None of that sequence is terribly important to the time travel stuff, but it’s the very, very best part of the film, using the sci-fi mechanic to crystallize what the movie is trying to say about armed service and the nature of heroism–that Rita accepts her death in service of the cause, and that Cage’s empathy and love for the individual she’s become to him is what’s now holding him back. It’s complex, powerful stuff, and I only wish the rest of the movie was this good and this meaningful.)
01h10m: Cage wakes up at Heathrow again (“On your feet, maggot!”). This time he decides not to involve Rita in his plans at all. Working alone, he makes it back to the farmhouse and the helicopter, and takes it to the mountain his visions showed him.
01h15m: Cage is killed in a trap. He goes to Rita and Carter on the next reset. “The Omega was never there,” he tells them. Based on how the Omega attacks him, Cage concludes:
10. The way to lose the reset power is to lose too much blood (without necessarily dying).
Also Cage learns blah blah blah transponder MacGuffin which Carter invented, which somehow taps into the connection between the Alpha and the Omega. Rita believes it’ll work on Cage.
01h18m: Cage and Rita sneak back into the general’s office. (For those of you keeping track, this is the afternoon of day 1–day 1 is Cage waking up on the helicopter to see the general, “On your feet, maggot!”, and training with Rita and Carter; day 2 is the invasion, the farmhouse, and the mountain trap. The general confirms this when he notes that he never expected to see Cage back in his office after what happened earlier today.
01h21m: Cage and Rita get the MacGuffin. Cage uses it on a later reset; it gives him a vision of the Omega’s location (underneath the Louvre). Unfortunately, Rita doesn’t kill Cage immediately after this–instead, he’s shot and wakes up in a hospital, presumably without the reset power thanks to blood loss/blood transfusion. (Not that there’s any way to know until he gets killed. Cage says he feels it, though. So okay.) For those of you keeping track, it’s the evening of day 1–the invasion is in three hours.
01h28m: J Squad, Cage, Rita, and Carter fly off to Paris to fight the Omega. Carter makes it clear that nobody should kill an Alpha; that would trigger a reset and only the Omega would remember and they’d be fucked.
01h38m: After a lot of action, Rita and Cage are near the Omega. But there’s an Alpha between them and it. Rita will distract it while Cage kills the Omega (after a “knew you for one day but suspect you totally deserve this” kiss).
01h42m: Cage blows up the Omega, which then kills all the Mimics. The Omega’s blood seeps out and onto Cage, giving him the power again. Cage wakes up on the helicopter on his way to meet the general.
This, obviously, is the whole point of contention. Why does this happen? Well, I noticed something about my list of facts, and maybe you noticed it too. There are a lot of explicit statements from the movie about the visions and the blood and the Omega and all that, but whenever the movie describes the reset power itself and how it works, it’s very vague. “Reset the day” is the expression used over and over again, but what does that actually mean? No one knows.
Throughout the film, Cage wakes up consistently after each reset at Heathrow (“On your feet, maggot!”) sometime around noon on Day 1, whether he dies less than 30 minutes later (run over by a truck trying to escape PT) or almost a day later after having slept (in the beach invasion) or more than a day and a half later after probably also having slept (at the mountain in the evening, which is the latest in the timeline he ever actually gets).
But when he kills the Omega and resets this final time, he wakes up on the helicopter by UDF headquarters, on his way to see the general. Depending on what you guess the time is of his meeting with the general (after sunrise but before noon) and what you guess the time of his wake-up at Heathrow (at most, mid-afternoon), Cage has regressed anywhere from 8 hours to 30 minutes from his normal reset point. (I’m really stretching on either end of that–it’s most likely that Cage meets with the general around 9am and wakes up around noon.) And this is–
Hold the fuckin’ presses.
Alright, so in trying to determine what the hell time it is when Cage wakes up in the helicopter, I discovered new evidence that solves one mystery while opening another.
At the beginning of the film, just after Cage wakes up in the helicopter, his copter flies past what I can only assume is Elizabeth Tower (aka Big Ben).
The time is quite clearly 8:40 in the morning, so my estimate was not far off at all.
Now, at the end of the movie, we get a similar time check shot–Cage wakes up and the clock tower is briefly visible outside his window. It’s hard to tell from the screenshot, maybe, but trust me–the time is now 12:35pm.
