Monday, June 23, 2014

There's An Easy Solution: Just Add More Ladies (Edge of Tomorrow)

I wasn't originally going to write about this movie, Edge of Tomorrow, because I wasn't originally going to see it. It's got Tom Cruise in it, being all Tom Cruise and things, and also there were aliens and an invasion of Europe, and I just wasn't super enthused about the concept. Mostly because it looked like a videogame, and while I have the greatest of respect for videogames as a storytelling medium, I just don't get them. No idea why, I just don't.

However, as you may have gathered from the existence of this article, I did go see Edge of Tomorrow, and I am reasonably glad I did. It's a good movie. It's fun and interesting and raises some really cool philosophical questions. Mostly, the movie is about the cost of survival and the importance of selflessness, which is rad. Tom Cruise's character goes on a great journey of emotional development, and that development happens to be facilitated by well-shot and pretty funny action sequences, so that's nice.

It's not the thing that stuck out most to me in the movie, though. Nope, that honor goes to the female lead, Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a kickass action chick who kind of falls into Trinity Syndrome but also kind of doesn't, and it's complicated. I would therefore like to take today to talk about the complications inherent in Rita Vrataski and her character and her role in the narrative. So strap in guys, today we're going to talk about tropes, stereotypes, and "strong female characters".


The film, which is based on the manga All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, follows Cage (Tom Cruise), a high level recruiter for the global military. For years now the Earth has been engaged in on-the-ground combat with an alien race they call "Mimics". The Mimics came and quickly took over most of Asia and Europe, combining amazing camouflage skills and superior numbers with a seemingly uncanny ability to anticipate the military's actions and maneuvers. 

Cage's job is to go on television, then, and encourage people to enlist in the military to save their dying planet. It's an important job, to be fair, since this is the difference between life and death for the planet, but Cage goes about it in a particularly flippant way. He has a nice cushy life and a nice cushy position, so when the General (Brendan Gleeson) calls him to London to talk, Cage assumes that he's getting a commendation. He's there to help "sell" their counter-invasion of the European mainland, right?

Well, no. The General wants Cage himself to be on the front lines, with cameras, in order to show what the battle is really like. Cage does not like this idea, and tries to get out of it any way he can. Bribery, flattery, lies, and flat out running away. None of it works. He wakes up on a pile of duffel bags with a drill sergeant standing over him, only to find that he's been stripped of his uniform and rank, and will be on the front lines anyway, just now it's without the camera crew. As his new commanding officer, Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton) is so fond of reminding him, he is now to be reborn in "glorious combat." He is a "master of his fate", and he will change it through "hard work and determination." Etc, etc, etc.

Cage is embedded with J Company, who hate him, and given absolutely no training before they're flown out over the English Channel, strapped into giant mech-armors, and dropped on the beaches of Normandy. Where the Mimics are waiting for them, and slaughter pretty much everyone.

By some miracle, Cage is able to live a tiny bit longer than his comrades. Just long enough to run into a different looking Mimic, and kill them both with a grenade. We are treated to a wonderful shot of the Mimic's blood melting Cage's face off as they both explode, and then the screen goes black. It opens back up again...on Cage, lying on some duffel bags, getting yelled at by a drill sergeant.

Huh.

Cage goes through the day all over again, baffled and terrified. He has no idea what's going on, then he finally reaches the beach, and then he dies. And then he wakes up. Again. And again. And again. He has absolutely no idea what's happening until the time that he, having by now memorized a fair amount of the battle schematics by sheer bloody repetition, saves another soldier, Rita Vratasky (Emily Blunt), from getting blown up. 

Rita Vratasky isn't just any soldier, though. She's the very literal poster girl for the war, called alternately the "Angel of Verdun" and the "Full Metal Bitch". She's famous for having single-handedly swung the tide of the famous battle of Verdun, defeating the Mimics on their own turf and probably saving humanity. In other words, she's one terrifying chick.

She also, it seems, knows what's happening to Cage. When he rescues her, he does so in a way that shows he knows where the Mimics are going to be before they get there, and Rita stops him. As she says, "Find me when you wake up," it becomes clear that something larger than just Cage's eternal purgatory is happening.

