The Time Travel and Ending of “Edge of Tomorrow” Explained

June 6, 2014

edge-of-tomorrow

Last night, I went to see the new Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt science-fiction film Edge of Tomorrow, which is based on the Japanese manga All You Need Is Kill.

The racial cross-casting of Cage’s character — he is inspired by Japanese protagonist Keichi in the manga — aside, this film is phenomenal. Nerds and feminists — and especially nerd feminists — will adore this movie. It’s sharp, funny, entertaining, compelling, and visually stunning. Haters of Tom Cruise get to see Tom Cruise get killed about a hundred times in stunt scenes that Cruise himself described as “channeling Wile E. Coyote” on Daily Show last night. Emily Blunt’s Rita is stellar: she is the aspirational super-soldier, and not the simpering girlfriend; she’s also got a bad-ass giant sword. Those who loved Pacific Rim‘s portrayal of a male-female peer relationship that was largely non-sexual will adore the relationship between Rita and Cruise’s Cage in this film.

Basically, it’s just really good. Go see it. I’ll wait.

Okay, now that you’ve seen it — did you have all kinds of thoughts and questions about those aliens and the “time travel” in this movie? Snoopy and I did, too, and we geeked out over a late-night dinner about the science of how what happened could have happened. Here’s what we came up with, and I’m posting about it because — goshdarn it — I think we really figured this thing out.

Spoilers! This post will spoil the entire movie.

edge-of-tomorrow-suit

Okay, so the conceit of the film is that these aliens, called Mimics, have a looping “time travel”-like power that allows them to reset a day, memories intact, whenever they are in danger. That power gets transferred to Cruise’s Cage, setting the whole film off. All You Need Is Kill has a similar conceit, but from the manga’s Wikipedia page, other aspects of the Mimics seem different than those of Edge of Tomorrow. So this post is going to treat the Edge of Tomorrow Mimics as if they are stand-alone.

The “time travel” of the Edge of Tomorrow Mimics isn’t really time travel, it’s consciousness-travelling (similar to the conceit of the travesty that was X-Men: Days of Future Past): the Mimics — and by extension Cage — are not physically travelling from one timepoint to another; instead, their minds are jumping backwards to an earlier timepoint, allowing them to alter the course of time by making decisions informed by a possible future.

But, how does this really work? What is the relative role of the Alphas (the glowing sentinel Mimics) and the Omega (the central core that Snoopy thought was heavily inspired by Starship Troopers‘ Brain Bug)? And, isn’t this just one giant incubator for alternative universes? (To that last point, the answer is yes.)

Edge-of-Tomorrow-Mimics

There are two clues: 1) the Mimics are actually a single organism with each individual Mimic type acting in tandem with the whole, and 2) the “resetting” power always bringing Cage back to the same point in time. The key is to think about the Mimics not as some evil, super-intelligent being; instead, think of it as a creature acting purely on instinct. Think of it like biology.

The Mimic is an organism whose sole purpose is to conquer planets, and has evolved a complex self-defense mechanism to ensure its own propagation. The Mimic drones are the “claws” — the Mimics’ primary defense system. The Alphas are “sentinels” that exist to gauge the degree to which any threat makes it past the drones; if something kills an Alpha, this indicates sufficient danger to instinctively trigger the Mimics’ final self-defense mechanism: the looping.

And how does that work? In addition to its primary function to coordinate the actions of all drones and Alphas, the Omega has an additional characteristic. The Omega Mimic exists simultaneously at three points in time. If you think of time as a linear dimension, each of us occupies a single point on that line. The Omega Mimic exists instead as a line connecting three points spanning an approximate 48 hour period: the “distant past”, the “present-past”, and the “future-present”. The “present-past” point serves as the main anchor point: a fixed position in time from which to (routinely) reset the day. From that point in time, the Omega extends a version of itself towards the “future-present” like a cell that moves by extending a tendril ahead to test a space out to see if it’s safe.

A macrophage extends a "foot" out into space to "test the waters" before moving its entire body to the new position.
A macrophage extends a “foot” out into space to “test the waters” before moving its entire body to the new position.

And, like cells, if the Omega encounters danger in that future (as evidenced by the death of an alpha) it instinctively retracts back to its first anchor point and tries going in a different direction.

