Spoiler note: we discuss the endings of Edge Of Tomorrow, Source Code and Triangle further down. We have marked where.
We all dream of second chances. Who doesn’t sometimes wonder how their life could have turned out if they had made a different decision at some crucial crossroads in their past? This tantalising hypothetical is the focus of countless time travel plots, but it’s also central to the less common subgenre of time loop films.
The most famous example of this genre is legendary comedy Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray’s egotistical weatherman Phil Connors relives the same day again and again. Whereas Phil uses this opportunity to get the girl (Andie MacDowell) there are many other films, such as the recent Edge Of Tomorrow, where time loops offer not a second chance at love, but a second chance at life.
While Phil had to face an eternity in the mundane surroundings of Punxsutawney, Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is tasked with the more challenging goal of saving the world from Mimics, a race of robotic aliens that can reset time as a self-defence mechanism. As a PR man thrust onto the frontline he’s initially clueless and cowardly, but after he absorbs the Mimics’ time reset ability he learns to become a great soldier, and in fact, the last hope for humanity.
Edge Of Tomorrow’s time loop provides a perfect way of dramatising the unimaginable large-scale losses of war. It’s far easier to care about the fate of one man who you follow for two hours than the deaths of several million soldiers you only glimpse at a distance for a brief second. By repeatedly witnessing Cage’s futile attempts to defeat the Mimics, we get a small sense of the warfare playing out across the entire battlefront.
It’s a fascinating way of turning military cannon fodder into something more emotional and developed, a theme that is explored well in another time loop film, Duncan Jones’s 2011 thriller Source Code. In Source Code, Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a half-dead U.S. Army pilot forced to relive the same eight-minute loop by his superiors in order to find out who planted a bomb and prevent a future attack.
He demands to be allowed to die once his mission is complete, but his boss Dr Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) claims that “many soldiers would find this preferable to death – the opportunity to continue serving their country”. Colter’s hard-bitten reply says it all: “You ever spent any time in battle sir? Any soldier I’ve served with would say that one death is enough”.
Rutledge’s comments say a lot about the attitude to heroism in mainstream blockbusters. It’s seen as a duty, nay a privilege, to serve one’s country and the hero is expected to follow orders blindly in search of victory. Source Code and Edge Of Tomorrow both challenge this assertion, which also comes into conflict with the way death is normally represented in such films.
Think of any big-budget action movie: there will inevitably be a moment where the hero is fleeing from a hail of bullets, or fighting close combat amongst a crowd of enemies. In real life, or if you’re one of the less important supporting characters in the film, one of those bullets would catch you. One of those enemies would take the opportunity to stab you in the back and that would be the end of the hero’s journey. Both films embrace the realism absent from so many blockbusters and make their heroes truly fallible. Even with countless second chances, Cage and Colter struggle to survive, so just how ridiculous is it that most action heroes can beat seemingly unstoppable opponents against the odds?
In contrast, horror is a genre where failure is almost mandatory. We expect to see our heroes make mistakes and get slaughtered, and 2009 film Triangle is no different. A boat trip turns murderous in a never-ending loop, but only protagonist Jess is aware of it as she tries to first save, and then kill, her fellow passengers. In a typical horror, a lot of the interest comes from wondering how each character is going to meet their grisly end, but Triangle subverts that with its time loop premise.
We experience the usual bloody thrills the first time the action plays out, but every subsequent time it just becomes more gruesome and sickeningly realistic. We know exactly what’s going to happen so there’s no surprise to anticipate, just the inevitable and saddening gore. This is exemplified with one moment in particular where Sally, a member of the group, is wounded and tries to crawl to safety away from Jess, believing that she is the attacker. As they round the corner of the ship, a sickening sight is revealed: a quiet corner full of Sally’s corpses from past loops, lying in a bloody and decaying pile.
[SPOILER NOTE: WE TALK ABOUT THE ENDINGS TO EDGE OF TOMORROW, SOURCE CODE AND TRIANGLE FROM THIS POINT ON]
The true horror at the heart of Triangle is revealed in its final act. Jess escapes home and heads to the dock with her son Tommy to warn the others, but on the way she crashes and Tommy dies. As Jess arrives at the dock, the loop begins to close. This is the same Jess we saw at the start of the film. No matter what she does, she will end up here, making the same mistakes. She is doomed to watch her son and her friends die again and again.
It’s a chilling finale, suggesting that death can never be cheated. In contrast, Edge Of Tomorrow offers a much happier message, with Cage defeating the Mimics and jumping even further back in time to before the assault. The final reset is a (slightly plothole-y) surprise, but it’s Cage’s attitude as he’s approaching what he expects to be certain death that sets the moral tone of the film. He’s overcome his initial cowardice and is now fully prepared to sacrifice his life to end the war. It suggests that we’re all going to die; the challenge is in learning to do something worthwhile in the time you have.
Source Code’s ending is even more powerful and hopeful. Colter’s superiors are adamant that his actions in the loop won’t affect the past, but with his final journey he proves them wrong. He reconciles with his father, gets together with Christina (Michelle Monaghan) and spreads a message to the irritable passengers on his train: enjoy every second you have. His time runs out, the action freezes mid-kiss…but then it continues. Colter has beaten the loop and beaten death. His body is beyond repair, but his mind is alive. For Colter, this is the afterlife, and it’s exactly what he deserves.
In the end, the use of time loops in these films offers a conflicting message that deconstructs certain aspects of blockbuster and horror cliché while succumbing to the stereotypical endings of each genre. Edge Of Tomorrow and Source Code paradoxically use a high-concept premise to restore the realism and mundanity to action blockbusters, while questioning the untouchable iconography of the hero. Likewise, Triangle turns the horror movie’s reliance on shocks and gruesome deaths on its head, by laying out the blueprints to such moments right in front of our eyes.
All three films revert to a familiar ending, with Edge Of Tomorrow and Source Code making true heroes of Cage and Colter by the end and giving them both happy endings, even beyond death. Triangle too sinks into a horrifically bleak conclusion, typical of its genre, though it’s so well done you can’t complain too much. Death and déjà vu provide an excellent opportunity to question what a life is worth in these films, but so far the time loop concept has tested but not broken their generic boundaries.
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