The next morning, Cage has to figure out how to escape from the drill sergeants and Farell and J Company (it takes a few times), in order to track down Rita. But finally he finds her, and then has to explain again who he is. But she listens, and she tells him why he's there: the same thing happened to her. The time loop? It's how she turned the tide at Verdun. The loop always reset when she died, and she was able to figure out how to best fight the battle. More than that, though - with the help of a now-disgraced scientist, Dr. Carter (Noah Taylor), Rita and Cage are able to piece together what the Mimic strategy is. They also figure out that the Mimics work as a hivemind, and that hidden somewhere is the giant Mimic brian. Kill that, and the war will be over.

Oh, and this time looping thing? Is actually a Mimic power. They use the time loops to win battles, but when Cage killed that weird looking Mimic and it bled on him, he somehow tapped into the Mimic hivemind and hijacked the power. They would like it back, please.

The rest of the film is a thoroughly enjoyable action version of Groundhog Day (complete with a love interest named Rita). Cage and Rita have to figure out every step to get off of the beach and track down the Mimic brain, and it's hard because for Rita, she has to relearn it every day. It's hard for Cage, because he has to die every day. For some reason, he doesn't like that.

As the movie progresses, we see Cage begin to grow and develop. While at first he is defined primarily by his self-interest and craven focus on his own survival, he becomes a genuinely good person. By sheer exposure, he comes to know and care about all of the people in his life on this day, from Farell to Rita to Dr. Carter to the entirety of J Company. Slowly, over time, Cage becomes the kind of person he was always pretending to be.

Which is a pretty cool character arc, when it comes down to it.

But the real interesting thing that happens, at least to my mind, is that Cage eventually falls in love with Rita (that bit's not interesting, we could tell that was going to happen from the get-go), and then has to parse what this means in terms of his decision to save the world. Also, if he's gotten this far because he has the chance to relive his day no matter how many times it takes to get it right, what happens when he suddenly loses the power?

I'm not going to tell you, though obviously it does happen because it would be terrible writing not to include that. Instead, I'd like to segue into talking about Rita herself. Because Rita is a weird character. She is both representative of a trope that I haaaaaaate, the badass strong female character with no character development, and also perfectly written and suited for her role in the movie.

It's this frustrating duality. On the one hand, Rita Vratasky doesn't really do anything. Like, she's just there to give exposition and be all damaged and wounded and stuff and train Cage, but the movie makes it clear that none of this in any way makes her a weaker or less interesting character. As is pointed out in that really awesome article on Trinity Syndrome (seriously, go read it), Rita's status as mentor and love interest, and even the fact that Cage's character is advanced because he is distressed by always seeing her die, actually serves to make her character more compelling, not less. It's the rare case where the trope, the cliche of the strong female character, actually kind of works?

And I feel weird about that. I mean, Rita's amazing, and I love that she is shown to be the brains behind this whole operation, as well as being the single funniest character in the movie, but there's something a little unnerving when you consider that her entire role in the film is to facilitate Cage's transformation. That's problematic.

However, since Cage is stuck in a time loop, and he is effectively alone in that loop, everyone exists to facilitate Cage's transformation. As a result, it's kind of okay that Rita doesn't have a life outside of her intersection with Cage. No one does. The movie is hyper-focused on Cage's actions and his time loop, and therefore no character is relevant except insofar as they move Cage along.

I will say that I find it annoying that Rita is one of the only female characters in the whole film, though. The only other named female character (that I can think of) is Nance (Charlotte Riley), a member of J Company and one of the people Cage comes to care about very much. I really like Nance, but she's not in the movie much, and her role is even more curtailed than Rita's. She doesn't get to know about the time loop, though she does get to do some pretty kickass stuff. 

Still, that's pretty much it. There's really only the two of them, and that seems frustrating. I mean, there is absolutely no reason why one of the other really interesting male characters couldn't have been female. Both the General and Farell would have made really compelling female characters. For that matter, why couldn't we have had Gina Torres or Cate Blanchett playing Cage, this mid-forties talking head who has to suddenly learn how to fight and then finds herself with the power to save the world?

Come on, you know that would be an amazing freaking movie.

For that matter, while I was watching the film, I realized I wasn't watching the movie I really wanted to see. I, personally, really wanted to watch the Battle of Verdun, where we see Rita Vratasky, a green recruit who's never been in combat, suddenly gain the power to manipulate time, and then learn how to turn the tide of the war, fighting and dying over and over again, telling her superiors and then being turned over for dissection and study, then rebooting again... I just came out of the movie feeling that even though I understand why they made Cage the main character, and why it works much better in a film to have a mentor figure who's done it all before, I want to see that. I would love to see this movie from Rita's point of view.