And what about the “distant past”? That’s a reserve anchor point that allows the Omega to reset from even farther back in time, allowing it to never be fully committed to a single temporal direction. If things get really dicey, it will retract far enough away to move in a completely different direction, entirely. If we think of it spatially, the “present-past” and “future-present” are like taking steps after deciding to go left; the “distant-past” exists as a mechanism to abandon going left entirely.

So how did Cage get the power to loop? Well, the Alphas are “sentinels”: as deadly as a drone, but their true power lies in their blood. If the looping power is a final self-defense mechanism for the Mimics, than the death of an Alpha would be the trigger to initiate a reset. Mixture of Cage’s blood with a dying Alpha (somehow — this is never explained and defies biology) integrated Cage into the Mimic’s  network of sentinel Alphas. In essence, as far as the Omega was concerned, he was another Alpha. Every time Cage died, the Omega mistook this for a signal that it was in danger and triggered a loop.

Cage was never in control of the looping power. The Omega was being fooled into looping by thinking Cage was an endlessly dying Alpha sentinel.

edge-of-tomorrow-emily-blunt

Update: (I solidified this particular detail after this post was written, so am adding it now). The “time travel”, specifically, is psychic-based and is channeled through the Omega. Basically, when the Omega is given a signal to loop, it pulls a clone or mirror of all the memories of all its network of itself and its Alphas (probably not the drones, that’s huge amount of processing for limited gain) and creates a copy of those memories in the Omega. Then, it sends that entire data package through itself to the “present past” anchor point, and then redistributes those memories out to the Mimic network (and to Cage, who is a pseudo-Alpha). From the perspective of an Alpha, this would appear to be like you just traveled back in time, but really you just got all the memories and life experiences of a future Cage who made different choices.

So, why did the Mimics send him to the dam and why didn’t they try to kill him when he was there? Well, an organism that evolves such a complex self-defense mechanism will also likely have a mechanism for repairing problems when they arise. In this case, this “time travel” self-defense mechanism has one serious flaw: it would trap the Omega in a perpetual loop if there were an Alpha that was weak or broken, endlessly throwing itself into harm’s way when there isn’t sufficient danger to warrant a “reboot”. There needs to be a self-repair mechanism for the Mimics to identify and correct such a problem.

The visions seen by Rita, and then later by Cage, were intermixed with their own memories (hence Cage sees the dam just as he reboots), and it is this repair system taking effect: the Omega sent a specific signal that would attract Alphas to a single location, where they could be safely disposed of far away from the location of the Omega itself  (this is to keep the Omega safe in case the defective alpha is dangerous). When Cage arrived at the dam, the drone and the Alpha stopped Cage from killing himself because they don’t want to loop again, since the whole point of the mechanism is to stop unnecessary looping. It’s unclear what they would’ve done to Cage if he hadn’t killed himself, but most likely if he had been an actual Mimic, they would have removed him from the “sentinel” network by performing a process similar to the blood transfusion, and then killed him. That’s why the Alpha wounded him, but didn’t kill him.

So what about that ending?

After a blood transfusion, Cage is essentially excised from the Alpha network, no longer being mistaken by the Omega as a “sentinel”. And then stuff happens and he kills the Omega by dropping a bunch of grenades into it. But then he wakes up in the helicopter at the start of the film and all is right with the world?

Well, at the moment of his death, Cage’s blood mixes with that of an Alpha, and he temporarily becomes a pseudo-Alpha again, which allows him to retain his memories in the reboot. Meanwhile, because the Omega was itself dying, one final loop was triggered by the Omega in a final desperate attempt to escape danger. The Omega looped not to the “present-past” point but to the “distant past” anchor point since the Omega itself wanted to escape an imminent threat to its core. Because of the Alpha’s blood, Cage went along for the ride and woke up with the Omega at the “distant past” timepoint.

But, since the Omega exists at multiple points in time (rather than a single moving point) and was actually killed in the “future-present”, the explosion actually rippled back in time and killed the Omega at all the other time points, too. So, when Cage wakes up, he wakes up at the “distant-past” anchor point along with his memories at the precise position in time that the Omega kept anchored to in reserve, and when it blows up. This allows for the lovely ending where everyone we watched die horrifically in the movie get to live again in blissful ignorance.

And does Cage now have time-traveling powers? Is he immortal? No. Being an Alpha only ever meant he was a sentinel, invoking the looping powers of the Omega upon every death. He could never himself loop. With the Omega dead, Cage is back to being a normal dude with one final lease on life.

