The Drone Rhythms of Edge of Tomorrow
Presented at IrGIC Seminar on Rhythm, Aalborg 2015
What is the rhythm of war with no end, what if you were condemned to live each day over, every time you were killed? This is the predicament facing Cage (Tom Cruise) in the science fiction action film Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman 2014). Based on a Japanese military science fiction novel, the U.S. adaptation reworks a far future story into an allegory of World War II or conceivably any kind of “just war”.
An alien invasion of Mimics has crushed most of Europe, and the sole hope of humanity is a desperate assault on the Normandy beaches. The cowardly but persuasive U.S. press officer Major William Cage is forced to join this assault, despite not having any combat training. Brought along with a platoon of hardened veterans, Cage is thrown into the fray of the beach assault, an assault led by Rita Vrataski, aka the Angel of Verdun, aka Full Metal Bitch. Within minutes, Cage sees Rita killed by an unusual version of Mimic, seconds before he himself is killed. However, Cage wakes up, twenty-four hour prior to the beach assault, since the Mimic he managed to kill was a special kind capable of resetting time. Cage has somehow acquired part of this ability and is caught in a time loop not unlike the one facing Phil (Bill Murray) in Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis 1993).
Cage is now faced with the task of breaking this time loop, since unlike D-Day, which the film so clearly echoes, this time around the assault is a defeat. Mimics’ alien ability to reset the day enables them to replay any event with a different strategy and different actions. Cage now has to do the same in order to defeat the Mimics and move out of the time loop. He can only do this by locating the Mimic queen and defeating her in what is essentially an assault on the Eagle’s Nest.
As should be evident from this brief recap, most of the film is structured around the concept of repetition and difference; constantly Cage repeats the same day and the same events but he is able to vary this repetition by doing things differently. In a sense, Cage needs to escape repetition by finding the correct variation of events. In other words, Cage must find the proper measure of events, in order to escape the repetition of events. As we can see, Edge of Tomorrow clearly lends itself well to rhythmanalysis.
If we look at the forms of rhythms present in the film, we come across quite a few. The most prominent, because the most unusual for a film, is the time loop rhythm of starting over each time you die. We therefore see the same events over and over, although with increasing elements of difference introduced. A clear break of the classical Hollywood convention to only show each narrative event once. However, this type of rhythm is well-known in another poplar media form, namely the video game. In video games, starting over when you die is part of the generic, narrative expectation. This first rhythm can then be termed the game rhythm.
The second rhythm is far more conventional. Cutting transversally across the game-movie rhythm is the three-act structure of beginning-middle-end where the middle slowly builds tension and raises the stakes. Despite the repetition of events, the narrative pacing is still in place, and the further along we get in the film, the higher the stakes get and the faster events unfold. We can term this second rhythm the action rhythm.
The third rhythm extends further than the two first and is a thematic rhythm. While less pronounced, there is the rhythm of death and rebirth, followed eventually by a resurrection of no longer dying and being reborn. Although taking a slightly different form, this thematic rhythm is similar to the general rhythm that Rikke Schubart finds in action films more generally: the action hero is a Christ figure who must go through pain and (usually symbolic) death before being resurrected as a better person.1 We can call this third rhythm resurrection rhythm.
A final fourth rhythm is present that cuts across the film to other films. While the D-Day invasion is clearly referenced, we don’t find a historical rhythm or any kind of interest in palimpsesting the actual D-Day invasion. Instead we find references to earlier, cinematic versions of D-Day, both in terms of generic, narrative structure, but also in terms of audiovisual design. Edge of Tomorrow looks and feels like a number of other films, so we can call this fourth rhythm for the intertextual rhythm.
Taken together, these four rhythms give us a good account of how the film works and the way that these rhythms interact become central for the cinematic rhythm as a whole. There are more rhythms in the film as well, although they extend beyond what I can cover here. Some of these rhythms work in conjunction with the one’s I’ve already mentioned, such as a gender rhythm working with the genre rhythm. And of course the intertextual rhythm could be extended far more into an ideological critique of the war film and metaphoric dependency than I do here.
Before I get started on each individual form of rhythm, let me briefly sketch how I see Lefebvre’s rhythm analysis working as a method and theory for this film. First of all, Lefebvre underlines the concept of interaction is the fundamental nature of rhythm. While rhythm is typically seen as relating to time, Lefebvre announces that rhythm is the “interaction between a place, a time and an expenditure of energy”.2 Lefebvre is interested in how things that are usually considered separate interact. As he puts it “The analysis does not isolate an object, or a subject, or a relation. It seeks to grasp a moving but determinate complexity (determination not entailing determinism).”3 In other words, rhythm designates a process and rhythmanalysis is the task of understanding what this process means and what it does.
I find myself particularly drawn to Lefebvre’s rejection of the conventional distinction between subject and object, agreeing fully when he argues that “The classic term in philosophy, ‘the object’, is not appropriate to rhythm. ‘Objective’? Yes, but exceeding the narrow framework of objectivity, by bringing to it a multiplicity of (sensorial and significant) meanings.”4 I suppose that my appreciation and agreement with Lefebvre comes from another and equally poetic argument, namely Whitehead’s argument that “the many become one and are increased by one”.5 Indeed, is this not exactly what an understanding of rhythm gives us, that place, time, and energy together in their interaction produce something more than three?
In a similar way, Yvette Bíro argues along similar lines (and quite possibly with an unstated knowledge of Lefebvre) that rhythm is “a basic shape organizing all the participating elements into an expressive whole”.6 Although I’m not too happy with her term ‘shape’, since that metaphor is too spatial, rhythm as that which organizes all participating elements into an expressive whole sounds exactly right to me, particularly taking into account that Lefebvre (and Bíro for that matter) argues for rhythm as an evocation of presences, not a reproduction of what is, what Lefebvre calls integration “in a dramatic becoming, in an ensemble full of meaning, transforming them no longer into diverse things, but into presences”.7
After deconstruction, we can no longer take this evocation of presences as indicating a transparent fullness of meaning, but surely that is also not how Lefebvre meant presence. Rather, it seems evident to me that Lefebvre means something like Whitehead’s “presentational immediacy” — our sensory perception of the world around us.8 The purpose of rhythmanalysis is, however, to understand how the fullness of experience (i.e. presences) emerges from the interaction and organization of the environment. While the symbolic reference of these presences are always already subject to deconstruction, the energies that produce the intensities of rhythms are not. This argument does not reinstate transparency of meaning but takes seriously the feeling produced by presence, both in term of presentational immediacy and causal efficacy.
To sum up this brief, theoretical consideration, I understand rhythm as the process of interaction of all elements within the environment: time, space, and energies and the way that this interaction produces sensations, feelings, and affects. By understanding how our sensations are evoked by the cinematic rhythms, we get a better sense both of what the film does, and its position within contemporary cinematic culture.
Despite Cage’s protests and bargaining, he ends up as a soldier getting ready for the drop on the beaches, the final stand against the Mimics. First, Cage is introduced to his new unit as a coward by Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton), which earns him no friends or help in a helpless situation. Before Cage can bargain his way out of the situation, he has to put on the distinctive exoskeletons of the marines. Dropped from an airship onto the beach, wave after wave of marines attack the Mimics. Cage is in a blind panic and sees Rita Vrataski, hoping that she will save him. However, she is splattered to pieces right before his eyes, after which Cage fires his rifle and kills the strange Mimic, spraying himself with alien acid blood. The next scene is Cage waking up back at the airport, confused and dislocated. Thus begins the time loop. Every time Cage is killed, he wakes up back at the airport, forced to relive the day of his imminent death.
What opens up here is the rhythm of repetition; every day unfolds exactly like the previous version, there is no immediate source of difference. The drop and the first version of the assault on the beaches consists of a battering ram of quick shots, rapid editing, swoosh pans and camera movement in all three dimensions, including zooms and tracking shots. The camera often plunges into space, usually handheld to induce a sense of involuntary movement and rickety balance. Editing is rarely motivated and while the camera often moves with the subject, the shorts are rarely wider than medium shots, providing a disorienting sensation. Alongside a booming soundtrack, filled with a forceful bass from bassoons and rumbling explosions, and high-pitched whines of bullets whizzing past Cage, the impression is one of general confusion and mayhem. In other words, we are placed in much the same position as Cage, not sure of what is going on and no time to learn it.
As we recognize the time loop rhythm of Cage reliving the same day, we are allowed a better sense of events through narrative repetition. The rhythmic, hyperactive soundimages of Edge of Tomorrow produce a clear capture of attention and sensation. If we consider the repeating sequences of Cage waking up and being thrown into battle, only to die once more, as “lures for feeling”, as Whitehead might call them, we are clearly captured by the accelerated soundimages. The intensity of the sequences rivet us to what will happen next, simply to make sense of the action. The time loop is part of this intensity, since we recognize that the sequences are not simultaneous or continuous, but instead repetitions with minor variations. These variations slowly allow us to make sense of the story: we learn more about the assault on the beach, we learn more about Cage’s character, and we learn more about the Mimics. Equally, however, the sheer audiovisual loudness of the sequences is what produces a sensation of urgency. Everything seems to happening again and again, and while the accelerated camera movements rush us along, we try to make sense of these lines of movement, to figure out where we are going.
Slowly, as the time loop continues with no end in sight, our experience begins to shift. The repetitive nature of the sequence, the containment that Cage undergoes, and the futility of going through the motions, being to produce a drone rhythm that we can anticipate but do little about. The same events happening over and over, the fixedness of the endpoint, that the difference we encounter is trivial and not real difference or progression, all combines to induce a concussive sensation. While action film set pieces are always a bombardment, Edge of Tomorrow’s repetitive rhythm refuses variation in the set pieces, leading even to a peculiar sense of boredom.
We start to wish for distinction, a deep urge for difference. When that feeling kicks in, we shift, Mckenzie Wark would say, from filmspace to gamespace. Filmspace, or the unfolding of actions in a film, have been characterized by Gilles Deleuze as belonging either to the movement-image or the time-image in his two books on cinema. Whether dominated by the unfolding of meaningful actions in a recognizable sequence, or the slow unfolding of duration itself, filmspace generally functions through distinction. Gamespace, unlike filmspace, is characterized by what Wark calls a “competitive striving after distinction”.9 Any gamer will be caught, like Cage, in a loop of their own making, unable to break the repetitive replaying of the same level until they step up their game. To some extent, of course, this replaying of a level is part of gameplay and the enjoyment of gameplay. However, too much of a good thing becomes frustrating, playing the same level over and over becomes an exercise in futility and reduces our sensuous engagement with the game.
To say that Edge of Tomorrow borrows rhythms from video games is not to say that the film is somehow a game. As Brown and Krzywinska point out, movies are mosaics of differential shots while films are flows.10 The rhythms of each medium is essential to their feel, and film have long depended on what Brown and Krzywinska term a “luxurious submission”.11 Conversely, the game player is more in control of the rhythm of individual scenes but is often forced to go bak and do-over. There is a different tension between film-rhythms, which we must subject ourselves to entirely, and game-rhythms, which we participate in producing. The game pleasure of progressive development, practice, and mastery of mechanics and story world are mostly absent from film.
Yet we cannot ourselves determine the rules of the game. As Wark points out, the only way to progress is to figure out what the rules of the game are. Cage has to do the same, go through the motions in order to learn the right combination of moves, actions, and decisions that will carry him forward. In contrast to a game, where this repetition is part of the enjoyment because it depends on growing mastery, in Edge of Tomorrow, we can never achieve this degree of mastery, since the sequence is set. We can, however, watch Cage train and learn the rules of the game he is trapped in. This pleasurable rhythm is different from the repetitive once-again-ness of the beach assault, but can also be seen as a kind of conditioning: we must follow the only path of pleasure we can find.
The oscillation between video games, cinema, and TV have increased in the past few decades and one of the ways that cinema can update itself, is to borrow from newer media. The convergence of the cut scene in games, which has always been cinematic in form, and the game repetition loop that Edge of Tomorrow inserts into its narrative rhythm, is an example of what Leon Gurevitch has termed the “game effect”.12 We recognize the rhythm of repeating a sequence over and over again, until we have learned how to get out of it. The sequence is also equipped with several devices to increase the sensation of game play, such as inserting heads-up displays and employing subjective point of view shots. Also, Cage starts repeating other people’s lines and actions before they happen, much like a players of a video game will do, in order to win the level or challenge.
There is a discrepancy, however, between the pleasurable mastery that comes from repeating the same sequence over and over again in a game context, where the point is to overcome the obstacles, versus the submission to these repetitions as they manifest in our film experience. While the game rhythm by definition holds a way out, the film-rhythm is outside of our control: we are trapped and cannot get outside of it. Of course, as both Wark and Galloway point out in different ways, one cannot truly get outside of game-rhythms either. These rhythms function as our only way of engaging with the game. As Wark puts it, “you can go anywhere you want in gamespace but you can never leave it.”13 In a sense, then, the distinction between game-rhythms and film-rhythms is less clear than first assumed.
The cinematic borrowing of game-rhythms help produce a distinctive feeling of entrapment, another version of what Galloway calls the algorithms of control. Significantly, Cage strains against the repetition by trying to figure out the rules. He trains with Vrataski not only to become a better solider, but just as much to discover how the time loop works, and how to use the time loop to beat the Mimics. We also strain against the rules, we feel deep frustration and weariness with having to go back again and again, once more from the beginning. While the soundimages keep coming, we desperately crave distinction but can find little. This is what becomes a droning rhythm, a way that the film organizes its events but in turn also organizes our experience of the film. Yet the only way out of this drone is to learn the rules, to understand the algorithms of control as they are instated by the Mimics.
Consider then the general tone of the sequences that repeat almost indefinitely. They are loud, fast, filled with shaky camera movements, as I’ve already pointed out. We can regard them as vectors of an audiovisual kind, what Steve Goodman refers to as “affectiles” — vectors of feeling that produce a distinctive rhythm.14 With the sequences repeating faster and faster, not only does that increase the intensity of the film’s game-rhythms. The repetitive loudness alongside the sense of entrapment produce a concussive rhythm from which we can only emerge in a dronized sense of being; the film-rhythm intensifies to reduce the sensate experience of watching the film.
The more Cage trains, the more the film’s narrative moves away from its repetitive structure. The droning game-rhythm of repetitiveness slowly gives way to a far more traditional action-image, to stay within a Deleuzian vocabulary. To phrase it differently, the film’s narrative transitions into a far more conventional state-action-new state. Such a rhythm is the basic structure of most mainstream films and easily understood as following successive narrative beats. Whereas the droning game-rhythm provides a kind of beat, there is little narrative force behind it. Instead, we find at first a concussive rhythm of the beach assault over and over again, only to feel almost liberated when the action rhythm takes over.
This collision of rhythms is perhaps best understood in terms of Erin Manning’s concept of preacceleration. As Manning defines it, preacceleration is the intensive, virtual force of movement, that which precedes movement and makes movement possible.15 Clearly drawing from Deleuze, Manning’s argument is just as much a matter of understanding the affective ground through which our experience emerges before it becomes actual. What is at stake, then, is the color of movement, so to speak, the way that movement feels. But equally important, it is also a matter of what kind of movement can emerge from a particular form of preacceleration.
If we map Manning’s concept on to Edge of Tomorrow, we can see how the repetitive game-rhythms become the baseline for our sensate experience of the film. When the action-images start developing, we have already been conditioned by the pre acceleration of the concussive rhythms. The urgency of Cage’s actions is inflected with the knowledge that he has finally proceeded further in the game than before. As every gamer has experienced, when we finally progress further than before, every action takes on more meaning, every unfolding is more tense, since it could send us back to the beginning. This tension becomes the color of both Cage’s movement but also the way that we are moved by the film. Any misstep, any wrong move could knock us back to step one.
The suspense of movement is increased by the fact that we never know how many times a given scene has taken place before. Instead, there is a rush of forward momentum, since we never know if a cut signals a return or a continued move forward. The editing pace is fast, yet at times disruptive because we have a hard time orienting ourselves within the plot; things move to fast, all I see is speed. As Enda Duffy has shown in The Speed Handbook, speed is modernity’s new pleasure.16 New technologies and new forms grew up around the desire for speed and more speed. Everything from the roller coaster, cinematic journeys through mountains, to the car chase are forms of speed. As Duffy goes on
To think of speed as a pleasure is to think of it strategically. It forces us to think speed sensationally, that is, how it feeds our sensations, our senses, working on our bodies to produce physical as well as psychological effects. Centrally, it makes us attend to the way speeding changes how we experience space.17
We can easily see how this conception of speed is related to Lefebvre’s sense of rhythm: time, space, and energy interact differently at different speeds. Movement and speed are two different things, however. Movement is extension — a matter of how far we travel. Speed, on the other hand, is intensive — a matter of how movement makes us feel. Duffy insists, alongside a host of other theorists, that our sensorium changes alongside new aesthetic forms and technologies. What matters here is the narrative form of Edge of Tomorrow and how its narrative speed works on us. As already argued, the concussive game-rhythm preaccelerates our engagement with the narrative.
As we segue out of the game-rhythm we move across preemptive scenes that have clearly happened many times before, although we never know how many. The film — and Cage — is ahead of us and we are constantly catching up, which adds to the speed of the film. The narrative speed is one fold ahead of us, since Cage’s point-of-view shifts to being anterior to our experience. The already accelerated narrative force picks up even more speed. Such accelerated acceleration is known as the jerk: acceleration becomes unpredictable and the resulting movement may crash. Indeed, rather than a typical narrative trajectory, Edge of Tomorrow teeters on the brink of collapse between narrative drive and the reset of the game-rhythm.
Such peculiar narrative jerking produces the strange effect that we are in fact completely incapable of asserting which plot events become story and which become reiterated in a different way. The past burns away as Cage progresses through new versions of it. We can form general expectations about how the past story looks like, but we can never know the specifics. In other words, Edge of Tomorrow is about the moment adrift: we accelerate beyond any concern with the past; all that matters is forward momentum. One might go so far as to say that speed is all that matters, barely even where we go.
From a narrative perspective, this is a turbulent rhythm that intensifies each sequence in the way it obeys what Yvette Bíro refers to as the renewal of time.18 Our engagement is elicited by the pleasure of recognition and the enjoyment of novelty of variation. This sense of the same yet different continues much longer than necessary in Edge of Tomorrow, especially as the film narrative stops repeating sequences and simply reiterates over and over that the sequence we have never seen before has happened a multitude of times. Slowly the recognition/variation rhythm dissipates in favor of a more traditional narrative trajectory. What does not dissipate, however, is the urgency with which the film moves.
Karen Perlman refers to the rhythm of narrative speed as “trajectory phrasing” — a matter not simply of how fast-paced the editing is, but rather the manipulation of energy in the narrative rhythm.19 While pacing is often taken to mean the editing speed, Perlman points out that camera movement is also significant in terms of how fast narration feels. In the case of Edge of Tomorrow, there are very few scenes where both editing pace and camera movement slows down. Often we find both ubiquitous handheld camera movements and fast editing at the same time. Everything comes off as urgent and since the relation between one sequence and the next is always tenuous, we find an example of the privileging of the moment over duration.
What we can see from Edge of Tomorrow’s incessant movement is precisely that we cannot separate time, space, and energy. They all work together to produce a sense of acceleration, an acceleration that is located not solely in the narrative form of the film but also in the energy the film produces in us as viewers. This energy is turbulent because there is never a real equilibrium or stable point of reference from which we can feel confident about the film’s rhythms. The stability that we need in order to make sense of what is happening are all generic and intertextual markers.
One of the reasons that there is still narrative flow in Edge of Tomorrow is its dependence a distinctive, recognizable rhythm: that of the protagonist’s redemption. Repeated practically ad naseum in any number of ideological readings of Hollywood films, film critics have pointed to the redemption of white patriarchy in an infinity of guises. Most relevant here is the version traced by Rikke Schubart in her genre history Med vold og magt (2002).20 Schubart suggests that most action films employ a version of the Christ myth in the form of their predominantly male protagonist. Epitomized by Sylvester Stallone in his Rocky and Rambo incarnations, the body and its suffering is fetishized and held up as the only solution (and salvation) for America.21
With astonishing ease, we can find this very same myth in Edge of Tomorrow, although it is practically pushed to ridicule. Cage, unlike Rocky/Rambo/Stallone, literally resurrects. Every day. And no time to wait three days for the resurrection, either. Instantaneity is the speed at which we travel, after all.
Unlike Stallone’s hardbody that is trustworthy, a body that brings back the soldiers left behind in Vietnam, Cage is a coward. In fact, he is not a real soldier, but a press officer and the only reason anyone wants him at the frontlines is for the optics, the illusion of camaraderie. Cage is branded a deserter when he tries to escape and is presented as such to his unit, after which they tell him that there’s something wrong with his suit: it has a dead guy in it. This hazing humor is ironic in two ways. Firstly, there is a dead guy in the suit, since Cage will die. Yet at the same time, since Cage resurrects every time he dies, there isn’t a dead guy in the suit. Not that the film dwells on this aporia, of course.
Cage must be disciplined into becoming a real soldier. The depiction of this follows a relatively clear trajectory. Initially, Cage is cocky, charming, and a talker more than a doer. Once he is thrown into the military life, he first tries to talk his way out of a bad situation, but soon runs away in terror. His panicked actions on the beach get other soldiers killed in the first iterations of the assault. As Cage realizes what is happening, he begins training with Rita Vrataski but is comically inept. Much humor is mined from Cage’s desperate attempts at learning the ropes and his dislike of being killed.
Slowly, however, Cage’s body becomes disciplined and hardened. While difficult to show, the film depicts a Cage turning more and more grimy as he becomes more experienced. No longer a smiling, talkative pretty boy, Cage instead emerges as a grizzled veteran. Two major moments signal Cage’s redemptive travel. The first is that he slowly becomes more experienced and adept than even Vrataski. As the Angel of Verdun, Vrataski stands as the most accomplished soldier in the entire army, and she is of course responsible for training Cage. Unsurprisingly, however, Cage can only be redeemed through a process of asserting his superior masculinity: it is imperative for the film that Cage becomes a better soldier than Vrataski.
The second major turning point is when Cage chooses to die, so that the others may live. Obviously the moment of self-sacrifice that finally proves that Cage is no longer a coward but a brave, upstanding soldier and man, it is also rewarded by not actually dying. When Cage dies, he wakes up and — wait for it — experiences a different day. No one remembers anything except him, and crucially the viewers, the Mimics have been mysteriously vanquished and the human race is safe. Cage has proven his worth and gets to live. Cowardice and weakness has been redeemed and the film concludes.
This rhythm, which we may designate the redemption rhythm, is such a strong motif in action films that anyone slightly competent in the genre will recognize it. The variation lies in Cage’s extreme cowardice, but also provides a slightly unusual version of Tom Cruise’s star image. Cruise is well-known for doing most of his own stunts, and in other action films like Mission Impossible, Minority Report, War of the Worlds, Jack Reacher, Oblivion and a host of others he is usually placed in scenes where his athleticism is of paramount importance. That is his spectacular body, unlike the suffering body of Stallone, the steely body of Schwarzenegger, or the martial arts body of Seagal and Van Damme. In Edge of Tomorrow, however, the exoskeletons prevent any direct access to Cruise’s body, let alone any kind of athletic, expressive movement.
Despite this unusual variation, the generic repetition is clear: the male protagonist must rise to the challenge set before him. I believe that this rhythm is part of what holds an otherwise rather fragmented, repetitive, and accelerated narrative together. All the generic markers are present and provide enough support to recognize the narrative beats. In that sense, the film is also repetitive: we have seen everything before, only the narrative loops provide any kind of real variation and even here it is minimal, considering the wealth of narratively experimental mainstream films over the past few decades.
The last rhythm that I will deal with is the intertextual rhythms, where Edge of Tomorrow borrows heavily from earlier action and war films. Much like the generic/thematic structure of redemption, my contention here is that the intertextual rhythms allow for an easier reception of the film. Again, it is not that Edge of Tomorrow is a particularly experimental film, but it does leave out a lot of story material due to its repetitive structure. This is made up for by leaning on recognizable and memorable moments from earlier films.
Especially in the opening scenes, Edge of Tomorrow echoes so much from World War II and World War II films, that it can hardly be called subtle. From General Brigham arguing in a TV interview that they will fight on the beaches and in the streets, that they will never surrender, to calling Rita Vrataski the Angel of Verdun and storming the beaches in Normandy, we are strongly encouraged to activate all the WWII context we can possibly think of. There is a movement here between historical WWII references, most evident in the Churchill evocation and the recognition of relevant place names (Verdun, Normandy, and so forth), and cinematic references on the form of echoes from The Longest Day and other D-Day films. In this way, the intertextual rhythms are not meant as direct references or even significant similarities. Instead, there is simply a general sense of resemblance that will help the viewer place this film within a specific mindset. The threat of the Mimics is correlated with the threat of Nazi Germany, simply because it produces an easy cinematic shorthand for unequivocal bad guys and the brave people who fight against them.
Once we get to the actual beach assault, not only has this charge already been placed in the context of storming the Normandy beaches, but the cinematic style heavily resembles the disorienting and overpowering audiovisual spectacle that Saving Private Ryan pioneered. The shaky handheld cameras panning wildly and unmitigatedly (i.e. not following the character movements), the thundering sounds of guns, bombs, machinery, and the mix of panicked and cocky shouts of soldiers. Even the color scheme, mostly washed-out greens and sands. However, the beach shots are not set on a beach, but instead filmed on the Leavesden backlot piled with sand and green screens. The few actual wide beach shots were shot at Saunton Sands north of Devon, rather than the Normandy beaches or the Curracloe Beach in Ireland that Spielberg decided to use for Saving Private Ryan.
The climax of the film is Cage and Vrataski attacking the Mimic stronghold with Cage’s unit. The impossibly tall structure located in craggy mountains borrow from both The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare. The small unit of brave soldier going where no else can go at great risk to themselves is thus evoked both narratively but also visually with several shots of the Mimic stronghold. Once more, the film depends on recognition as a way of structuring its own rhythm.
One might wonder why Edge of Tomorrow draws so heavily on WWII, considering the wealth of other wars since then. In fact, the film feels like a replay of WWII, which obviously fits well with its general repetitive rhythm. However, considering the box office success of the film, audiences clearly wanted or needed a futuristic reimagining of WWII. While I have argued mainly for the narrative reasons for why the intertextual scaffolding is useful, even necessary, one can easily enough step into an ideological argument that extends beyond the already ideological argument of the redemption rhythm. The ease and comfort of a good war against despicable enemies appears almost too easily shoehorned into a sublimation argument about covering up the dirty wars of recent years. More significant, I think, is the lack of dependence on past and emphasis on the moment rather than duration.
While the intertextual rhythm indicates some sense of past impacting on the present, it is also clear that there is a distinctive sense of choice and exclusion in which exact past gets to count. Not that Edge of Tomorrow is a WWII film but it is a revisionary war film that pretends that critical war films have not become the dominant form. Instead, we are treated to the normal high ground and the redemption myth that reinstates the masculine ideal in the end, despite the obvious tokenism of having a woman being the great war hero. As the film concludes, Cage looks up at a giant poster of Vrataski with the text Victory across it. Yet he knows, as do we, that behind this great woman there is a greater man. The intertextual rhythm also works in that sense, of making sure that we are presented with the proper masculine hero, a line comprised by John Wayne, Sean Connery, and Clint Eastwood.
There are two aspects, then, that are paramount in order to understand the position of Edge of Tomorrow in our current environment: the concussive rhythms of especially the first third of the film and the acceleration of the last two-thirds. With the concussive rhythms preaccelerating the turbulent narrative rhythm, one can be forgiven for feeling somewhat out of breath by the end of the film. The cinematic rhythm overtakes our bodily rhythms, obeying the constant acceleration that Paul Virilio has identified as our dominant cultural rhythm.22
What rhythmanalysis allows us to see, is the fact that these rhythms are not detached from each other: the concussive and accelerated rhythms of Edge of Tomorrow tie into cultural acceleration, at the same time that the film instantiates a cultural rhythm of acceleration. As Lefebvre phrases it,
If there is difference and distinction, there is neither separation nor an abyss between so-called material bodies, living bodies, social bodies and representations, ideologies, traditions, projects and utopias. They are all composed of (reciprocally influential) rhythms in interaction.23
Our bodies, films, ideologies, and much more interact in mutually constitutive rhythms; we cannot separate, nor should we separate these rhythms. As Virilio puts it, “To drive a car is also to be driven by its properties”.24 in the same way, to watch a film is to adopt its properties, at least to some extent. Much like we don’t become cars simply by driving, nor do we become entirely persuaded by a film’s affective thrust, yet our ideological rhythms, our bodily rhythms, our senses interact with the film and a new rhythms emerge from that encounter. In this way, films are expressive in the double sense that Shaviro points to: symptomatic and productive.25 That is to say, films do provide indices or representations of condensed social processes, while at the same time participate in producing these very processes and thus reinforce and constitute them.
It is not that there is no difference between cinematic rhythms and social rhythms, but rather that they interact transductively. It is in this way that Virilio can argue that the image becomes more efficient that the war it is supposed to represent.26 By interacting with our other rhythms, film and other works of art produce new rhythms, intensify or diminish older rhythms, or simply produce unexpected results in their interaction with each other.
One form of diminishing rhythms, as we have seen with the accelerated aesthetics of Edge of Tomorrow is a shift towards a lack of depth of time, what for Virilio amounts to a lack of memory formation. This lack of depth of time is evident in the narrative form of the film, where there is no reason to actually remember most past events, since they are no longer actual or present. Shallow depth of time is also evident in the editing rhythm primarily present in the first part of the film, but still evident throughout the film. Shallow time then lessens our ability to retain events producing a sense of an eternal present, or now. The simultaneity of actions and the fold-back-and-do-over structure does not work as repetitive work that settles memory but repetitive work that cancels memory. We are aligned towards future developments rather than the past, yet at the same time we recognize that every future can dissipate.
If we take the film to be an image weapon more efficient than the battles it represents, then it is clear that Edge of Tomorrow instantiates a shallowing of cinematic time but also of cultural time. The past is irrelevant, the future is mutable but precarious, all we can relate to is the continuous unfolding of a present that will never go away. This repetition that aligns us with a certain way of behavior and a certain way of feeling is exactly what Lefebvre refers to as the “breaking in” of humans:
Humans break themselves in like animals. They learn to hold themselves. Dressage can go a long way: as far as breathing, movements, sex. It bases itself on repetition. One breaks-in another human living being by making them repeat a certain act, a certain gesture or movement.27
What Edge of Tomorrow accomplishes on a larger scale, then, is the breaking in of a shallow form of time, lessening the need for narrative retention, favoring instead a presentational immediacy that holds no particular interest in the unfolding of a meaningful narrative. The archetypal protagonist, the clichéd narrative form, and the generic re-calling of earlier films all work together to make sure that we recognize and understand the unfolding of events without actually having to pay attention to them. Every single scene in Edge of Tomorrow is recognizable without recourse to what has gone before.
The concussive rhythms of the beach assault and the accelerated narrative pacing of the rest of the film are what produces the magical spectacle that Virilio identifies as the primary objective of war. Yet Lefebvre’s rhythmanalysis clearly also allows us to recognize that cinema becomes a participant in this breaking in or production of a particularly sensorium. While Lefebvre never exactly talks about human senses or their training by media forms, it is evident that he would be happy to accept such an argument, considering the way he argues for the way that media technologies structure and align our everyday routines.
The lures of feeling fade as sensations of urgency; we care less and less about Cage going through another day, another death. The rhythms of movement become more and more limited, future events shrivel into one variation or another of the same event. What started out as a rhythm threatens to flatten into chaos, indistinct and identical. This process is what I refer to as droning: a process which disrupts and distorts perception by blurring and obscuring some perceptions while amplifying others. We know that the outcome will be the same, so we stop paying attention to story, and what is left is the loudness of the soundimages, constantly accelerating, but signifying nothing.
I take the droning concept from Robin James’ significant discussion of drones. James connects drone aircrafts to drone tones, positing a drone phenomenology where our perceptual limit reconfigures through “droning” – the creation of a consistent psychological timbre.28 As James argues, “Droning rivets you to material conditions, affects, and sensations that compel you to behave in specific ways, and not in others”.29 In other words, or perhaps more accurately, in Whiteheadian words, the subject produced by droning, is riveted to the soundimages of Edge of Tomorrow in a specific way: it becomes boring. The rhythm becomes a line. Acceleration and loudness become instead a blur. It is not that the intensity is lessened — if anything the intensity increases — but simply that our experience is reduced to one feeling and one feeling only.
Virilio, however, goes a step further and argues that media rhythms are integral to the way we are enmeshed in the world. Developed most fully in his War and Cinema, Virilio’s general argument is that cinema and other visual media produce a logistics of perception. In other words, media rhythms participate as one aspect of our sensory engagement with the world around us. Edge of Tomorrow is one example of how our senses are rendered for us. While we are willing participants in the active construction of meaning that the film sets into motion — I would point to especially the aspects of the redemption rhythm — we are less participants of how our senses are articulated, and more the subjects that emerge from the process of the film.
While a multitude of films produce a multitude of different subjects and sensations, it is evident to me that Edge of Tomorrow connects to a wider trend in cinema: the production of a sensory assault that is extremely energetic, on one hand, but on the other hand employs that immense production of energy to drone out much of our sensory response. Reflection, contemplation, and absorption are all flatly refused by the film. Instead, instaneity, immediacy, and immersion are the modulations of Edge of Tomorrow and contemporary action cinema as a whole. These modulations are all derivatives of speed and acceleration. Contemporary action cinema is clearly an accelerated (but not an accelerationist) cinema.
What these films do, on a larger scale, is to prime its viewers to accelerated life. These sensations of accelerated life have much in common with the way that Kracauer, Benjamin, and similar critics theorized life in the early 20th century and their theories of distraction are helpful to unpack the significance of these sensations, what kind of sensory shields and adaptations we might need or develop in response, but that is a larger matter better left for another time.
- Schubert, Vold og magt, ? ↩
- Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis, 15. ↩
- Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis, 12. ↩
- Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis, 32. ↩
- Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 267?. ↩
- Bíro, Turbulence, 232. ↩
- Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis, 22-23. ↩
- Whitehead, Symbolism, loc 337. ↩
- Wark, Gamer Theory, loc 92. ↩
- Brown, Douglas and Tanya Krzywinska, “Movie-games and Game-movies: Towards an Aesthetics of Transmediality”. Warren Buckland (ed), Film Theory and Contemporary Hollywood Movies. Routledge: New York, 2009. ↩
- Brown and Krzywinska, “Movie-games”, 88. ↩
- Gurevitch, “The Cinemas of Interactions”. Senses of Cinema 2010. ↩
- Wark, Gamer Theory, loc 61. ↩
- Goodman, Sonic Warfare, loc 1016. ↩
- Manning, Relationscapes, 114. ↩
- Duffy, Speed, loc 139. ↩
- Duffy, Speed, loc 215. ↩
- Bíro, Turbulence and Flow, 130. ↩
- Perlman, Cutting Rhythms, 52. ↩
- Schubart’s title carries a double meaning in Danish. Ideomatically the translation would be By hook or crook but literally it means By violence and force. Both meanings are of course valid for action films. ↩
- Schubart, Vold, 147ff. ↩
- Virile, Fear 27. ↩
- Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis 43. ↩
- Virilio, Pure War, 43-44. ↩
- Shaviro, Post-Cinematic Affect, 2. ↩
- Virilio, Vision Machine 68. ↩
- Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis 39. ↩
- Robin James, “Drones, Sound, and Super-Panoptic Surveillance”. Cyborgology October 26th, 2013. http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2013/10/26/drones-sound-and-super-panoptic-surveillance/ ↩
- James, “Drones”. ↩