Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Because I Know You: Friendship and Tom Cruise

by Charity Erickson

The other day, I went to see Edge of Tomorrow, the newest addition to Tom Cruise’s rather extensive sci-fi repertoire. I entered the theater not knowing much about the film, and to my amusement, I found it follows the same basic plot of Groundhog Day--with an alien invasion as the backdrop. (Google confirms that I am approximately the 416,000th person to make this observation.)

The similarities are uncanny: in Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s Phil Connors relives the same day over and over until he figures out how to love selflessly. In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise’s William Cage is a military propagandist who finds himself able to reset the same day over and over as he attempts to defeat the time-manipulating collective consciousness of an alien horde that besets humanity. Also, there is a woman!

Each day that Cage resets--which he does by dying--he must find this woman, a soldier wunderkind named Rita, and together they try (and fail) each time to defeat their indomitable foe. Upon failing, Cage kills himself. And then, *respawn*. However, Cage is the only one able to remember and learn from all of their failed attempts to save the world; for Rita, each day she meets Cage is the first.

While the film is pretty meh in the inventiveness of its hero’s arc (even with the whole time travel thing, the film’s action unfolds in a staid and predictable fashion,) the relationship between Rita and Cage saves this piece of science fiction. Really good science fiction, in the end, is not simply speculation about other worlds, realities, futures and pasts; it uses that which is fictive and far away to talk about things that are close: love, war, fear, family. In the case of Edge of Tomorrow, amidst exploding aircraft and vicious aliens, we find a rather poignant statement on what makes a friendship.

Toward the end of the film, Rita expresses frustration with Cage that he is unwilling to sacrifice her life in order to complete their mission and end the war. In her reality, they’ve only just met; yet in Cage’s reality, they have spent the equivalent of years together. She asks him why he cares whether she lives or dies, and he answers, as though it should be self-evident: “Because I know you.” Not “Because I love you,” or “Because I need you,” but simply because he knows her. There is something terribly beautiful about the simplicity of his statement: all it takes to deeply care about another person is to take the time to know her.*

Through the vast majority of the film, the relationship between Rita and Cage reads as a completely platonic, even one-sided friendship, and I find this fascinating as it is not a topic often explored in “serious” film; it is a topic most often relegated to comedy and chick flicks. (The only opposite-gender friendships I can think of in popular media are found in sitcoms--Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy being the most touching example, obvs.) The “bromance” has made the topic of male friendship more common in film, but somewhat-problematically so. Not only does the term whiff of giggling, “no homo” douchebaggery, but it also demonstrates that we are still so ill at ease when speaking about deep friendship, we can’t even figure out a word to call it that doesn’t confusingly conflate it with eros.

That said, I am happy that films exploring the importance of friendship are being made. Anything that acknowledges and normalizes the role deep friendships play in our lives is a boon to the emotional life of our culture, a guide to better and healthier relationships. When we don’t take friendship seriously in art and media, when we leave it unacknowledged as a source both of joy and pain in life, we do a disservice to the richness to be found in meaningful relationships that are founded neither on kinship nor sexual attraction.

For just as we are interdependent with other people, we are interdependent with our media--we trust it to hold a mirror to humanity, and we inform it, just as it informs us. When media portrays the love among friends as trivial compared to, say, romantic love, that attitude leaches into our lived lives, and we find ourselves either confused by the powerful emotions of friendship or we deprive ourselves of those relationships from the start. Like Edge of Tomorrow, perhaps more films will think deeply about the sanctity of friendship and usher in a future where our definitions of love are bigger. Tom-Cruise-summer-blockbuster-sized, even. Amen.

*Spoiler/Caveat: the film hinted at romance at the VERY end, but I chose to ignore it. BECAUSE IT MADE NO SENSE. And apparently, no such romantic relationship exists in the graphic novel upon which the film is based--which must be why the intimation here seemed so out-of-place. 

Charity Erickson and her husband live and work together in the north woods of Minnesota. Check out her blog for more of her writing and follow her on Twitter @ecumystic.

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