So, what do you think? Does this make sense? Or is this all the mad ramblings of one non-physicist fangirl? I would love to hear your thoughts!

  • ty Gibson

    John smith wrote:

    “But why did he laugh when Emily Blunts character asked him what he wants?
    Was he surprised because she didn’t know who he is?”

    This is purely opinion, but I suspect this is why he laughed.

    Every time he approached her in the training room, he did it as a stripped rank private. He probably expected her to be (at least a little) different in her reaction to him striding in as a Major.

    When she treated him exactly the same, demonstrating the thing that made her exceptionally Rita, he had to laugh.

  • raven

    Yun – i don’t know what you think,but Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise doing their role very well in this film, be objective please, this is about the plot and story… not about asian or western…

    <<from South East Asia

  • http://www.straightforwardarchitects.com/ Jubair Siddeeque

    I have another Theory.
    1. Every time an alpha/omega dies, time is reset to its earlier sleep/unconscious time
    2.The reset is done neither by an alpha or an omega, rather by another entity that is totally not discussed. Lets call this an ‘X'(The doc and Rita just thought it was the omega). The X is the powerful central command. It doesn’t care what happens later but only gives the reset just sensing the loss.
    3. The X just identifies the alpha/omega by the link it has to the blood of the alpha/omega.
    4. At the time of the death of the alpha/omega, when the blood of it is more on another being than itself, (in this case it was more on Cage, and at another instant it was more on Rita), the X identifies this being as Alpha/Omega and resets it its earlier Sleep/Unconscious point. X is so occupied with many things at a time and so doesn’t double check error possibilities and is overconfident.

    I think that explaines all resets

  • abyss48

    I like your explanation. Thanks.

  • Manuel

    Thanks for the great explanation! Just one question, are the alphas alive as Cage even if the Omega is dead?

  • http://www.reappropriate.co Jenn

    Hi Manuel,

    In my opinion, I don’t think Cage is still an Alpha if the Omega is dead. But I think other folks’ theories would say differently!

  • shahrukh khan

    movies was nice but hard to understand. Tom Cruise and girl work excellent.

  • http://www.straightforwardarchitects.com/ Jubair Siddeeque

    @ Manuel

    Thanks for the great explanation! Just one question, are the alphas alive as Cage even if the Omega is dead?”

    According to my Theory,
    Alpha will be alive when Omega is dead and cage has been mistakenly assigned as Omega by X.
    However, This alpha cannot receive any command @ the absence of the omega. That also explains why there was no resistance by mimics @ the end of the movie.

  • http://www.reappropriate.co Jenn

    Jubair,

    I fixed the comment formatting for you!

  • The Duke of Panda

    I like to think of the ending as quick thinking on the part of the Omega to retreat.

    Let’s say the the only being unaffected by the time reset is the alpha, or any being, that initiates the time reset and that the power to reset time is independent of the Omega. This means that when the death of an alpha occurs the only way that the Omega is made aware of what happened is by having the Alpha tell the Omega what happens. This would explain the necessity of keeping Alphas on the front lines. Also, for some reason the Omega can’t initialize a time reset itself, but can grant the ability. As if it was incompatible with the junk in the blood that makes it happen, but it has the stuff contained within it for some reason. If the Omega could just initiate a time reset itself then why bother keeping it hidden away from the front lines? Moving on.

    We also know that the Omega has some kind of subconscious, or telepathic link to all the Mimics and the time resetting Alphas. We can also assume that Cage has established a link with the Omega. How else would that interface contraption that the doctor made be able to locate the true location of the Omega otherwise. We can even deduce that it took time for the link between Cage and the Omega. (Or more accurately, Cage time) Perhaps as Cage became more aware of his ability and the existence of the Omega his connection to it was triggered. Once triggered the Omega would be aware that something was awry and would then react accordingly.

    We can assume the Omega is intelligent and aware of the possibility of humans using the time reset ability because it happened once with Rita and it prepared traps to lure out the time resetting humans in order to strip them of the power. If this is possible other contingency plans are also possible. Plans that would take into consideration the possible death of the Omega. (If a connection relays info to the Omega why not attack Cage at the base? Because killing him would accomplish nothing and preemptively attacking the humans to get to Cage would compromise the Aliens effort to eliminate humans as they attacked. Perhaps this was the Aliens last hope to finish off mankind.)