However, this really just confuses me further, because we get two more pieces of time information immediately:
01h43m: On a newscast whose clock reads 08:57 (still in the morning, presumably), the general says that they detected a surge of energy in Paris “just before sunrise this morning”.
So the second clock shot must have been an error. If so, it’s hard to believe that nobody noticed the mistake, since Cage and the clock are the only two significant elements in the frame, and somebody had to do extensive sound design to not only have the clock chime but have the chime shift in pitch and volume as the helicopter passes it. Either way, we’ll assume that Cage returns to just before 9:00 in the morning, as this jives with the newscast timestamp, which is even less likely to be erroneous.
01h44m: At Heathrow, the troops are still planning on hitting the beach tomorrow–this is a repeat of the PT scene we saw around 0h36m. So we are still on Day 1. Cage watches them run, then goes to see Rita, whom he is pleased to see alive. Cut to credits.
So here’s the movie in a nutshell:
-At 9am on Day 1, Cage meets with the general and is ordered to the front. He refuses and is knocked out.
-Around noon on Day 1, Cage wakes up at Heathrow, dies in the invasion at sunrise on Day 2, gets the reset power.
-Around noon on Day 1, Cage wakes up at Heathrow and dies sometime during Day 1 or 2, and repeats this step a bajillion more times.
-Sometime between noon and sundown on Day 1, Cage meets with the general again; he loses the reset power. In the early morning of Day 2 (between around 3am and sunrise), he flies to Paris and kills the Omega. In the process, he gains some kind of reset power before dying.
-At 9am on Day 1, Cage wakes up after the reset and hears the general’s televised statement that just before sunrise on Day 1, the Omega/Mimics were destroyed.
So somehow Cage destroying the Omega and resetting jumped him back an extra 3 hours or so and meant the Omega was destroyed another 3 hours back–that’s 3 hours before the story even began!
So here’s what the movie leaves unexplained:
A. Why does the final reset bring Cage back to just before 9:00 in the morning, when all his previous resets brought him back to around noon at Heathrow?
B. Why do the Omega and the Mimics stay dead when Cage resets?
C. Why do the Omega and the Mimics die (in the final reset) before sunrise, several hours before Cage wakes up on the helicopter?
I’ve heard it suggested the Omega lives outside of time, or that the time travel was actually travel through multiple alternate universes whose states were collapsed at the end, or that Cage’s final reset is directed by his subconscious will, or… There are a lot of fan explanations for the film’s odd ending. But perhaps the best explanation is the simplest:
We spoke with screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, who explained the original script for Edge of Tomorrow was tonally much darker. Cruise stressed the importance of the story’s humor, even when people like McQuarrie initially didn’t see the joke. Once Edge of Tomorrow began to lean more heavily on the comedy, that’s when this happy ending materialized. As McQuarrie reminds us, comedies generally have to go back to the way things were, and that’s exactly what Edge of Tomorrow did.
“I was always arguing it has to end on the helicopter,” he explained. “You have to be thrown back to wondering, ‘Did the movie even happen? Did any of this really happen?’ To that end, there were a million things you had to do with the writing and visually, to serve that ending. That presented a lot of challenges and debate for us. We really struggled to deliver what the movie needed to be emotionally. I know the ending was somewhat controversial, with some people who didn’t like it, but I think the only way to make those people happy would to end the movie in a way that wasn’t happy. We weren’t interested in doing that. It needed to end in a way that wasn’t harsh.”
(from Film School Rejects)
This isn’t about the complexities of an alien race or advanced physics theory. It’s about a tacked-on ending written after much of the film had already been shot. It’s about a shoehorned happy coda designed to bring everybody back to life like nothing ever happened–a “resolution” whose unexplained origins actually make it feel less like closure than an ending where Cage and Rita stayed dead. This is a movie about one man’s journey from deserter to self-sacrificing hero–and, all time travel shenanigans aside, bringing Cage back cheapens that sacrifice.
Edge of Tomorrow got a Hollywood ending, and a nonsense one at that, and it’s a shame. This movie deserved better. Explain all you want, but Exhibit A speaks for itself. I rest my case.