Can We Imagine Ourselves Happy on The ‘Edge of Tomorrow’?10 min readReading Time: 7 minutes
If the last 24 months are any indication, emerging from the pandemic within the next 12 months will most likely remain a pipedream. Sure, there probably will be an easing of measures from time to time but what feels more certain are the eventual retightening.
It’s a madness we have grown all too familiar with. Unpredictability mixed with the steady monthly dosages of collective defeat has understandably brought mental health awareness to the forefront. Nobody is born equipped to deal with such a vicious cycle of meaninglessness on such an all-encompassing scale.
But what if the meaninglessness is exactly where we could find our strength to trudge on — 12 months, 120 months, come what may?
This is what 20th-century French philosopher Albert Camus posits in his series of essays on absurdism, whose ideas are expressed rather eloquently in the overlooked 2014 sci-fi thriller Edge of Tomorrow.
The film sees the world decimated by an invading alien threat. Tom Cruise stars as William Cage, a shifty army major responsible for media relations being demoted to the rank of private and sent to the front lines of a D-Day-esque operation. The operation quickly falls apart with scores slaughtered within seconds, including Cage. However, his death brings him 24 hours into the past with his memory intact, forcing him to relive the same botched invasion over and over again.
There have been countless stories inspired by Camus’ works. Edge of Tomorrow is, perhaps, one of the most literal interpretations of his landmark essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Strangely enough, it’s also a film that has slipped past popular consciousness during these pandemic years despite its relative recency, thematic relevancies and — most importantly — being marvellously entertaining.
There seems to be no better film to sit down with as we descend into another year almost destined to be a repeat of the last two. Embracing absurdism may be the only way we can make it to 2023.
Spoilers ahead for ‘Edge of Tomorrow’!
Camus and Absurdism
“Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”
“Absurd” holds a different meaning in Camus’ works than what we are more familiar with.
Camus follows a line of existentialists thinkers who examined the central issue of the meaning of life. For thousands of years, humanity has faced down the fear of death and found meaning through religion and solace through concepts of an afterlife.
In the 19th century, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously declared that God is dead and we have killed him; that the emergence and triumph of scientific rationality in the western world have not necessarily killed a diety, but made Western religious answers to the central questions of our existence obsolete (Nietzsche was rather bummed about this).
Camus expands on this idea. In his works, the “absurd” refers to the clash between humanity’s innate desire for true knowledge, meaning and purpose, and an indifferent universe that could care less. We simply do not have the capacity to understand everything despite our best efforts. Camus suggests that mindless routines such as our 9 to 5 jobs will eventually lead us to a confrontation of the absurd, with only two responses: suicide or recovery. Camus urgently seeks to address the former, positing it as the “one truly serious philosophical problem”.
For him, there are two forms of suicide: the literal sense and philosophical suicide, where one takes a leap of faith and hold onto ideas based on faith alone since there are no answers offered by rationality. Camus suggests a third response: to revolt against the absurd; to fully embrace the only truth and to be an Absurd Hero, living on despite knowing that there is nothing at the end of the road.
He summarises his case in The Myth of Sisyphus.
Edge of Tomorrow and The Myth of Sisyphus
“What is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying.”
The Myth of Sisyphus details the doomed predicament of an ancient Greek king. For cheating death, Sisyphus is punished by the gods to roll a boulder up a steep hill. However, every time the boulder gets ever-so-close to the summit, it rolls back to the base of the hill. Sisyphus would have to begin again, and again, and again, for all eternity with no signs of change or progress.
Despite this cruelty, Camus ends his summary of the myth on a peculiarly positive note: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy”.
The immediate question that follows may be that how can we possibly imagine Sisyphus happy. His life often mirrors our daily routines — now, even more so with no exit in sight out of pandemic life, damned to constant loosening and retightening of safety measures, with our personal and work lives in constant turmoil.
Edge of Tomorrow, with its tentacle aliens, countless explosions, sometimes unbearable machismo, and bloody action, offers one solution.