    Cage taps into the Omega with the device and then kills it. While doing this he gets reconnected to the Omega with renewed time resetting abilities via blue blood and then initializes a big reset. Cage tips the past Omega that he kills it via renewed connection and the Omega bugs out. The reported power surge is a result of the Omega cutting its losses and leaving planet. Boom, we have the possibility of a sequel.

    Nailed it. I win!

  • TERMINATOR

    Just watched the movie, would agree with most of the conspiracy theories here, but I would also love to think of it as there are infinitely parallel worlds, that is when Cage dies, the world is reset for him and this world still keeps going on.
    The one world in which Cage survives is the only universe in which the humans win.
    Ah, a hell lot of theories i have, but to hell with them all,ill just go with parallel worlds!!!

  • sharon

    Ending that makes most sense to me:

    The movie told us the alien was one being. The Omega was the “mind” or brain and the rest were extensions of it. The Alpha was an extension that was an automatic trigger to set back time to when it was last killed. (not necessarily 24 hours, just whenever it was last killed).

    They lured the Alpha (the time resetting unit) away from the Omega (the brain) at the end. Cage then killed the “brain” of the alien first, WHICH in turn killed it’s extensions (Alpha) second, causing an automatic reset without the mind being alive.

    It’s like a human body. If you killed the brain, the heart or other parts of the body die very quickly after. But their death is secondary to the brain.

    The Omega did not have a device to bring itself back from death if were obliterated. So when the Alpha reset time WITHOUT the mind being alive, it no longer existed anywhere, past, future or present.

    Just my two cents.

  • Tivep

    This is great, but there is a slight plot hole as mentioned here:

    http://digestivepyrotechnics.blogspot.com/2014/10/edge-of-tomorrow-plot-hole-explained.html

  • Julie Schulz

    I, too love time loop movies like looper and deja vu. Even the movie frequency, but I so lost count how many times tom reset the restart. I think the number of explosions were a bit much, also causing the viewer to not know exactly which part of the screen
    To focus

    On

  • SmokinBlunts

    This movie was awful. Thanks for the nonsensical explanation of a complete shambles. I wish I had a reset power so I could go back to before I watched that movie and then had the masochistic urge to punish myself furthur by trying to figure out why anyone actually liked it in the first place.

  • Mashy

    What you said is exactly what I THOUGHT was happening too. But there is serious factual error (I mean within the rule books of the movie plot)

    Because remember that the entire mimic and alpha and omega are essentially a single biological being? So if cage was one of them, in the explosion, when Omega dies (due to the time ripple thingy) cage would have died too (cause he was an integral part of it, due to the infusion)

    Second of all remember when Rita, Cage and that doc fellow were discussing about this omega and alpha reset, he mentions that the reset option is either with omega OR with the human, not both. So only one dude is in control of it. And whoever is will retain the memory (so either the entire alien race will or Cage will but not both)

    Another important thing is when the alpha was killed by cage, and time got reset, that alpha never came back. (My brother told me, its something like, if i bang onto your knee so hard, that i crush it, the signal will never reach your spinal cord which is the omega and you ll never trigger a reflex action – the time reset). So the moment he kills alpha he is ‘somehow’ in control of the reset. If he dies, time will reset for him back.

    Also I don’t think we need two restore points to explain the ending. We just need a specific time amount to be restored (like say a day). So cage always gets restored back to ONE DAY before that alpha was killed (Which never comes back in the subsequent resets before).

    Now when cage got blood transfusion in the hospital, that restore point was lost. (the point when he had killed that alpha). And I think Omega regains the time reset control. (which is why Rita and Cage decide not to kill another alpha, because then Omega will reset time again, and unless that blood transfusion thingy takes place, they may not get that accidental control and all hope maybe lost cause they would lose all their memories)
    Ultimately when cage destroys omega, the blood gets infused with cage again,gets in control of the time loop and it resets back ONE DAY (now the new restore point is when Cage kills Omega which is earlier in the day before the troops head out to the beach). Thus once the reset takes place he goes back 24 hrs when he was still on the chopper. And he never has the conversation with General cause, the Omega has already died.

