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The scary question at the heart of the Mission: Impossible movies

In Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, Tom Cruise once again leads a franchise that’s all about trickery, subterfuge, and the nature of reality itself.

Tom Cruise, in a vest and nice pants, rides a motorcycle through the stone paths of a European city.
Tom Cruise defies death once again in the latest Mission: Impossible film.
Paramount Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

In the very first scene of the very first Mission: Impossible film, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is interrogating a Russian guy. We don’t know it’s Hunt, though, because — in perhaps the most iconic running bit in the M:I universe — he’s wearing an extremely lifelike rubber mask. Two minutes into the scene, he walks over to the Russian, drugs him till he passes out, and then pulls off the mask, dramatically revealing the face of a slightly flushed and rumpled Cruise. (It’s hot under all that latex.)

Shortly after that first reveal, the walls of the room fall outward into a warehouse, which makes for a bigger reveal: The whole scene was faked. Not only was the now-immobilized Russian hoodwinked, but the audience was tricked into believing their senses. For us, the moment is delightful; for the laid-out man, not so much.

That opening parry for Mission: Impossible, created and produced by Cruise as a spy-action franchise for himself, showed up in movie theaters in May 1996, with Brian De Palma (of Carrie and Scarface) in the director’s chair. Compared to the latest installment in the franchise, frequent Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, the 1996 version is much sweatier, darker, and kind of erotic. (A Brian De Palma movie indeed.)

Cruise and Atwell appear to be hanging sideways in a train car.
Tom Cruise and Hayley Atwell in Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One.
Paramount Pictures

The omnipresent unmaskings, of which there have been at least 15 or 20 by now, are still a mainstay of the films. What’s so great about those reveals, in particular, is that you’re rarely actually expecting them. Dead Reckoning Part One plays with this a little, but for the most part, through all the films, any guy at any time could rip his face off and you’d still be like, “Wow, I did not see that coming.”

The new version is like its predecessors, employing a trope borrowed from the TV show that spawned the film: trickery around every corner, a sense that you can’t quite believe what you see. Dead people turn out to be not-dead people. Walls of rooms keep falling apart to reveal they’re constructed in some warehouse somewhere. Everyone could be a rogue agent or maybe not, and the movie sure isn’t going to wink at you about it till it’s good and ready.

That those twists and turns keep surprising us seven movies in points to what’s truly delightful about the Mission: Impossible franchise, and what makes it, in my opinion, both the most inventive and the most satisfying long-running franchise in Hollywood. On one level, M:I is wonderful because the convoluted plots are pretty much beside the point; if they can be said to have a consistent theme, it is “Tom Cruise likes almost dying on camera.”

And yet once you’ve watched them all, you can detect a kind of meta-theme to the M:I movies. It stems from a simple moviegoing fact: Most of us believe that what we are seeing in a movie is how things actually happened in the world of the movie. It’s why a movie like A Beautiful Mind or Big Fish or The Irishman is so memorably affecting; we are trained to believe our narrators, and when it turns out that what we’ve been watching is not quite what actually happened, it’s thrilling. New meaning emerges from the mismatch.

Mission: Impossible plays on this expectation, though there’s no specific perspectival narrator. The thrill comes from occasionally discovering that what we’ve been watching is an elaborate fake-out. Sleight of hand is everywhere. Don’t trust your senses, Mission: Impossible exhorts us — they’re easily manipulated.

Tom Cruise on a motorcycle suspended midair with mountains in the background.
Oh, you better believe he’s actually riding that bike (though with a few more safety precautions).
Paramount Pictures

This is underlined, in another meta-heavy way, by what makes the films so distinctive: Cruise’s incredible, literally death-defying stunts, every film seeming to take them to a new level. He climbs up sheer rock walls, leaps across rooftops, fights cliffside, and hangs off the side of a flying Airbus A400M. Each time a new Mission: Impossible movie is released, it’s accompanied with marketing material that mainly leans on explaining that yes, Tom Cruise did actually climb the Burj Khalifa. Personally I, and I suspect Cruise, will not be satisfied until Ethan Hunt is in outer space. (Oh, he’s doing it.)

Why emphasize that he’s actually doing these stunts (albeit with cables and nets — you could never afford to insure the production otherwise) as the lynchpin of the M:I marketing? First, of course, because it is pretty badass. But the second reason is obvious: While action is a mainstay of American cinema, particularly in superhero movies, we all know they’re flying around on soundstages and are CGI’d within an inch of their lives. It’s all spectacle, but with no reality.

With Mission: Impossible, however, our deceiving eyes don’t quite extend to the stunts. Yes, there are tricks of the camera and computer going on. But Tom Cruise is actually driving a motorcycle off a cliff and then plummeting down. That’s real — real enough to gasp and hold your breath and get a little shaky. It’s as much a mainstay of the movie as the mask trickery, and that subtle play with what we’re seeing, with the real and the unreal, suggests the movies might be doing this very much on purpose.

Image reads “spoilers below,” with a triangular sign bearing an exclamation point.

I’d already formed that thought and pitched it to my editor before going into Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, and about 10 minutes in, I started silently fist-pumping. This movie’s Big Bad is something everyone calls “the Entity,” which is not a person, or even a shadowy cabal of persons, but an AI that’s become sentient and is out to take down humanity.

There’s arguably a tad too much explanation about the Entity throughout the movie that bogs it down a little, but the irony is so bold you sort of have to respect it. At the same time that Hollywood’s workers are battling to make sure their bosses don’t replace them with AI to cut costs and please shareholders, one of the summer’s biggest movies is about how AI wants to wipe us all out. It’s of a piece with recent blockbusters that are straightforwardly about how our digital doppelgangers want to kill us, algorithms are out to destroy originality, and continually repurposing nostalgia IP is how a culture dies. The call is coming from inside the house, et cetera.

But the reason I loved the Entity plotline — which, like most of the characters, will clearly be developed and wrapped up in Part Two (due out next June) — so much is that it shows what Mission: Impossible has been about all along.

Thus the Entity’s greatest threat is its ability to change reality — well, in a manner of speaking. It’s not that the digital threat can change the physical bones of reality. The Entity’s danger to humanity lies chiefly in the fact that the world is fully networked, everyone passing currency and information and even warfare along digital pathways that a sentient AI would have no trouble hacking and manipulating. In a highly mediated world, where we encounter everything and everyone through screens, the way reality is represented to us suddenly becomes, effectively, reality. If a story or a myth is floated around the internet and people come to believe it, does it even really matter, in a practical matter, if it’s true? If, as in the 1964 film Fail Safe, a country’s government thinks it’s under attack and launches a missile back at the supposed aggressor who then counterattacks, how much does it matter to the civilians on the ground that there was never an attack in the first place?

This is exactly what the humans of Dead Reckoning fear: that the entity will create reality by manipulating it, and we’ll just wipe ourselves out as a result. It’s a problem that humanity caused, of course, by getting itself so digitally intertwined and creating an AI in the first place. But now it’s out of our hands, and whoever controls it — if it can be controlled at all — is, in effect, God.

All of which weaves seamlessly into the broader Mission: Impossible narrative. What’s impossible about these missions? They’re famously difficult to pull off, with death-defying stunts that require Hunt and his buddies to precisely understand their surroundings, down to the millimeter and the temperature and pull of gravity. It’s thrilling to watch, and thrilling to experience, for sure — but it’s a reality that waits for us. In the future, the way we trust our senses will be radically altered. You know, because you’ve felt it, too.

Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One opens in theaters on July 13.

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