Can we improve our life if given a chance to play it out again? Edge of Tomorrow and other Hollywood movies say most entertainingly that you can, finds Parvathi Nayar
It has just about the best-ever blend of sci-fi and war — but that’s not only what makes Edge of Tomorrow this summer’s most enjoyable blockbuster. More, it’s how the story of plucky heroes standing up to marauding aliens is set within the “Groundhog Day Effect”.
The term derives from the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray plays a misanthrope TV weatherman stuck in a time loop. He seems doomed to endlessly relive one tedious day of his life. Eventually he realises that seemingly stagnant occurrences can be altered — but only when he changes his responses to them.
The Groundhog Day Effect has become part of everyday language, spawned seminars and self-help mantras, as well as several Hollywood films such as Retroactive and Repeaters. That’s because the idea ties in so well with our real-life paranoia of being stuck in a rut going nowhere.
Philosophically, it’s a variation on the Hindu concept of reincarnation — in that the protagonist returns to an experience over and over again till a life lesson has been learnt — and can therefore move on as a somewhat more enlightened person.
Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow isn’t big on the philosophy of the Groundhog Day Effect — which actually works to differentiate it from the original. Here the breakthrough moment being strived for by Tom Cruise’s character is a way to kill the alien enemy and, yes, save the world. The repetitions aren’t boring — it allows for some cunningly crafted storytelling and clever cinematic edits.
Never mind that America didn’t love it — this past week’s box-office reports called Edge of Tomorrow the No. 1 movie in the world with a weekend gross of US$111 million, of which US$82 million was garnered outside America.
Time loops in films have varying takes on the length of time a character has to relive the day. The original conceit of Groundhog Day was that Murray’s character lived through some 10,000 years of the same day before illumination dawned, though the director finally compressed it to about 40 years. In Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, the eponymous heroine gets to do three alternate timelines of the 20-minute run to save her lover’s life till she gets it right; The Last Day of Summer — Groundhog Day for kids — has at least eight recurrences of the single day; 50 First Dates also loops, as the title promises, because the Drew Barrymore character has a particular kind of amnesia that keeps her living out the same day.
While no reason is given for the weatherman being trapped in a time loop in Groundhog Day, other films have offered pseudo-scientific explanations for being stuck in repeated time. Such as Edge of Tomorrow, or Duncan Jones’s energetically inventive Source Code. In the latter, a scientific programme allows a man to continually relive eight minutes of a train ride; the train gets blown up at the end of each session, and the purpose is to figure out a way of preventing this and future tragedies.
In 12:01, an experiment gone wrong in a science lab has the entire world held in a time loop. Interesting detail: the makers of 12:01 have claimed that their film, released the same year as Groundhog Day, was the original. Had they won their case, we might well be discussing the 12:01 Effect.
Whatever the name, we the viewers see hope in the protagonist’s predicament of multiple-relivings. As Milan Kundera has said of the human dilemma in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?” Living within the Groundhog Day Effect offers an alternate way, albeit only cinematically.