    But are there other Omegas spread across the universe? Are all these Omegas connected by some higher ranking biological organ say Delta? And does Delta set back time further when an OMEGA dies? Sequel? :P

  • Abhinav

    Bravo for some really deep level thinking and analysis on the time-travel paradox. I really liked your idea about near-past and distant past travel which is compelling and explain many things in the context of movie. Though I still think that writers and directors goofed up near the end by showing cage alive. By all the logical explanations, if Omega died and it couldn’t send itself back to distant past because of its own death, then cage, who had died with Omega, shouldn’t also been sent to that past.

  • ty Gibson

    This assumes that Cruise didn’t co-opt the Omega rather than the Alpha when he was bathed in its dying blood

  • Movie_Fanatic

    This is how interpreted it as….remember when cage got the blood trans fusion and he lost the connection? That means if he dies that’s it. So he was injured by the alpha but had already dropped the grenades. Hence killing the omega and the alpha. The alphas instincts were told earlier that it uses its blood to reset time to its predator..however it NEVER said that’s what the omega does…..so the blood that mixed with him was the alphas. Now stay with me here…..since the alpha mixed with cage BUT the omega already died from the explosion…the reset killed the alpha because in the reset there is no omega. Therefore leaving cage with the memories just like all the other resets but this time he won and the movie ends with a smile of victory and a great story to tell his new honey.

  • Julix

    What if Omega and Alphas are different species, and Omega didn’t really die but just changed species when it went back to the far-past-save point? In that case as Omega’s only alpha Cage might be more than just a normal dude now…

    The stuff that reached for him glowed in a way that made it seem more than the leftover blood of that creature… it was like actively reaching for him, not passively getting in his eyes.

    The far-past-save self wasn’t in Paris! Maybe it wasn’t even on earth, maybe it was and is just elsewhere… either way, I doubt Omega is done… I see potential for a sequel.

  • Nathan Otis

    Hello, came here looking for an answer, and now find myself hoping to answer your question (or give my take). I think Rita’s loop happened in the battle of Verdun. I believe she looped that battle and gained the repetition/training in battle to become the badass she is now. So she’s still been through her loop, and still seen Hendricks die repeatedly. This time, however, when she meets Cage, he’s an officer, deserving of respect. I think Cage laughs simply because… Where do you start telling someone who thinks they’ve just met you the story he has to tell.

  • Nathan Otis

    Incredible thread you have going here, and I’ve posted topical thoughts elsewhere in it… I came here hoping SOMEONE noticed the X on Cage’s hat at the end of the movie and can tell me WHY IT’S THERE!!!

  • http://www.reappropriate.co/ Jenn

    Thanks, Nathan! Y’know, I haven’t seen the film again and didn’t notice the ‘X’ the first time around. I’d love to rewatch the film and see if I can spot it, and figure out how it fits with my theory.

    I love this thread. Everyone has some really awesome theories!

Comment Policy

Before posting, please review the following guidelines:

  • No ad hominem attacks: A person's identity or background is not up for debate.
  • Be courteous: Respect everyone else in this space.
  • Present evidence: This space endeavours to encourage academic and rational debate around identity politics. Do your best to build an argument backed not just with your own ideas, but also with science.
  • Don't be pedantic: Listen to those debating you not just for places to attack, but also where you might learn and even change your own opinion. Repeatedly arguing the same point irrespective of presented counterfacts will now be considered a violation of this site's comment policy.
  • Respect the humanity of all groups: To elevate the quality of debate, this site will no longer tolerate (racial, cultural, gender, etc.) supremacist or inferiority lines of argumentation. There are other places on the internet where nationalist arguments can be expressed; this blog is not those places.
  • Don't be an asshole: If you think your behaviour would get you punched in the face outside of the internets, don't say it on the internets.
  • Don't abuse Disqus features: Don't upvote your own comments. Don't flag other people's comments without reasonable cause. Basically, don't try to game the system. You are not being slick.

Is your comment not approved or deleted? Here are some common reasons why:

  • Did you sign in? You are required to register an account with Disqus or one of your social media accounts in order to comment.
  • Did a comment get flagged? Comments will be default be published but flagged comments will be temporarily removed from view until they are reviewed by me.
  • Did you not play nice? You may have gotten banned and a bunch of your comments may have been therefore deleted. Sorry.

I monitor all comment threads, and try to address comments requiring moderation within 24-48 hours. Comments that violate this comment policy may receive a warning and removal of offensive content; overt or repeat violations are subject to deletion and/or banning of comment authors without warning.

I reserve final decision over how this comment policy will be enforced.

Summary:

Play nice and don't be a jerk, and you'll do just fine.