Jun 7, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars, Edge of Tomorrow and the Fear of Oblivion

By Josh Oakley

(Massive spoilers for The Fault in Our Stars and Edge of Tomorrow follow)

We all longed to be remembered. There is a cosmic potency to our image outliving our body; a poetry to never being forgotten. This is an issue raised often by August Waters, the tragic love interest of The Fault in Our Stars. He fears oblivion, the void of existence where everything he did is tossed aside in favor of the future. We long to be remembered because to be forgotten is, in a way, to never have lived at all.

The Fault in Our Stars, both book and film, considers death a metaphor, the literary device so favored by its lead characters. Death is not just the physical act of dying; it represents the idea of no longer being present, of leaving things behind and people in mourning. More aptly, death is like the end of a novel (or the other way around), placing a sentence on that which seemed like an infinity. The reason the book became such a sensation was because it reminded readers that life is precious not just because it can be taken quickly, but because of the beauty that resides within it. When Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) confronts Augustus (Ansel Elgort) about his fear of oblivion she is, one hand, defending her importance in his life. On the other hand, she is also pointing out that being remembered is not the only thing that one contributes to the world.

The new Tom Cruise-led action/science fiction movie Edge of Tomorrow does not seem like a companion piece for Stars beyond their shared release date. But both, in distinct yet similar ways, are obsessed with what death means, and how it relates to love. This film follows Cage (Cruise), a PR man turned soldier who quickly gains the ability to relive the previous day whenever he dies. He eventually shares this with “Full Metal Bitch” Rita (Emily Blunt) who became a legend due to the same power. Cage and Rita work together to eliminate an alien army that seeks to overtake Earth. Cage learns to fight and maneuver the landscape through his newfound Groundhog Day-esque talent.

The nature of the film, and Cage’s rebirths, make death a sort of punch line throughout much of Tomorrow. Whenever he is damaged, Rita shoots him to restart the day, and the effect is often played for laughs. One of the many sneakily brilliant aspects of the movie, however, is quietly imprinting the effect this is having on Cage. It isn’t simply the tedium of pressing the restart button ad nauseam. One montage highlights the fact that in many of these scenarios, Rita dies before Cage. He is forced to watch somebody that he is growing to love be killed over and over, who knows how many times. The reveal, in the farmhouse, that Cage has relived a helicopter takeoff enough to learn how Rita takes her coffee isn’t overplayed. It’s a beautiful moment, perhaps the film’s best, where the implication of love becomes a reality. He has spent eternity with her; she, only a couple of hours with him.

The end of Edge of Tomorrow cheats quite a lot, but to my mind it is earned, and the final note is perfection. After saving the world, Cage wakes up before any of the events of the film have happened. He then goes to the exact spot where he knows Rita will be. She demandingly asks who he is. He smiles. Cut to credits. Like much of the rest of the movie, the moment isn’t overplayed, and though a happy ending is implied it is not shown to be absolute truth.

What ties this ending to Augustus Waters’ fear of oblivion is the way in which the world has been saved. Through the illogical twists of science fiction, the world of Tomorrow is protected, but nobody who stopped the aliens will ever receive credit. Their good deeds have been lost in some sort of wormhole; the effect of their actions transported through time, but not those actions themselves. This fact doesn’t seem to cross Cage’s mind though, for even a moment. Call it the simple, romantic ending, but he is only interested in finding Rita and supposedly convincing her of the years they shared together.

Hazel Grace’s aforementioned scolding of Augustus is of a similar vein; she doesn’t see why he needs the world to remember him. Isn’t she enough? It’s a powerful sentiment; when we wish to be remembered past our death, who do we really wish to be remembered by? “You get me, and your family and this world,” Hazel tells Gus. In our efforts to be written about in history books, it can be easy to overlook the lives we actually touch, and the people we’ve buried ourselves within. This is what makes Stars’ climactic eulogy scene so powerful; Gus is able to hear the exact ways he will be remembered by the two people he loved most.

Cage has no problem addressing this inevitability. He greets a new opportunity with excitement, that Cruisian smile selling an entire, unseen epilogue. He is fully aware that few will know his heroic efforts, the fact that he saved the entire world . This doesn’t bother him at all. At least not within the context of whom he longs to be remembered by. This isn’t to scold Gus as his experiences were drastically different from Cage’s. And this is a lesson he learns, or at least is told by Hazel.

One of the pivotal lives of The Fault in Our Stars is “some infinities are bigger than other infinities”. This references a true mathematical theory, but it also speaks to the way we experience life. Cage’s infinity is much larger than that captured in the relationship between Hazel and Gus. But neither is more or less vital than the other. Both are experiences that happened, and exist within the framework of time and memory. This is what makes the central invention of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind so tragic; when one chooses to forget us, what impact did we make?

That begs the question then: what comes at the end of an infinity? Maybe, hopefully, the act of being remembered. I know my hope is to live in the mind of, someone, anyone, who can recall my laugh, my smile, my truths, if only for a while. I long to exist both within an infinity, and beyond it. I want to be remembered by a person, if I cannot be remembered by the world.


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