Because Rita is a static character. She has no transformational arc of her own, by sheer virtue of the fact that from her perspective, only two days pass, and then she always resets. Rita is always the same. Now, that works for this film, but it doesn't work nearly anywhere else.

As my friend Kyla pointed out, while she sat across the kitchen table from me and patiently listened to me talk about this movie for twenty minutes, it's always a tricky topic when you're dealing with tropes and cliches. Because they are terrible and lazy writing, usually, but for every fifty or so terrible stories where the female character has no arc and exists only to support the main male character, there's one where that's true, but it's okay because it works. So, what? Do you throw out the ones that make sense just because of the overwhelming number of them that don't? I honestly don't know, but I do think it's important to think about.

The real upshot here, though, is that Edge of Tomorrow is a good movie, really and truly. Do I think it would have been ten times more kickass if Gina Torres played Cage? Yes, obviously, because I think Gina Torres makes everything better. Or, oooooh, Lucy Liu. 

Oh man. Lucy Liu as Cage, the smarmy self-involved recruiter, and then Emily Blunt keeps her role as Rita because let's be real she's perfectly cast. But pulling in Meryl freaking Streep as the General, and Maria Doyle Kennedy as Master Sergeant Farell, and, well, I'm pretty sure I just made the best movie known to man. Emily Watson can come along as Dr. Carter. Because here's the thing about damaging tropes of female characters: they matter most, and arguably they only matter, when that trope is the only woman we meet in the movie.

Rita Vratasky is a rockstar, but she's problematic not because of anything inherent in her character. She's difficult because she's the only major female character in the movie. If every major character in this movie, or even just one other character of note, were female, then it wouldn't really matter, would it? But because she's the only woman, and she exists only to facilitate Cage's journey, her story is a bit thorny. 

There's a very easy solution to that, and it's one that we need to stop ignoring.

You're wonderful and I love you.

7 comments:

  1. For that matter, while I was watching the film, I realized I wasn't watching the movie I really wanted to see. I, personally, really wanted to watch the Battle of Verdun...

    I was just thinking that very thing as I got to this point in the review. (Though you make the film sound a lot better than it did when I first saw it described, which led me to think, "Ok, the so the universe pauses via a loop in order to give Tom Cruise's character time to become more badass than Emily Blunt's").

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    1. I mean, technically, that IS what's happening. But it works. Somehow, it works. I do agree that the world needs more badass Emily Blunt murdering stuff and winning battles.

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  2. I'm conflicted about this movie. I liked some of it, but it managed to throw me out of my suspension of disbelief more than once, because I couldn't stop asking myself questions: how exactly do you know for sure you have lost a power that *only* activates when you die? How exactly the power go back to the aliens when the humans lose it? How in the first place is so easy for Cage to get the power? Especially considering it happened already with Rita: shouldn't the aliens be more prepared to avoid it?). And then the ending... the happy ending felt so forced I can only hope the aliens actually rebooted the timeline to lure the humans in a sense of false security again.

    Also, I disliked the whole scene with Rita and Cage in the farm. I think that was also because the audience pov suddenly shifted from Cage's to Rita's, so it felt like Cage was doing stuff, living lives, behind our backs? I don't know... I really didn't like that scene.

    Anyway, I agree with all you say about Rita, and I wish the main character was another woman (love-story included of course). It would have been awesome!

    I had similar thoughts (about the clichè writing actually working in one instance but having to be balanced with so many others where it's just lazy) about Thor: The Dark World. I think Frigga's last stand and death in that movie was powerful, and very well done. But in a world filled with fiction where so many other women, other mothers, have died to provide motivations for the male characters... it still leaves a "damn, this trope again!!" sour taste in my mouth.

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    1. The computer ate my reply!

      But basically, I totally agree about the plotholes, and I don't get why they had to reboot a day. Just leave everyone dead. It's cheap. Also, the POV switch at the farm was jarring and detrimental to the narrative - the movie works because it's all in Cage's head. To take us out of that changes the focus of the story, and that's a bad thing. That was also the lowest part of the movie for me.

      I have the same feelings about Frigga's death. I loved it, but I also hated what it represents.

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