“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.'”
— Matthew 16:24-25, New International Version
“And why should we ourselves risk our lives hour by hour? For I swear, dear brothers and sisters, that I face death daily. This is as certain as my pride in what Christ Jesus our Lord has done in you. And what value was there in fighting wild beasts—those people of Ephesus—if there will be no resurrection from the dead? And if there is no resurrection, ‘Let’s feast and drink, for tomorrow we die!'”
— 1 Corinthians 15:30-32, New Living Translation
“I hope tomorrow will bring / a better you, a better me”
— Siedah Garrett (lyricist), Tomorrow (A Better You, Better Me)
Thanks to the good people at Klout, I attended an advance screening of the Tom Cruise / Emily Blunt sci-fi action film “Edge of Tomorrow,” and what I found surprised me.
First, it was good. Like, really good. Plenty of good old-fashioned action, but smartly paced and edited, moderated by a delicious time-travel premise, and magnified by two AAA-grade performances by Blunt and Cruise. If “Groundhog Day” and “District 9″* ever hooked up, had a child, and then hired F. Gary Gray’s “Italian Job” remake to babysit on the weekends, that film would grow up to be “Edge of Tomorrow.”
So yes, I was surprised by how good it was. Mostly because prior to this film I had no experience watching Emily Blunt, and I haven’t been interested in Tom Cruise as an action hero since 2006’s “Mission Impossible III.”
What really surprised me, though, were the numerous spiritual parallels I picked up on as I watched the film. Not since “The Matrix” during my college years have I been so pleasantly surprised about the ways in which a film like this could underscore spiritual principles that are central to the Christian faith.
Now I recognize that there’s some confirmation bias here, that because being a Christian is such a pivotal part of my identity and it underscores everything that I do, that it’s not hard for me to find examples of belief in pieces of art or film-making where no such belief is intended, especially since some of these themes are not particularly exclusive to Christianity. Given that the film was adapted from the Japanese novel All You Need Is Kill, the more cynical among us might filter my interpretation through the popular axiom, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
So really, I get it. This is not a Christian film.
But man oh man, if the Apostle Paul was reviewing this film for Variety, his Rotten Tomatoes pull-quote would probably be something like, “I couldn’t have written it any better myself.”
More than any film I’ve seen in years, this action flick illustrates the difficult Christian principle of dying to self — first articulated by Jesus himself at the end of Matthew 16, then expounded upon by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.
See, when we first meet the film’s protagonist, he’s in — forgive the pun — cruise control. Major Bill Cage is an officer in the United Defense Force, but he’s mostly just a glorified PR rep, doing interviews on major news stations describing the bravery and heroism of the soldiers battling against a fierce, alien menace. This persona is vintage Tom Cruise, cocky and charming, and he’s happy to serve as the mouthpiece of the battle — that is, until he’s asked to actually serve in the battle.
As a punishment for insubordination, Cage is sent into the front lines to fight, armed with a giant, bulky mechanical suit that he knows nothing about operating. And so, quite naturally, he dies.
Again, and again, and again.
See, upon dying on the battlefield, Cage wakes up again at the start of his day, and has to endure his unceremonious recruitment into the ragtag J squad all over again. Over and over, he keeps reliving the same day. Eventually he encounters Emily Blunt’s mysterious warrior character, who ends up explaining his predicament and guiding him through his quixotic journey. Eventually she trains him to kick enough ass for them to team up and save the world. (I’d say more, but y’know… spoilers.)
Now, the “save the world” part is the part we know and love in these kinds of action movies, but the soul of this film is in the training, in the living and dying and repeating, as the film’s tagline says. As a regular viewer of normal popcorn action fare, I found it delightful to see Tom Cruise eschew his normal unflinching action hero persona to play a guy who freaks the hell out at the sight of actual combat. Part of the pleasure that unfolds is seeing his gradual progression from frightened neophyte to hardened badass, one grisly demise at a time.
And yet, as I watched, I couldn’t help but feel a few dreaded pangs of conviction.
One of the things this film illustrates is that for some, there is a wide gulf of reality between simply talking about something and actually doing it. Cage was an expert at spouting cliches about heroism and bravery, but when it came time to actually strapping in and being brave, he was a grade-A noob.
As for me, I’m a worship leader by trade. It’s my job to stand onstage and lead, with words spoken, sung and accompanied by music, into the throne room of worship. It’s my job to know what to say, what to sing, and how to sing it or say it.
But how much am I living this thing out? How often am I singing worship songs outside of worship planning? How often do my heart and my actions lag behind my words and intentions?
I also write for a living. But how often do I read the Scripture aside from the next blog post or magazine article? How often do I feed myself from God’s living Word just because I need it, not because I need to show it to someone else?
These are the questions I would rather ignore, but unfortunately — and also, fortunately — they can’t be drowned out by THX sound design and the sound of crunching popcorn.
The central point of clarity for me came around the beginning of the second act, after Cage meets Emily Blunt’s super soldier Rita Vrataski. Cage, Vrataski and molecular biophysicist Dr. Carter (Noah Taylor) are holed in a room. Rita and Dr. Carter have just explained the situation to Cage, and, in an attempt to infuse a modicum of hope, tell him that he has the opportunity to change his situation and rid humanity of the alien infestation once and for all. All smiles, Cage says something along the lines of, “so how does this work?”
“You have to die,” she says, with neither compassion nor pity. (After all, she is Emily Blunt.)
Cage blanches immediately. Even before he recites his next line, you can see it all over his face. This is not what I signed up for. Waitaminute, I didn’t even sign up! I was unfairly railroaded into this! Why should I have to die so that others can live?
This is the crux of my predicament, day in and day out. And I know I’m not alone here.
As a Christian, dying to self is not simply a handy metaphor that references Christ’s death and resurrection. It is a daily call to yield our very lives in service to the One who gave up His on our behalf. It’s a challenge to walk, sometimes with blind, stumbling gait, into situations that often make us feel like we’re horribly mismatched, outgunned, and overwhelmed. It’s a willingness to fail repeatedly, sometimes even spectacularly, out of a sense of trust in a divine redeemer and friend whose love overcomes our desire for self-preservation.
It’s in realizing, like Paul Schneider in Lars and the Real Girl did, that taking his brother’s condition seriously and walking with him means that “people are going to make fun of him.”
“And you,” the therapist adds.
This is what it means to die to yourself. So when you say yes to Jesus, this is what you’re saying yes to. This sounds like bad news, but in reality, it’s the best news ever.
It means that we don’t have to keep up with the rat race of success, we don’t have to strive 24/7 to be harder, better, faster, stronger — our success can instead be redefined into simply doing our best to follow Jesus wherever he leads. And it’s not that our dreams and goals are meaningless, but rather, precisely because they are so meaningful, we get to trust in the providence of the one who planted them in the first place.
Not only that, but as we endure difficult trials, we not only obtain a baseline level of wisdom that comes from experience, but we — like our heroes Bill and Rita — get the benefit of walking alongside a comfortable, trusted friend who provides guidance and direction. And when we fail and repent, we get to wake up the next day with a totally clean slate and a fresh well of mercy from which to draw.
So take heart and be of good cheer. And if you’re ready for a good time at the movies, go check out “Edge of Tomorrow,” which opens June 6th in theaters nationwide. Because its lesson is one we should all take to heart:
When it comes to the Christian life, dying is the only way to really live.
*I’ve found that most reviewers, when describing the mashup of style and tone go with “Starship Troopers” but that film had like zero gravitas, and it spent way too much time fetishizing the aliens.