In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise plays Major Cane, an officer who is accidentally given the ability to relive over and over and over the day before a failed military invasion aimed at wiping out an alien race, dying in the battle every day before learning little by little how to turn the tide of humanity’s impending defeat. The failed invasion comes after these aliens—arriving via a meteor that crash-lands in Germany—have taken over and decimated Europe. The invasion bases itself from England, and joins fronts in Asia and in Italy in what humanity is calling Operation Downfall. If you haven’t already caught on, the set-up is a sci-fi inversion of Operation Overlord (note the wordplay), and there’s a sustained playing and replaying of the beach landing that recalls—sometimes extremely directly—Steven Spielberg’s recreation of the Normandy Landing in 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. This extended and recurring passage—Edge of Tomorrow’s central (perhaps pervasive) action sequence—is the most discomforting repurposing of history since last summer’s Man of Steel leveled Metropolis and confronted us with harrowing 9/11-esque imagery for nearly 45 excruciating minutes.
Lest you think I’m just seeing what I want to see in suggesting that Edge of Tomorrow is purposefully riffing on D-Day imagery, Warner Bros. released this film on June 6—the 70th anniversary of D-Day, to boot. While watching Edge of Tomorrow, I actually found the “Operation Downfall” scenes inspired—Cane is forced to live the battle over and over again much as we keep “reliving” World War II via far-ranging media representations. Be they hyper-realist works like Private Ryan or HBO’s Band of Brothers, educative History Channel documentaries, or more classically-staged films like The Longest Day, D-Day in particular and World War II in general refuse to loosen their powerful grip on our collective imagination.
Edge of Tomorrow isn’t the only film so far this summer to play on some kind of historical consciousness. May’s Godzilla explicitly or implicitly evoked Fukushima, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and, of course, 9/11 through its various sites and modes of disaster. X-men: Days of Future Past is entirely built around trying to change the events of the past to alter the future, locating itself precisely at the end of the Vietnam War. On the one hand, these films and their aesthetics are various collisions with history. They resonate narratively (as in a Japanese nuclear catastrophe in Godzilla) and aesthetically (the inclusion of Super 8 and 16mm footage in X-men). On the other hand, these are also films that largely want to escape history, to argue for its malleability. More than just “history repeats itself” narratives, Edge of Tomorrow and Days of Future Past see reliving the past as inevitable but necessary—in both, repetition is key to learning about one’s place in history and one’s ability to affect history.
True, science fiction has a long and rich legacy of coding political or social commentary, but what makes these two films—and to a lesser extent, Godzilla—so interesting is that they are looking so far back and, in their respective ways, actively wondering what it means to write history and to confront the impulse to relive and rewrite a communal, national, or even global history. To suggest these are meta-commentaries of Hollywood’s own representational strategies is enough to provoke a thoughtful smirk and push the films aside as clever genre exercises, but I think there is something deeper afoot. Days of Future Past was released on Memorial Day weekend—a federal holiday devoted to the act of public memory, specifically the memory of fallen soldiers. Edge of Tomorrow, as I mentioned above, was released on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, and so their advertising and consumption becomes also linked to news stories and images about veterans, about history, about commemoration. These are works about time that are precisely distributed in time.
The spectacle of history, or the reappropriation of history, is at once a collision and a commemoration. Films can act as historically commemorative media—be it in the “Special Commemorative Editions” of films like Saving Private Ryan, their broadcasting on television, or more fundamentally in their educative or ideological potential. But they can also collide us with uncomfortable appropriations—the beach invasion of Edge of Tomorrow is far from pleasurable, and even without the blood and gore of hyper-real war films, is nevertheless shocking for how freely it borrows on World War II. The shock is amplified through the mechanism of the film’s repetition—Cruise’s death, over and over. Instead of dismissing Edge of Tomorrow as a co-optation of history’s horrors for “good summer fun,” I would rather argue that its precise moment of designed consumption—June 6, 2014—is designed to actively engage how we consume the repetition of history, and the purpose of that repetitious consumption.
As these films suggest, repetition is not commemorative in the passive sense of looking back. It is something far more active, intuitive, and empowering—something that propels us forward.
James N. Gilmore is a Ph.D. student and Associate Instructor in Indiana University’s Department of Communication and Culture. He received his M.A. from UCLA’s Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media. He is the co-editor of the anthology Superhero Synergies: Comic Book Characters Go Digital (Scarecrow Press, 2014). His current work considers the circulation of media in everyday spaces, as well as with the operations of digital technology in contemporary genre films.