Like Sisyphus, Tom Cruise’s William Cage is a slimy smooth talker constantly trying to weasel his way out of his death sentence. He is assigned to the J-Squad, who have been drilled by their sergeant to reject irrationality and luck in favour of being masters of their own fate. However, seconds into their landing mission, they realise that nothing is within their control and are slaughtered by the alien Mimics all too prepared for their arrival.
Ironically, it’s Cage, doomed to his Sisyphean fate, who is the exception.
After countless gruesome deaths, Cage eventually learns that fellow solider Rita Vratsaki, played by Emily Blunt, had the same experiences as well; likewise with anyone who is drenched by the blood of a Mimic Alpha. Vratsaki, however, lost the ability after having a blood transfusion. They soon realise that the war will be won once they kill the Omega, who appears in Cage’s visions (the parallels to Christianity are quite on the nose).
The film never makes it clear just how many times Cage is torn apart by aliens but he does repeat the same 24 hours enough times for both him and Vratsaki to rehearse every tiny step and movement forward on the death beach.
Cage does grow discouraged and regress. He attempts to escape from the army camp but death still eventually finds him. Yet, as Camus prescribed for the Absurd Hero, Cage never chooses suicide as a means of escape. There is a clear way out for him but he never takes it. His budding feelings for Vratsaki becomes his reason to fight on.
His visions do turn out to be illusions. The Omega is nowhere to be found. Their leap of faith has failed them.
It’s only when Cage loses the ability to restart his day and fully embrace that he only has one life when he succeeds in his mission. He is brought back to the past once again after his sacrifice, now in a parallel timeline where the alien threat is eradicated but where Vratsaki has no memory of him. His struggle and purpose become clear again: to win back Vratsaki.
The Absurd Hero and You
“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Although he shares the same fate as Sisyphus, it’s interesting to note that Cage hardly deserves his punishment. One moment he’s behind a comfy desk coming up with propaganda to get citizens to join the army, the next he is sent to his death; the decision is made on his superior’s whim.
Like the alien Mimic threat, the pandemic irrationally spares no one from confronting both absurdity and Camus’ absurd. Like the soldiers dropped from the sky to the beaches of death, our lives are over in a snap in the grand scheme of the absurd and we are left as insignificant as grains of sand. Not everyone has the opportunity to recognise the predicament, and perhaps even less would want to willingly confront the Sisyphean struggle — painful setback after setback after setback all for what?
While Edge of Tomorrow does mirror Camus’ philosophy, the film allows for room beyond his prescriptions. Cage only succeeds with the help of the J-Squad, all of whom hold on to their own beliefs. One of them quips about seeing his brother-in-arms in the next life as they go out in a blaze of glory. Everybody’s struggle is the same no matter our faith. Even if there is an afterlife, modern living has made most of us Sisyphus, damned to routines just to get by.
Yet, perhaps it’s only when Nothing matters when caring, cherishing and protecting feel all the more purposeful. Above all, purpose, no matter how insignificant, can be found in every corner of our lives. Cage never truly cared about saving the world as much as saving Vratsaki from almost certain doom. That was more than enough for him to continue suffering and stick around.
It can be for a loved one. Or a life event. Or the next film from a favourite director. Or even just good Mee Rebus. We might not see through all of them but that is exactly how we can imagine ourselves happy.
Camus can be read as rather uncompromising and overly romantic in his interpretations and his ideas. However, even amongst contemporaries who have similarly left indelible marks in the world, he has still captured the imagination of generations for how poetic his solution is.
Imagining Sisyphus happy can be seen as a resignation — that is, indeed, part of Camus’ prescription. But it is more about fully embracing the absurd yet rebelling nonetheless.
Looking towards the Sisyphean journey almost certainly ahead for all of us, a passage from The Myth of Sisyphus deftly resonates:
“It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself. I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step towards the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”
Happy New Year and happy holidays to all from the Sinema team!
Catch ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ on Netflix: