Tuesday, July 15, 2014

'Edge of Tomorrow' and the Invulnerable Protagonist

In blockbuster movies we’ve come to expect our heroes to survive even the most fatal scenarios. But in the new sci-fi action film Edge of Tomorrow, we see our protagonist die over and over and over again. 
 by Adriaan Odendaal

Whether it’s scrawny Shia LaBoeuf, or veiny Stallone, action heroes just never seems to die. They survive helicopter crashes, dodge machine-gun fire, and escape burning buildings unscathed. While such perilous contrivances are meant to build tension throughout these films, ‘imminent danger’ has long since lost all its dramatic impact as we’ve learnt not to fear for the safety and survival of our protagonists. This is all due to a tedious new archetype created by the modern blockbuster: the invulnerable protagonist.

We only need to look at a movie’s poster to know that the hero is going to survive at the end of the film, regardless of what gets thrown at him or her. In the action movie genre the invulnerable protagonist has become so entrenched that this archetype has even started becoming a parody of itself. At one point in The Expendables 2, for example, we see our band of action heroes trapped under enemy fire, surrounded from all sides, ammo out. Then, somewhat infringing on the diegesis of the film, Chuck Norris (playing ‘Booker’) comes out of nowhere and superhumanly kills all the enemy combatants, saving our heroes from certain death. Norris’ cameo is concluded with a cringe-worthy Chuck Norris joke that pokes fun at this arch-action hero’s invulnerability:

“I heard another rumour, that you were bit by a king cobra,” Stallone’s character says.

“Yeah I was,” says Booker, “but after five days of agonizing pain, the cobra died”.

The invulnerable protagonist has become this prevalent in action movies because ‘imminent danger’ plays such a crucial role in this genre. Yet this archetype is in fact something you will find in most mainstream movies (whether a rom-com or biopic). This is because these movies usually follow the classical Aristotelian dramatic structure. Renowned screenwriting instructor Robert McKee writes on this structure: "The classically told story usually places a single protagonist… at the heart of the telling. One major story dominates screentime and its protagonist is the star role."

What this means is that you can’t have your protagonist die halfway thought a story, otherwise the structure will collapse and the narrative centre will be lost. Even Shakespeare’s tragic leading characters survive till the very end (at which point they usually die horrible deaths).

Of course, we do have stories that kill off protagonists or main characters in the middle of the narrative. Because this is something we don’t expect, it is used to great dramatic effect. Derek Cianfrance’s 2012 film The Place Beyond the Pines is a great example. In this movie our leading man, Ryan Gosling, dies 45 minutes into the 140 minute movie. The narrative is then suddenly taken over by Bradley Cooper’s character.

Besides shocking us into attention, the narrative disruption caused by Luke’s (Gosling) death also has another poignant and dramatic effect: our experience of Luke’s untimely death sets us on edge as we realise that in this film the protagonist is not invulnerable and that Cooper can likewise die at any moment. And thus tension is heightened (even though Place Beyond the Pines is a rather slow-paced film).

A more popular example is perhaps Game of Thrones. Series author George R. R. Martin is famous for killing off lead characters: "We've all seen the movies where the hero is in trouble- he's surrounded by 20 people, but you know he's gonna get away 'cause he's the hero. You don't really feel any fear for him. I want my readers, and I want viewers. to be afraid when my characters are in danger. I want them to be afraid to turn the next page because the next character may not survive it."

And like Conan O’Brien replies to Martin in his interview: “You’ve achieved that”.

[Before continuing to read, I must warn you: HERE BE SPOILERS]

Being so intuitively familiar with the invulnerable protagonist, when I went to watch the new sci-fi action film Edge of Tomorrow I naturally had very little fear for the survival of the protagonist. It was not just the genre that acted as a warning sign, but the leading man as well. With only one or two exceptions, Tom Cruise movies seem to always be hewn from the same stone as all those other formulaic blockbusters. Moreover, this one was directed by Doug Liman (the man behind those ludicrously non-fatal shootout scenes in Mr. and Ms. Smith). Yet watching the trailer for Edge of Tomorrow my curiosity was piqued by Tom’s voice-over warning us: “I die within five minutes of landing on that beach”.

Edge of Tomorrow plays off in the not-too-distant future. An alien race called the Mimics has invaded earth, occupying the Continent just like the Third Reich did during World War II. And like in that historic war, the decisive offensive against the occupiers is set to fall on the beaches of Normandy.

Through an ill-fated turn, our protagonist Major Cage (Cruise) finds himself demoted and sent to the fatal frontlines. And just like that opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan where many men fall even before hitting the sand, Edge of Tomorrow’s Normandy beach scene is bloody and chaotic. Yet unlike Tom Hank’s Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan, Tom Cruise’s (now) Private Cage does not miraculously survive the onslaught. When Cage manages to kill one of the Mimics, he in turn gets sprayed with acidic blue blood that eats right through his face, flesh, and bones.

The death of a leading character is almost unimaginable in an action movie, so at this moment of Cruises’ premature expiration we experience profound shock and confusion (this, right after we see Emily Blunt blown to pieces seconds after her first appearance). Yet more than anything, we are also profoundly titillated, intrigued, and entertained. As celebrated editor and playwright Sol Stein writes: "[A writer’s] job is to give readers stress, strain, and pressure. The fact is that readers who hate those things in life love them in fiction. Until a writer assimilates that fact he will have difficulty in consciously creating sufficient moments in which the reader feels tension."

Part of the power of tension, however, lies in relieving it. Thus, moments after Cage dies, he wakes up again in the exact same spot where he lay a day before, allowing the audience to release their collectively held breath. And as Cage (again) goes through the very motions that led up to his death, we become intoxicated by the mystery and unexpectedness of it all.

And so it goes: again and again we see Cage and Rita (Blunt) die. “Live. Die. Repeat,” as the films tagline says. And with each cycle, Cage learns more, remembers more, and avoids dying just a little bit longer. Eventually, we are told by another character that the self-same blue blood that killed Cage in the first place, also gave him the unique involuntary ability to reset the day whenever he dies.

This fatal plot device has a very interesting double-sided effect regarding the invulnerable protagoinst: on the one hand, continuously ‘killing off’ the main character chips away at our expectations of the invulnerable protagonist (and this is a great way to draw an audience in, as George R. R. Martin has shown); and on the other hand, Cruise’s character in fact becomes the quintessential invulnerable protagonist as not even literal death can now kill him. Cage can die easily, and at the same time he can’t die at all. And in the rift between these two opposing forces, something extraordinary happens.

Throughout the progression of Edge of Tomorrow we are slowly lulled into the comforting thought that nothing can kill off our protagonist. Yet Cage’s immortality is established through constantly letting him die from haphazard events: shrapnel hits him; he tries to roll underneath the wheels of a truck like something from Mission Impossible; he repeatedly dies in training sessions; he gets shot, maimed, and blown up. The effect of this is that Cage becomes invulnerable, and at the same time also becomes hyper-vulnerable as he can die from things no typical action hero ever dies from.

What then happens when Cage loses his live-die-repeat resetting ability in the last act of the film is that we horribly realise that Cage can easily die again, and not come back. We’ve gotten used to Cage having no more resilience than an extra in Saving Private Ryan, and now suddenly he can’t come back again. And thus tension is heightened as Cage’s oscillation between invulnerability and hyper-vulnerability pulls us in completely and allows us to finally experience each ‘imminently dangerous’ situation as a truly life-threatening event.

As the film neared its conclusion, I found myself conflicted. The critic in me hoped Cage would die one last and final time, for that would sufficiently disrupt the whole Hollywood action flick paradigm and subvert its entrenched invulnerable protagonist archetype. But Cage’s sudden vulnerability demanded such involvement from me that I couldn’t but wish Cage to survive the now seemingly impossible odds stacked against him.